Delivered in Parliament on 2 August 2021
Mr Deputy Speaker, I more than welcome the proposed amendments to the Child Development Co-Savings Act (CDCA). Many of the proposed changes extend support for those who are either enduring an incalculable loss, or taking on an enormous responsibility, as they undertake sacrifices to secure the next generation. As a society, we should absolutely help them in any way we can.
I will speak today about the importance of helping the dejected, downtrodden, and disaffected: parents of stillborn children, parents adopting a child, and working women in a precarious position due to a pregnancy.
Supporting parents of stillborns
Mr Deputy Speaker, in 1989, my mother became unexpectedly pregnant. At the time, I was thirteen, and my sister, six. Since our family was of modest means, my mother had to contribute to the household with a full time job, which meant that she encountered all the challenges that working mothers face when they are working and carrying a child at the same time.
Moreover, it was a difficult pregnancy, because Mom was already more advanced in her years. In the final months, I recall how she had to sleep upright on many nights due to the discomfort. But we took the fact that since the expected birth would occur exactly seven years apart from my sister’s, and fourteen after mine—seven being the perfect number—as a sign that my brother’s conception was a gift from God.
But his birth was not to be. In the early hours of May 6, I awoke to my father’s presence in my bedroom. He had tears in his eyes, one of only three times in my life when I had seen him cry. “We lost Jaaron,” he said. My brother had been stillborn. The sign of the seven had not been that perfect, after all.
It took my mother at least that many years to recover from that loss. Along the way, she questioned her choices, her faith, and herself. Losing a child, at any stage in life, is never easy. That is why amendments—such as those documented in Clause 9(a) of the Bill—are so important. There is no difference between the physiological trauma endured by the mother of a healthy versus stillborn child. Consequently, I believe we should not exempt the latter from any of the benefits of rest and recovery that government-mandated maternity leave confers.
If anything, the added psychological trauma that the latter will experience may even be cause for being willing to extend even longer maternity leave periods for such individuals.1 Studies suggest that a leave period of 12 weeks post-delivery will positively affect vitality, while 15 weeks yields positive effects on mental health, and 20 weeks on role function.2 Since the norm in Singapore is either 12 weeks of maternity leave or 16 weeks of government-paid maternity leave, it would not be unreasonable to allow for a longer leave period for those that have to recover from not just physical but also mental wounds.3
As I shared earlier, the loss of my brother was one of only three occasions where I had seen my father cry. He was a traditional man, and not given to public expression of his emotions. But the fact that he mourned the loss of my brother is indicative of the sort of pain and anguish that fathers also go through when they experience the loss of a child.
Consequently, it would make eminent sense for compassionate leave to be extended for the father in the case of a stillborn child, too. May I therefore clarify if the extension of shared leave benefits, from Section 12(E)(5) of the original Act, are applicable in this instance as well?
Supporting adoptive parents
At this point, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will return to the example of my mother (I seem to be talking about my mother a lot, something which she will undoubtedly find great delight in; I see this as simply payback, since she somehow never seems to tire about talking about her children).
As it turns out, my mother was also adopted as a child. This made an immense difference to her life, especially since my grandfather passed while she was still a very young girl, and the fact that my mother was but one of ten children meant that it was impossible for my grandmother to have raised her on her own. Adoption confers a lease of life for such children. It also grants the gift of parenthood to those who might, for various reasons, be unable to have biological children of their own.
As every forever parent knows, there is absolutely no distinction between being a parent to a biological or an adoptive child. Indeed, our latest demographic trends suggest that adoption may become ever-more prevalent, given how the media age of female marriages continues to drift higher—it was 28.8 years in 2020, almost a year more than a decade ago4—all while our nation’s total fertility rate continues to decline (it stood at
1.1 per female in 2020).5
Clause 13 is therefore a wholly welcome recognition of this reality. However, I should point out that the language in which the amendments are embedded—that the adoption benefits apply to eligible mothers—automatically vests these benefits onto the adoptive mother. Even the proposed addition of Section 12A(4)(b) does not fully offset this implicit bias, since it still requires the mother to elect to share these benefits—in accordance to Section 12(E)(5) of the original Act—with the father.
Moreover, while uncommon, the Adoption of Children Act does allow single men to adopt children (just not girls, except under special circumstances).6 If so, fathers might be inadvertently excluded from by the benefits outlined in the new Section 12A.
It strikes me as far more reasonable to couch the language in terms of the primary caregiver, whether it be male or female, in order to preclude the possibility that male forever parents find themselves ineligible for benefits, simply by dint of their gender.
Supporting working mothers
Clause 8(e) of the Bill introduces amendments to Section 9A of the Act that are designed to protect working mothers. This House will, inevitably, return to this theme as we debate the Gender Equality motion tomorrow. Here, I will limit my comments to underscoring how important it is to protect female employees that become pregnant.
Too often, we hear stories from our female friends and residents about how they are burdened by an immense sense of job insecurity after they turn pregnant. While outright dismissals purely on the grounds of pregnancy alone are exceedingly rare—not least because they would be deemed wrongful—pregnant women often feel under increased pressure or scrutiny over their workplace performance. In some egregious cases, however, unscrupulous employers may advance a case based on structural reasons to release a pregnant employee. While it is very difficult for an external party to perfectly adjudicate the validity of such justifications, per se, the fallback of government-provided maternity benefits is surely welcome as an additional safety net.
Improving returns for child savings
On a parting note, I would like to touch briefly on the issue of returns on savings on the child development account (CDAs). Here, my concern is one of omission, rather than commission. There were notably no amendments proposed to the CDCA pertaining to returns on CDAs. Indeed, beyond a brief allusion to how the co-savings scheme seeks “to facilitate the making of financial provision for the development of a child… through the making of contributions to the child’s bank account”7 in Section 3 of the original Act, along with some notion of the protection of benefits in Section 5, there is remarkably little guidance on returns.
Hence, while the CDAs do receive a number of government grant injections and dollar-for-dollar matches, the incentives to further contribute to co-saving into the account—an aspiration embedded right in the name of the Act—is hardly encouraged.
As members of this House will undoubtedly be aware, the closest that we have to magic in the world of finance is the power of compound interest. Yet, a causal inspection of available CDA accounts offered by the major bank reveals that returns amount to only at most 2 percent a year.8 This is notable especially in contrast to risk-free interest on the other major government savings scheme, CPF, where there is a legislated interest minimum of 2.5 percent for the Ordinary Account, and significantly higher for other accounts.9 One is left to wonder why the CDAs do not enjoy the same legislative protections that CPF offers to its members.
Notwithstanding these additional remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the Bill.
1 Admittedly, mothers of stillborn children do not have to go on to nurse and raise an infant. However, the time required for a woman’s physiology to fully revert to postpartum normality is often estimated to be between 6 months to a year.
2 McGovern, P., B. Dowd, D. Gjerdingen, I. Moscovice, L. Kochevar & W. Lohman (1997), “Time Off Work and the Postpartum Health of Employed Women,” Medical Care 35: 507–21.
3 This is offset by the fact that parents of a stillborn child do not have immediate caregiving duties. Whether the physical exhaustion associated with providing childcare for a newborn warrants more time off than the mental pain of bereavement for a lost child is a view where reasonable people may differ.
6 Adoption of Children Act, Cap. 4 Sec. 4(3).
7 Child Development Co-Savings Act, , Cap. 38A Sec. 3(1)(c).