Children are the greatest joy. Children are the greatest source of worry. And as a society, we work together to find ways to ensure that we put the right support and structures in place to help Singaporeans fulfil their parenthood aspirations. Yet we also wring our hands in despair at the stubbornly low total fertility rate, or TFR, despite over two decades of the Baby Bonus Scheme and its frequent enhancements.
Three years ago, this House debated the introduction of the Baby Support Grant, which offered an extra cash payment of $3,000 to encourage couples not to delay having children in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the scheme was extended to eligible babies born before 14 February this year. It was revealed that a total of $92 million was paid out in the first year that the scheme ran – a not insignificant sum of money. However, the birth rate in the years where the BSG payouts were made failed to go above the 2019 rate of 1.14, and in fact dropped even lower to a record low in 2022 of 1.04.
It should thus be more clear than ever that financial considerations are only a part of decisions that parents make about whether or not to start, or add to a family. And the amendments proposed by this bill do go beyond cash payments to address the concerns that we have raised time and again in this House, to bring in changes relating to the existing parental leave system.
At the heart of parental leave, is an acknowledgement of the important role that parents play in their children’s lives, particularly in the early days, weeks and months. How often have we young parents heard people telling us that ‘the days are long, but the years are short’? Time spent at work or away from our little ones, is time that we will never get back. After all, for those of us fortunate enough to have kids who go through the milestones of a first smile, a first step, a first word, the first wobbly tooth that falls, know about too well bittersweet thrill that accompanies these moments: it brings with it a flood of memories and also the realisation that your child is growing up.
Yet, on a personal and also societal level, we are torn by various considerations beyond the urge to want to seize every precious moment with our children. After all, we do not exist on fresh air and sunshine, so how do we strike that delicate and constantly shifting balance between ensuring that economic and material needs are fulfilled, alongside ensuring the well-being of our child? This question gets ever more important in a rapidly disrupted world also facing the twin pressures of cost of living and climate emergency crises that show scant respect for borders.
Added to that, we have heard from many fathers about their desire to play an even greater role in bringing up their children, not only for reasons of personal joy, but also because there are benefits to children’s development through more gender equitable socialisation. Some researchers, for instance, argue that modelling of gender equitable relationships in child-rearing correlates to girls being more ambitious in their working lives. These social and economic reasons are why the Workers’ Party 2020 manifesto called for a total of 24 weeks parental leave to be made mandatory to be shared between parents of all newborns as they deem fit for their family’s circumstances, with a minimum of 16 weeks to the mother and 4 weeks to the father.
Working parents will thus take comfort in the amendments contained in this bill to tweak our existing parental leave system to increase paternity leave entitlements for working fathers. It seeks to increase the existing paternity leave entitlement from 2 weeks to 4 weeks, on a voluntary basis. The Government has also indicated that there are plans to make this change mandatory in due course. This cannot come soon enough, and I hope that we can have a firm commitment about when this is expected to happen.
It is interesting too that in Sweden, with the highest levels of female labour force participation in the world, parents are entitled to a total of 480 days of paid parental leave, with 90 days reserved for each spouse that cannot be transferred. Single parents are entitled to all 480 days in recognition of the harder job that they have in bringing up their children. Latest statistics show that fathers currently take up approximately 30% of all paid parental leave entitlements.
I am not suggesting that we blindly copy the examples in other countries. We have come far in our journey to support families in the workplace, with mandatory parental newborn leave and childcare leave schemes that have been introduced. I do not doubt that this change is the result of the tireless work of all involved to change mindsets surrounding the support that parents and aspiring parents need from the workplace. What I believe we can benefit from though, is to closely study the causative effect of flexible and generous parental leave entitlements, where parents can exercise more choice in deciding what split works best for their family, using the examples of Sweden described above, with its high female labour participation force and gender equity.
But to ensure continued progress, we should also automatically publicly track the uptake of the GPPL taken by fathers. From a reply to a PQ, MSF says that just 40% of eligible fathers took the full two weeks of GPPL in each year from 2018 to 2020, with median GPPL taken increasing from 0.8 weeks to 1.2 weeks.
While tracking the uptake of the new four weeks of GPPL taken by fathers, could MSF also survey and study the reasons why fathers do not utilise their full GPPL entitlements? Anecdotally, we have heard that it is a matter of culture as well: pressure from employers alongside wider societal norms are reasons why fathers do not take up paternal leave. The government has a responsibility to actively ensure that employers are not punishing fathers for taking up parental leave entitlement schemes, and to see what effects this is having on our efforts to promote better support for young families and aspiring parents.
I also noted that there is still a gap between the extension of such support to self-employed parents and those without full employment benefits. Self-employed parents or those not in full-time employment may end up feeling rushed to hurry back to work, which in turn may end up with detrimental effects for both parents and children, and also would make it more stressful for such parents when deciding whether or not to have a child or to add to their family.
Beyond mandating mandatory leave days, we must ultimately look to the trust that we should and can build in the workplace in order to make it more conducive for young parents. I myself benefited hugely from having had a boss and department where my team understood that sometimes having children makes it difficult to be at your desk in your office constantly, and that a reasonable amount of give and take should apply. For us, this could come in the form of having to make an unscheduled school run to pick up a child who started running a fever in the middle of the school day, or the flexibility to work from home in the mornings in order to spend more time with an infant who was still breastfeeding. All of this was on the understanding that colleagues were ultimately responsible for doing their jobs conscientiously and timeously, and that we would support each other in achieving our goals as a team.
This is similar to the conversation that we had about our ‘MC culture’ which emerged during the Coronavirus pandemic. This level of trust being common in workplaces may be dismissed as being unrealistic, as being naive, but as the people of an improbable nation, I do not think we do ourselves favours by selling ourselves short in thinking that this is an unachievable goal.
Beyond trust and empathy in the workplace, I hope that the upcoming Workplace Fairness legislation has specific measures to ensure that parents, and in particular working mothers, do not end up being penalised and discriminated against, whether this is for employees being discriminated against for taking up the improved GPML and GPPL entitlements, or else for having to juggle childcare responsibilities with work. While we are acutely aware that there are immediate business continuity costs associated with having to cover the work to be done with employees who are on parental leave, we must continue to look at the bigger picture: businesses ultimately benefit by being able to access a wider hiring pool when they are able to make reasonable accommodations for parents who have care responsibilities, and the economy also benefits when we take these measures to support parenthood aspirations and address our low TFR.
While the Amendment Bill today focuses on parental leave, it would be remiss of us to not bring up how important it remains to look at the bigger picture. This means looking beyond traditional population and economic growth models and strategies. As I said in my speech during the Baby Support Grant in 2020, we have to continue to seek sustainable solutions for how to afford the financial and unpaid costs associated with caring for an increasingly aged society while maintaining intergenerational fairness.
Finally, as we discuss building better support for parents, I feel that a segment deserves more attention: families of children with special needs. With latest data indicating that around 35,500 students have special education needs as of December last year, this is a significant group, especially as it does not include children who are not of school-going age, but whose parents are still responsible for their care. The number also does not include children who are suffering from other health conditions, both mental and physical, who also warrant extra care from their families and caregivers.
Greater awareness of and empathy for families with children with additional needs is undoubtedly growing, but do we really understand and account for the larger amount of resources, mental load and emotional costs that parents bear when providing care for such children? Do we also pay attention and try to address the increased pressure that siblings of children with special needs often bear? Parents of such children often are faced with both having to strive to give the best support available to their children, while at the same time dealing with their own complex emotions which may involve grief and feelings of loss associated with not being able to achieve dreams of their children doing things that so many of us take for granted: cheering their children on in football matches or sports days, graduation day, or even just curling up on the sofa with a book, and which can be quickly followed by devastating guilt for feeling such grief in spite of the deep love they continue to hold for their child.
I previously spoke about parental burnout and its lack of systematic quantification. I believe this is even more acute for such families, if we are to be serious about properly supporting them. A workplace solution could come in increased support and flexibility when it comes to childcare leave arrangements. While we call on our policies to do more, I believe that each one of us can start today by showing more empathy and understanding, and non-judgment, towards our fellow Singaporeans who may be finding it difficult to juggle it all. And if we are privileged enough to be able to take on a little bit more in any way in the hope that it can ease their burden yet a little, let’s do so without complaint or expecting anything in return.