Ministry of Social and Family Development Committee of Supply 2016 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered in Parliament on 12 April 2016)

Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme (KiFAS) – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

All children are unique as are the learning methods that are most effective for them. They are naturally eager for knowledge and some children require a very structured, teacher-led style of learning while others learn better in a child-led environment that emphasizes individuality and creativity.

It is the responsibility of parents to assess the temperament and learning abilities of their children, and to select the most appropriate school and curriculum for their child’s growth and development. However, the unevenness of the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme (KiFAS) means that the choices that they make for their children’s education are limited especially for the less well-off.

Kindergarten education is extremely important as it sets the foundation for skills that will be built on later in life, and plays an important role in the social and emotional growth of the child. KiFAS can currently only be used in about half of all registered kindergartens, which are in centers run by Anchor Operators and MOE. This stifles competition with other operators that provide quality education but are not KiFAS-eligible, and limits parents’ choices.

Madam, I am repeating my earlier calls for KiFAS to be expanded to all kindergartens so as to create more quality choices for learning and development.

Informal Caregivers – Chen Show Mao

Many Singaporeans provide regular care to family members or friends who are elderly, disabled or physically or mentally ill.  Our dependence on this group of Singaporeans is real, substantial and very often unacknowledged.  In many ways, informal (or unpaid) caregivers enable other Singaporeans to carry out the economic activities reckoned in our GDP, while their own care-giving is not.  As of now, the burden of informal care-giving falls disproportionately on women.

As noted in this house before, it is well-documented that caregivers often suffer declines in their own financial circumstances, and mental and physical health.  If they work, their performance suffers too. Often these caregivers pass up opportunities and stay at home, and can find themselves with little support and resources for their own retirement or care.

In recent years we are starting to acknowledge and provide assistance to these informal caregivers, with several members of this House having spoken on the issue.

I hope the government will look into CPF top-ups for full-time informal caregivers in low-income households, to reduce the pressure of being under-employed and under-prepared for retirement, as a result of taking on their informal care-giving responsibilities.

Other examples of a much-needed acknowledgement and support for caregivers could include the leave for caregivers that several members of this House have called for.  Or greater support for working informal caregivers when they exercise their right to ask for flexible work arrangements.

Single Parents and Child Benefits – Dennis Tan

Madam, currently, single parents are not entitled to certain benefits or government schemes which may be available to other parents. I would like to urge the government to consider allowing single parents and their children to have the same following benefits. I will discuss 3 examples.

1. Same maternity leave as married mothers

It is important for a mother to recuperate physically and emotionally from child bearing. The time a mother can share with her child is especially precious and when managed well, can strengthen the psychological and emotional bond that a mother shares with her child. Working mothers often have to quickly get back to their work while they are still struggling to find infant care assistance for their child. A mother’s marital status is irrelevant when it comes to what I have just described.

2. Baby Bonus and CDA support

The Baby Bonus Scheme was designed to help families defray the costs of raising a child. It comprises a cash gift and a Child Development Account (CDA). Children born out of wedlock are not entitled to this. The CDA account will certainly come in handy to help the single parent manage early childhood expenses.

Last week I asked the Minister for Finance during the Budget debate to confirm whether CDA First Step Grant is available to children of single unwed parents. The minister did not answer this question then, preferring to leave this to MSF to deal with in the COS Debate this week. Perhaps the minister can clarify.

3. Shelter

A single parent below the age of 35 and their child does not form a family nucleus when applying for a new HDB flat or rental flat.  They are also not eligible for housing subsidies.  Single parents need to provide themselves and their children a roof over their heads too.  The current housing policy puts a heavier burden on single parents.  They are often compelled to rent or purchase from the open market.  With hefty rental rates, they may have to cut back on other expenses. Or they have to stay in an over-crowded flat with other relatives. The children suffer when there is less money for their own well-being or less desirable environment for them to grow and learn.

May I ask the government to look at this issue from a new angle? The government may think that they are just penalizing single parents. But actually, the government is making lives harder for the innocent children of single parents for they have to grow up with more challenges and fewer resources.

This should be about ensuring better and fair support for their children. These children are Singaporeans, sons will serve National Service and daughters will continue to bear and nurture future generations for Singapore. See the value, not the cost. We should acknowledge the value that these children will bring to our country, our people and our economy.  When one sees the value then the cost becomes insignificant, the stigma becomes unnecessary. Give these children the same opportunities as others, without the stigma.

The government allows singles (whether men or women) to adopt children. If MSF thinks that it is fine for singles to adopt children, then these adoptive parents and their children should be entitled to the same relevant benefits as married adoptive parents and their children.

I would like to urge the Ministry to seriously consider equalizing the benefits for all children.

Financial Counselling for Families – Chen Show Mao

My experience with families in financial need seems to suggest that quite a number of them would have benefited from financial assessment and counselling at the time of selling their HDB flats.

I would like to suggest that the government look into instituting, at some point in the selling process, mandatory checks to ensure that certain groups of sellers, say those aged 55 or above, are fully aware of the specific respective amounts of proceeds that will be used to pay off outstanding mortgage loans, HDB resale levy, required CPF refunds, and all the restrictions relating to the transfer and use of moneys in and out of their CPF accounts including the Retirement Account; and to provide them with related financial counselling if assessment so warrants.

ComCare Graduation – Daniel Goh

Chairman Sir, the Ministry’s ComCare Annual Report reported that the number of recipients of ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance increased from over 11,000 beneficiaries in Financial Year 2010 to over 27,000 beneficiaries in Financial Year 2014. I believe this is due to the expansion of the eligibility for Short-to-Medium Term Assistance in 2012 and 2014 and also the greater outreach effort by Social Service Offices. It is good that ComCare is reaching more Singaporeans in need. Nevertheless, all else being equal, the effectiveness of Government efforts to help Singaporeans in need should be reflected in the decline of the number eligible for assistance. We should be worried if the number of beneficiaries continue to climb when the eligibility criteria stays the same.

I would like to propose the Ministry set up a mentoring programme for the recipients of ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance. Recent studies show that asset and cash transfers to the poor are more effective when the recipients receive two years of counselling and training to use the assets and cash in ways that would help them to graduate from poverty. In the Singapore context, it could be to enroll in skills training so that the person could land a decent job or to leverage existing skills to start micro-businesses. The mentoring programme would also encourage recipients to persevere and break out of the poverty cycle. We should not be so judgemental as to tell recipients what they should consume with their cash assistance, but a little mentoring advice and encouragement would go a long way, especially with the needy who find themselves socially isolated.

This mentoring programme need not and should not be as intense as the hand-holding for the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, but the underlying principle is the same. The ComCare annual report should also show the number graduating from ComCare through the mentoring programme, not just the number of beneficiaries, so that we can be confident our fellow Singaporeans are being uplifted from poverty.

Social Mobility – Leon Perera

Mr Chairman, a critical measure of our success as a society is social mobility. This is part of the glue that binds Singapore.

I have heard from one of my friends who is in the social work profession that he has begun seeing clients in need of social work help who are the children of his clients 20 years ago. Sir, no one is cheered by stories like this.

MOF occasional papers published in 2012 and updated in 2015 suggest that the 1978-82 cohort and 1974-78 cohort saw an inter-generational mobility measure of around 0.2, which is relatively good by international standards. Other studies suggest different results. For example one study by Professor Irene Ng, based on 2002 survey data concluded that 58% of the income advantage of Singapore parents was being handed down to their children, a level similar to the USA at that time. And there are methodological limitations to both these studies, as the authors have acknowledged.

I suggest that we commit to at least one such social mobility study every 10 years, to the best available global standards. If we cannot measure how well we are doing, we cannot know how to make things better.