Thursday, 30 July 2015

Tan Chuan-Jin on helping the vulnerable and benefits for unwed mothers

Intervening early 'could mean a world of difference'
Tan Chuan-Jin says helping the vulnerable is one of three key priorities MSF is focused on
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2015

When a parent often cannot pay his child's pre-school fees, that could indicate the family is facing some problems. And even if the pre- school is aware of this, it may not know how to follow up on the case.

Having a coordinated system in which such warning signs are flagged earlier could help the authorities to intervene earlier.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is looking into this issue, to better help vulnerable groups - one of three key priorities.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who took over MSF on April 9, on Monday said the other areas are building stronger families and promoting volunteerism.

In his first sit-down interview in his new capacity, Mr Tan said MSF is working with the Health and Education ministries to get data, find patterns to identify vulnerable children and intervene earlier.

This is to "bring them on an even footing... so they're not disadvantaged because of circumstances".

"Upstream work could mean a world of difference to the possibilities. Not doing some of this will not mean that every child (in such circumstances) therefore is destined to fare poorly, but the probabilities are there. For some, it will be a lifetime of social challenges."

He acknowledged that some may disagree with this approach. "Do you become over-zealous... too much of a nanny state...? But that's where we need to determine how we view these issues.

"Perhaps by taking steps earlier, could I actually prevent the situation from deteriorating? We're talking about lives here."

He did not indicate when these plans would be implemented, but did say that "work is ongoing and rather than wait till everything is fully cooked... we may want to perhaps push it out faster, and then experiment and learn as we go along".

The former manpower minister also hopes to see better coordination among the different groups that provide help.

He said: "One of the things that gets in the way is confidentiality... We protect individuals' data... and sometimes, there are challenges getting data from different ministries. But when you can't share, it means you may not be as effective as you should be."

Families are changing, he added, noting more one-person households of childless, divorced or widowed individuals are emerging.

So, for some policies which limit the definition of family to immediate members, "we may need to redefine some of these parameters", to make it easier for people to support their relatives, he said.

"Where does family start and where does it end... I'm not sure it's something for the Government to pronounce. Society needs to grapple with these issues because it reflects our sense of values and it has ramifications for policies ."

He also wants to have more people volunteering. Some are reluctant to do so as they feel they are not trained. One way to get them involved could be creating avenues in which they can volunteer "in a fairly straightforward manner, because there's a lot of work... that actually doesn't need trained personnel", like befriending the elderly.

And helping others will benefit the volunteers themselves, he said.

He recalled how meaningful it was for his soldiers who worked with prison inmates to pack goodie bags for National Day celebrations in 2009, which he helped organise.

Referring to a recent video of elderly abuse, he urged people to report such cases to the authorities. "If in doubt, err on the side of being a bit more kiasu...

"If you can get details and if you feel... like this individual needs help, let us know... we will follow up on every one of these cases."

Since I have just come in to MSF, I thought it'd be useful to provide an overview of our priorities in MSF. Much work...
Posted by Tan Chuan-Jin on Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Government reviewing benefits for unwed mothers
Govt looking into policies on maternity leave, housing, among others: Tan Chuan-Jin
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2015

Unmarried mothers could soon have the same benefits as married ones. The Government is reviewing discrepancies in benefits, such as how unwed mothers are given eight weeks of paid maternity leave compared to the 16 weeks that married mothers get.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin has revealed that he asked colleagues to review the policies when he joined the ministry in April.

He hopes to make an announcement before next year's Budget.

"I've a great deal of sympathy for single unwed mothers," he said. "Some of the differentiation that exists, could we harmonise it? That's being reviewed."

Unmarried mothers do not get perks such as the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates, and must wait until they are 35 years old to buy an HDB flat under the singles scheme.

Such differences have been brought up many times in Parliament, and the answer has always been that the Government can only move as far as society is prepared to. In March, previous MSF minister Chan Chun Sing said Singapore needs to find a balance between supporting unwed mothers and the policy to support parenthood within marriages.

Asked if he thought Singapore society is now prepared to change its stance, Mr Tan said: "My sense is that the public understands and sympathises with single unwed mothers." He added that there is more support available for them than just maternity leave and baby bonuses. "It's about healthcare availability, it's about education opportunities and the support that comes with it."

He said issues such as housing, education, health and employment are being discussed from a "whole- of-government perspective".

MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng, who has been regularly asking for equal benefits for unmarried mothers, hopes the review will lead to them getting 16 weeks of maternity leave.

"Treat them first as mothers," he said. "The fact that they're in those circumstances is something beyond anyone's control. A lot of benefits have now gone to the children, I think anything we can do for mothers themselves is certainly something we should look at."

And women's group the Association of Women for Action and Research has called for the review to give unwed mothers the same access to housing and maternity leave as married mothers as "children should not be penalised for the families they live in".

Welcome the Government's move to consider extending the maternity leave benefits that married mothers enjoy to unwed...
Posted by Irene Ng on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Women’s groups laud review on benefits for single unwed mums
TODAY, 29 Jul 2015

Hailing the Government’s review on the benefits that single unwed mothers are eligible to get, women’s rights groups yesterday stressed that the welfare of the children should come first.

Longer maternity leave would allow these mothers to spend more time with their children, said Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations president Malathi Das.

“If the focus is on the child’s development, then it doesn’t make a difference whether the child is born within a marriage or outside a marriage. If the mother gets more paid maternity leave, then those who decide to take the leave will not be in any way financially disadvantaged either,” she said.

Equalising maternity leave — single mothers get eight weeks currently, half that for married mothers — should not lead more women into single motherhood, which is “not an easy path to go down”, she added.

“It probably will have its own deterrents, with societal pressures and stigma attached to the child. That’s hard enough without us having to differentiate between fundamental needs,” said Ms Das.

Institute of Policy Studies sociologist Tan Ern Ser added: “If such measures bring about a spike in unwed motherhood and/or serial births out of wedlock, then there are good reasons to reconsider giving benefits. However, if we take the stand that the child is innocent of the mother’s behaviour, then it is best to be child-centric, and that is pretty straightforward.”

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan also said it made practical sense to give single unwed mothers the same incentives, as “they’re the ones who need more help”.

Other tools are at the Government’s disposal to achieve its aim of discouraging single motherhood, she added, such as giving information on “how hard it is to do it alone, and how much more meaningful it is when you do it with someone you love”.

Ms Jolene Tan from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) went further, calling for the review to cover other matters, such as housing benefits.

The programmes and communications senior manager said single-parent families are unable to apply for Build-to-Order flats, as they are not considered under the family nucleus, resulting in some women trying to adopt their own biological children, thinking that this would qualify them for more relaxed rules.

“That goes to show how difficult the system is for them,” said Ms Tan. “We hope any review will remove these forms of discrimination, and signal the inclusion of all children in society.”

Ms Tan also questioned the Government’s rationale for distinguishing between parenthood and marriage, citing recent research that “parenthood incentives do not tend to be effective in any case”. She added: “So you are not achieving the aim of incentivising marriage, but you are signalling strongly that some classes of people are more included than others. It seems to be a no-win situation.”

Unwed mothers are not entitled to the Baby Bonus scheme and the Marriage and Parenthood tax benefits.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said while it recognises that vulnerable families — including single parents and their children — face greater challenges, its review will be guided by three objectives, including the continued promotion of parenthood within marriage.

“This is the desired and prevailing societal norm in Singapore. So we have some benefits to incentivise births within marriages,” the ministry said, adding that there are support programmes to help single parents and their children.

The Government will also make sure all children are given equal opportunities to fulfil their potential, regardless of the marital status of their parents. The MSF said children from vulnerable families will receive the required support to achieve their developmental milestones, as it plans to review current programmes and pinpoint ways to plug gaps.

The ministry cited growing attention in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia on focusing interventions on a child’s early years. Overseas studies have shown that vulnerable children are developmentally behind their peers when they start school and carry a higher risk of poorer health, education and social outcomes, if their disadvantage is not addressed early,the MSF noted.

It has been studying the issue with other agencies, including the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Health Promotion Board and Early Childhood Development Agency.

'Don't penalise children of unwed mothers'
Women's groups, MPs hope review will give single mums benefits enjoyed by married ones
By Kok Xing Hui, The Sunday Times, 9 Aug 2015

Sales manager Desiree Lee gets eight weeks of maternity leave but wishes she had twice that period of time, as married women do, to bond with her 15-month-old son.

The additional paid leave would also help the 37-year-old save on infantcare fees, which cost more than $1,000 before subsidies.

She is among a group of single mothers in Singapore who could be set to receive more benefits after a Government review.

She hopes the current review would mean future unmarried mothers can spend 16 weeks at home with their newborns.

Women's groups and Members of Parliament (MPs) have largely welcomed the review and urged the authorities to accord unwed mothers benefits similar to those given to married mums.

The full 16 weeks of maternity leave was especially popular.

Ms Malathi Das, president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, said: "We make no assumptions about whether there will be equalisation, but we hope that benefits which will strengthen the parent-child bond and translate into qualitative benefits for the child, such as more paid maternity leave, will be considered favourably."

Dr Janil Puthucheary, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, agreed.

"Having the opportunity for the mother to spend those first few months with the child and have the confidence to care for the child is very important for the child," he told The Sunday Times.

Apart from maternity leave differences, unwed mothers also do not get perks such as the Baby Bonus cash gift of $6,000 for the first child and parenthood tax rebates. They must also wait until they are 35 years old to buy an HDB flat under the singles scheme.

"Housing is an especially urgent issue," said Ms Jolene Tan, senior manager for programmes and communications at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

"Unmarried mothers cannot access BTO (Build-To-Order) flats because they and their children are not considered a 'family nucleus', forcing them to rely on the goodwill of other relatives or access interim rental housing," she said.

MP Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, said the current differences affect the welfare of the unwed mothers' children. She hopes changes can be made to maternity leave, housing issues and the Baby Bonus cash gift.

"There is widespread empathy and sympathy for the plight of the unwed mother and especially their children who are seen as Singapore's very own sons and daughters, too," said Ms Phua.

As Ms Lee puts it: "It's a bit unfair because at the end of the day, when my son grows up, he will have to do National Service whether I'm married or not."

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