Sunday 26 August 2012

Help for couples to start families

PAP Women's Wing gives recommendations to Govt
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2012

GIVE young couples priority in buying homes near their parents. Or set aside rental flats for them while they wait for their new homes to be ready. And allow mothers and fathers to share maternity leave.

These were among the suggestions tabled by the People's Action Party (PAP) Women's Wing, as it became the latest group to join the national debate on getting Singaporeans to have more children.

It also called for the Government to be more involved in the preschool sector, so as to keep fees low and the quality of teaching high.

The ideas, which were compiled following consultations with students, other women's groups and professional organisations, came in a paper the Women's Wing presented yesterday.

It marked the first time the group was submitting policy recommendations to the Government in more than 10 years. Its secretary, MP Jessica Tan, told reporters that the recommendations were especially targeted at those who want to marry and start families but who face challenges in doing so.

Its suggestions are the latest to emerge as the National Population and Talent Division continues to seek ideas from the public to address the country's demographic challenges of an ageing population and declining birth rates, ahead of a White Paper on population that is expected at the end of the year.

Last month, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) suggested extending maternity leave from four to six months and mandating paternity leave. But the Singapore National Employers Federation argued that extending maternity leave would affect companies' operations and women's employment, and said that paternity leave should be left to employers to decide.

The PAP Women's Wing had no issue with the current four months' maternity leave, but suggested that fathers and mothers be allowed to split the second two months between them. Said Ms Tan, who is an MP for East Coast GRC: "Based on the feedback we've received... many of the women are saying that four months is sufficient, and they would like to share those four months."

Introducing this flexibility could also counter the notion that women are the only ones responsible for childbearing, she added.

The Women's Wing also suggested that couples who have or are expecting children be given priority in buying flats near their parents, whether they are build-to-order, balance of sale or repossessed flats in mature estates. It believes this would help them get more family support to raise children.

And after hearing that some couples had delayed having children until they got their new homes, the group suggested allotting rental flats to those who are waiting for their build-to-order flats to be ready.

Commenting on the ideas, Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said: "From the feedback from residents, housing is one of the main obstacles to getting married and forming families earlier. It is timely that we should look into this very seriously."

The Women's Wing also called for more to be done to get employers to adopt more flexible work arrangements, creating a "Baby Shield" insurance programme to cover congenital health conditions, and increasing subsidies for in-vitro fertilisation.

At a separate event, the Women's Wing's vice- chairman Halimah Yacob said the debate on encouraging parenthood also needs to go beyond cost issues and look at people's values on kids.

Said the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports: "I hope that over time... people will say, look, we need to have children, we want to have children because they bring a lot of joy to our lives and make our lives full and complete. I think that is the kind of conversation we need to have."

Group's ideas on encouraging parenthood
- Give married couples a grant to live with their parents to get more family support. 
- Set aside rental flats for married couples waiting for their build-to-order flats. 
- Build more childcare centres near transport hubs for the convenience of working parents. 
- Raise the quality of preschool teachers through government measures. 
- Let parents take childcare leave for children up to 12 years old, up from the current limit of seven years old. 
- Provide tax relief and relief-staff matching services to help employers implement more flexible work arrangements. 
- Set up a fund to upgrade PMET (professional, manager, executive and technician) mothers while out of the workforce. 
- Subsidise premiums for a baby insurance scheme that covers congenital conditions. 
- Extend financial assistance for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilisation to treatment in private hospitals.

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