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Ageing society

Baby dearth: why rich societies like Hong Kong are committing demographic suicide

N. Balakrishnan says societies that reach a certain level of development appear vulnerable to an ‘anomie’ that makes people prize hedonistic pursuits over child-rearing. Can they reorganise themselves into a more family-friendly way before it’s too late?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 9:10pm

As a newly married man in Singapore many years ago, my hairdresser once asked me when my wife and I were going to have our first child. I replied, like many people do even today, that it was too expensive to have a child and to bring one up. He said that people who were earning a fraction of what we were and living in a one-room flat were still able to have two children and bring them up, and so could we.

It is a truism that we put up with hardships to do things we want to do while making a lot of excuses to justify what we don’t want to do.

Travelling between northeast Asian countries such as Japan and Hong Kong and Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines, one is struck by children running all over the place in public places in the generally poorer Southeast Asian nations and the grim old people walking stiffly in north Asian societies. Affluent Singapore, though in Southeast Asia, is an exception, but even within Singapore it is the less affluent Singaporeans who seem to be having more children.

Fertility in numbers: how having children in Hong Kong has changed over the years

Personal experience and statistics show that merely giving a bigger flat to an average Hong Kong family won’t solve the problem of demographic extinction that is looming over the city, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, at 1.2.

Societies are like individuals, too; some are energetic and outward-looking during periods of their life, while at other times, “anomie” takes over. That’s when individuals and societies go through life depressed and fearful while trying to hide it with empty indulgences, whether it is drinking or shopping, which one American philosopher called “joyless hedonism”.

Hong Kong is only an extreme and concentrated example of what will happen in other societies soon

Until this value system changes, many “affluent” societies of today will become so depressed that they will commit demographic suicide.

The rich and powerful, as those who have read about the ancient feudal male rulers with their large harems will know, used to take delight in fathering as many children as possible. Genghis Khan seems to have fathered so many children that his genetic marker is said to be found in about 10 per cent of the population within the old Mongol empire.

Female queens such as Elizabeth I, who died childless, do not seem to have shared the desires of male despots to breed aggressively.

Perhaps the main reason why modern societies, still dominated by men, are not increasing even at replacement levels must be that the “affluent” world still has not found a way to reorganise itself into a “female” and therefore “family” friendly way.

Hong Kong’s women struggle with cost, careers and cultural barriers in their family planning

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and South African President Jacob Zuma openly flaunt their multiple relationships. Yet in the European Union – where an entire continent seems to be marching like lemmings to demographic suicide – many leaders are childless and may therefore be less likely to promote child-friendly policies. Among the current European leaders without children are Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of European Commission.

Children are even seen as a nuisance by some in Northern Europe. As one of my European friends pointed out, many restaurants in Germany will not allow children in but are happy to accommodate pet owners and their dogs! However, it is something of a mystery why Italy, where the “Italian Mother” is celebrated and whose main religion is Catholicism, also has a low birth rate.

We read about war-devastated societies such as Germany and Japan or post-war Vietnam springing back to life in a couple of decades, only to seem to lose the will to reproduce within a generation. It really does seem that T.S. Eliot was right and that end of the world will come not with a bang but a whimper, but it will not be a whimper from a baby.

Asia’s ageing population is enough to give policymakers grey hairs

There have also been societies slowly committing suicide while competing to raise tall structures. No, we are not talking about Hong Kong but, rather, remote Easter Island in the Pacific and the haunting stone structures that are the only ones left behind after that society committed suicide by cutting down all its trees while trying to raise ever more tall stone structures. History records that the population collapsed after the trees were gone and the few who were left behind were taken by slave ships to work in the mines of Latin America.

When asked about the meaning of life and civilisation, Karl Marx, known for getting to the point quickly, said that it is “production and reproduction”. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly on the production front but have failed equally spectacularly on the “reproduction” front. Hong Kong is only an extreme and concentrated example of what will happen in other societies soon.

For the record, I should state that we have just one child, therefore not enough for replacement and even lower than Hong Kong’s average of 1.2 per woman. We did try to beat the average, but without success.

N. Balakrishnan is a former foreign correspondent and an entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India