The Dignity of Recognition (Stillbirths and Births Bill)—speech by Jamus Lim

Mr Speaker, the proposed amendments embodied in the Stillbirths and Births Bill will alter the status of stillborn children, in the eyes of the law, by vesting official recognition of these children in allowing their names to be registered. Of course, to the parents of such children, they will always be recognized, regardless of the position of the law. But the step that this Bill takes, while seemingly small, will confer enormous dignity to these children, who would otherwise have gone on to live a full life.

While I cannot fully understand how it feels, as a parent, to lose a child in this manner, my family has experienced the misfortune of a stillborn child. As I had previously shared with this House, it was one of the few times that I had seen my father—an otherwise traditional man when it came to expressing his feelings—cry. And it left my mother mourning for years after the loss, and still leaves a gaping hole in her heart. We had named my brother Jaaron, and he would have been 33 years old this year. Had this Bill been in place, we would at least have been able to commemorate him in a formal way, and that process would have helped our family find some additional closure.

Of course, those who grieve find succor in myriad ways. For many, ritual and routine take the mind off the immediacy of the loss, and help the soul heal. That is why, all across the world, we observe funerals and wakes, and prayers and rites performed for the deceased. While practices differ—some weep, while others avoid doing so; some are somber, while others involve singing—the commonality across cultures is that these rituals help with the grieving process. I believe that, for many parents, being able to register the name of their child on birth certificates is one such ritual. Based on an online petition, this view is held by more than 2,800 supporters.

It is for this reason—the dignity of recognition that a name confers, which in turn helps a mourning family move on from an unspeakable tragedy—that the Workers’ Party supports this Bill. It is the right thing to do.

The choice of the stillborn threshold

I will offer some additional thoughts on the other stipulations in the Bill. The amendments align the thresholds for what would constitute a stillborn child: the existing Registration of Births and Deaths Act currently sets the cutoff at 22 weeks, which was in turn an alteration of the original 28 weeks in the original 1937 Act, ostensibly to conform with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statistical reporting guidelines.

Based on what I have been able to ascertain, however, the WHO actually recommends—for international comparability—the reporting of late fetal deaths to be at least 28 completed weeks. This is incongruent with the official MHA explanation.

Nevertheless, the same WHO report, as well as the extant scientific evidence, suggests that, in high-income countries, most live-born babies will survive even when they are born as early as 25 weeks of gestation, which is closer to the proposed 24-week threshold. For this reason, I agree with the realignment, although I would seek clarification on why the cutoff was lowered to 22 weeks in the first place.

Recognizing all children

The Bill, and accompanying collaterals, also does not make clear that the ability to register names for stillborn children applies to all children born in Singapore, regardless of nationality. Presumably, this would be the case, since the birth register is not restricted to only citizens. Nevertheless, it would be useful to clarify that this is the case. After all, parental grief is not constrained by their, or their stillborn child’s, national origin.

The power to change laws lies in the hands of the people

I wish to close with a more general lesson from this episode. While the Ministry has suggested that it has been looking to refine the laws in this regard since 2022, its response to two separate parliamentary questions I filed that year gave little indication that there was any intention to change the law. The first, in May, simply stated that “birth certificates are not issued to stillbirths,” and suggested that MHA would stop at the stage of issuing a “digital stillbirth certificate.” The second, in September, stressed the need for “process and system changes,” and seemed unnecessarily dismissive, bluntly declaring that ICA had “received only one request” for a commemorative birth certificate.

This response prompted my suggestion to Mandy Too and Aidan Hoy, the parents of Abigail and Lara, that if there was a way to demonstrate that birth certificates for stillborns was a matter that had broad support, it may help move the needle in the direction of change. And to their enormous credit, Ms Too and Mr Hoy did the rest: they gathered the signatures and support to advocate for this cause.

This episode is a reminder, I think for all of us, that the power to effect change ultimately lies in our hands. Representatives like those in this House are often only a conduit for the desires of our people to shape the world they live in. When ordinary people have the courage to act on their convictions, change happens. That is the power of the people, in a democratic society.