Two-child policy

Singapore Infopedia


The two-child policy was a population control measure introduced by the Singapore government during the 1970s to encourage couples to have no more than two children.1 It was part of the second Five-Year National Family Planning Programme (1972–75) that was unveiled at the launch of the 1972 National Family Planning Campaign.2 As part of the two-child policy, the government introduced a set of disincentives pertaining to childbirth fees, income tax, maternity leave and prioritisation of public housing allocation aimed at penalising couples who had more than two children from 1 August 1973 onwards.3 In addition, the government launched an array of family-planning events to garner public support for the policy. Among the most notable activities were the publicity campaigns that carried messages such as “Small families, brighter future – Two is enough” and “The more you have, the less they get – Two is enough”.4

The National Family Planning Programme was an integral part of the government’s social and economic development strategy following Singapore’s independence in 1965.5 The programme was conceived when the government turned family planning into a national agenda after taking over the provision of family-planning services from the Singapore Family Planning Association in 1965, and setting up the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in January 1966.6

The main goal of the programme was to reduce the nation’s birth rate and achieve a state of zero population growth such that the population would remain stable at a certain size due to an equal number of births and deaths. This was to be accomplished by encouraging people to set up smaller families and make use of contraception for family planning purposes.7

During the initial years of the programme, the focus was on promoting family planning and the desirability of a small family in general without actually specifying the ideal number of children.8 Social campaigns promoting the programme focused on spreading messages like “Plan your family” and “Singapore wants small families”.9 The programme also made available a wide range of contraceptive services through a network of family-planning, maternal and children’s health clinics operated by the government.10 These measures reduced the country’s crude birth rate from 28.3 to 21. 8 births per 1,000 residents between 1966 and 1969. The total fertility rate (TFR), which represents the average number of children a female would have during her reproductive years, dropped from 4.42 to 3.15 during the same period.11

Introduction of the two-child policy
From 1970 to 1972, however, the crude birth rate began to rise from 22.1 to 23.1 births per 1,000 residents.12 According to the government, the increase was caused by two factors. First, the baby boomers of the postwar years were getting married and beginning to have children of their own. Second, many people were still planning for large families with at least three children.13 In response, the government decided to step up its family-planning efforts and revised the small-family message exhorted by previous family-planning campaigns. The new message specified that couples, especially those who had lower educational qualifications and those from the lower-income groups, should not have more than two children.14

This two-child family policy was introduced by then Minister for Health Chua Sian Chin on 20 July 1972 during the launch of that year’s National Family Planning Campaign.15 The policy’s formulation was based on the calculation that an average of two children per family would eventually result in the stabilisation of Singapore’s population.16 In TFR terms, this meant reaching the replacement fertility rate of 2.1.17

Penalising large families
To implement the two-child family policy, Chua announced a set of measures in Parliament on 24 October 1972 to discourage couples from having more than two children.18 Coming into effect on 1 August 1973, the disincentives included: reduction of income tax relief to cover only the first three children; progressive increment of childbirth fees charged in government hospitals based on birth order; reduction of paid maternity leave from three to two confinements; and lowering the priority for allocation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats for families with more than two children.19

While unveiling the measures, Chua also highlighted the benefits of having smaller family units. He stated that for individual families, having fewer children would help ensure that parents were able to provide their offspring with proper housing, clothing, food and education. On a national scale, smaller family units would help raise living standards as the government would be able to distribute resources more evenly to create better jobs and improve public infrastructure for the population.20

Campaigning for a two-family norm
Besides introducing disincentives, the government also launched numerous family-planning activities to promote the message that having less children would be beneficial for the family. Many of these activities, which included exhibitions, talks and house-to-house visits, were conducted at the grassroots level by community leaders in the Citizens’ Consultative Committees, management committees of community centres and members of Parliament.21

In addition, the government continued organising social campaigns promoting family planning at the national level. Held throughout the year, these campaigns produced and distributed multilingual publicity materials such as booklets, posters and pamphlets to help couples make informed decisions when planning for a family.22 The campaign for a two-child household, however, was different from previous family planning campaigns that had been held since the National Family Programme was first launched in the late 1960s. The most significant difference was the deviation from the “small family” persuasion exhorted by previous family-planning campaigns to a more direct approach to convince couples to adopt the two-child family concept as a social norm.23

This change in approach was reflected in the introduction of campaigns carrying slogans such as “Small families, brighter future – Two is enough” and “The more you have, the less they get – Two is enough”.24 Messages, such as “Boy or girl – Two is enough” and “Take your time to say yes”, were also used to encourage couples to adopt the two-child family norm regardless of the sex of their children and to dissuade young people from early marriage and parenthood.25

Clinical measures
Abortion Act 1974

The campaign for the two-child policy was accompanied by clinical measures that were introduced through new laws. In 1974, the Abortion Act was amended to introduce the principle of abortion on demand by liberalising and simplifying the process of getting an abortion. Among other changes, the new legislation removed the age requirement for abortion and allowed the procedure to be carried out with just a written consent from the pregnant woman. The Termination of Pregnancy Authorisation Board was also abolished as a result of the new law and thus pregnant women seeking abortion no longer needed approval from an authority. These women had to abide by the following regulations: the abortion must be conducted by a registered practitioner; the pregnancy was less than 24 weeks; and the women must have been Singapore citizens or residents for more than four months.26

Voluntary Sterilisation Act 1974
The Voluntary Sterilisation Act was enacted in 1974 to liberalise the conditions for sterilisation. It removed many restrictions set by the previous sterilisation legislation – for example, applicants must have at least two children and receive approval from the Eugenics Board, which was also abolished under the new legislation. In general, the new law was to make sterilisation an entirely private matter between the applicant and the doctor. Adult consent was only required if the applicant was younger than 21 years old and single.27

Sterilisation incentives
In addition to the new laws, incentives were introduced to encourage parents to undergo sterilisation. For instance, mothers working in the civil service who already had two children were given paid maternity leave if they chose to be sterilised after their latest delivery. Furthermore, mothers staying in Class B or Class C wards had their childbirth fees waived if either the father or mother underwent sterilisation within six months of the baby’s delivery.28

Results and revision
The various family planning measures and disincentives to help establish a two-child family norm effectively reduced Singapore’s fertility rate. From 1972 to 1986, the crude birth rate dropped from 23.1 to 14.8 births per 1,000 residents. In TFR terms, this translated to a plunge from 3.07 to 1.43 – a rate that was well below the replacement level of 2.1.29 The decline began in 1977 when the TFR dropped to 1.82 after reaching a high of 2.11 in 1976.30

Recognising the trend of falling birth rates, the government set up the Inter-Ministerial Population Committee in 1986 to monitor population trends as well as review and recommend changes to the population policy.31 The committee’s recommendations formed the basis of a new “Have three, or more if you can afford it” pro-natalist population policy, which was announced by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 1 March 1987.32 This new policy marked the end of the two-child population planning approach as various measures and incentives were subsequently introduced to encourage bigger families.33


Lim Tin Seng

1. Saw Swee-Hock, Population Policies and Programmes in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), 81. (Call no. RSING 363.96095957 SAW)
2. Chua Sian Chin, “The Opening Ceremony of the Family Planning Campaign,” speech, Singapore Conference Hall, 20 July 1972, transcript, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. PressR19720720c)
3. Saw,Swee-Hock, Population Control for Zero Growth in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1980), 119 (Call no. RSING 301.426095957 SAW); Parliament of Singapore, Increase of Accouchement Charges for Higher Order of Delivery, vol. 32 of Parliamentary Debates - Official Report (Hansard), 24 October 1972, cols. 152–4.
4. Saw, Population Policies and Programmes, 29;Page 22 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 28 September 1975, 22; “Page 4 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 7 January 1976, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Saw, Population Control for Zero Growth, 53–53.
6. Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1973 (Singapore: Singapore Family Planning & Population Board, 1974), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 301.426 SFPPBA)
7. Chang Chen-Tung, Ong Jin Hui and Peter S. J. Chen, Culture and Fertility: The Case of Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1980), 20–21 (Call no. RCLOS 301.321095957 CHA); Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Report (Singapore: Family Planning and Population Board, 1975), 14. (Call no. RSING 301.426 FAM)
8. Chang, Ong and Chen, Culture and Fertility, 20–21; Yap Mui Teng, M. T. (2007). “Singapore: Population, Policies and Programs,” in The Global Family Planning Revolution: Three Decades of Population Policies and Programs, ed. Warren C. Robinson and John A. Ross (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2007), 205. (Call no. RSING 363.9091724 GLO)
9. Saw, Population Control for Zero Growth, 57.
10. Yap, “Population, Policies and Programs,” 206.
11. Saw, The Population of Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 155–6. (Call no. RSING 304.6095957 SAW)
12. Saw, Population of Singapore, 156.
13. Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1972 (Singapore: Singapore Family Planning & Population Board, 1973), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 301.426 SFPPBA)
14. Chua, “Opening Ceremony of the Family Planning Campaign”; Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1972, 1.
15. Chua, “Opening Ceremony of the Family Planning Campaign.”
16. Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Report, 14.
17. Saw, Population Policies and Programmes, 159.
18. Parliament of Singapore, Increase of Accouchement Charges, cols. 152–4; Ngiam Tong Hai, “It’s Dearer after Two,” Straits Times, 25 October 1972, 1; Ngiam Tong Hai, “Third Child Luxury for Most People,” Straits Times, 25 October 1972, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Parliament of Singapore, Increase of Accouchement Charges, cols. 152–4; Saw, Population Control for Zero Growth, 118–24.
20. Parliament of Singapore, Increase of Accouchement Charges, cols. 149–52; Ngiam, “Third Child Luxury for Most People.”
21. Chua Sian Chin, “The Opening Ceremony of the Family Planning Campaign 1972,” speech, Macpherson Constituency, 20 July 1972, transcript, Ministry of Culture (From National Archives of Singapore document no. PressR19720729g); Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1973, 3.
22. Family Planning and Population Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1973, 44–48.
23. Chang, Ong and Chen, Culture and Fertility, 20–21; Saw, Population Policies and Programmes, 29.
24. Page 22 Advertisements Column 2”; “Page 4 Advertisements Column 2.”
25. Saw, Population Control for Zero Growth, 57.
26. Saw, Population Policies and Programmes, 50–52.
27. Parliament of Singapore, Voluntary Sterilisation Bill, vol. 33 of Parliamentary Debates - Official report (Hansard), 6 November 1974, cols. 1140–2.  
28. Saw, Population Policies and Programmes, 82, 84.
29. Saw, Population of Singapore, 156; Department of Statistics, Singapore, Population Trend 2015.
30. Saw, Population of Singapore, 177.
31. Saw, Population of Singapore, 176; Population Panel Set Up to Monitor Trends,” Straits Times, 6 May 1986, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Alan John, “Have 3, or More If You Can Afford It,” Straits Times, 2 March 1987, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Saw, Population of Singapore, 215; John, “Have 3, or More If You Can Afford It.” 

The information in this article is valid as of 22 November 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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