Wednesday 23 January 2013

Marriage & Parenthood Package 2013

The big push for more babies
New package of measures will raise yearly spending to $2b
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

SINGAPORE is banking on a wide range of meaures to persuade citizens to marry and start families. These are targeted at working couples, those who already have children but do not have homes yet, as well as those struggling to conceive.

There are bigger baby bonuses, new health-care coverage for babies, subsidies for fertility treatments and paternity leave to encourage fathers to play a bigger part in raising their babies.

The package announced yesterday will see government spending on pro-family measures rise from $1.6 billion a year to $2 billion.

Singaporeans have not been replacing themselves since 1975 and the total fertility rate (TFR) has plunged to 1.2 in 2011, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

With the raft of new measures, the Government hopes to see the TFR rise to 1.4 or 1.5. That would boost the average of 36,000 babies born each year by another 6,000 to 9,000 annually.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who oversees population matters, said at a press conference yesterday: "It's not really the amount of money that's important (but) the kind of signals we're sending, the kind of help and support we're giving families."

The new measures address couples' practical concerns in five areas: housing; conception and delivery fees; the cost of raising children; work-life concerns; and paternity leave. And they are targeted at specific groups.

The housing measures, for example, help couples who have gone ahead and started families before getting their flats. Now, they will get priority for the HDB's Build-to-Order and Sale of Balance flats, and can rent flats from the HDB at discounted rates while waiting for their flats to be ready.

The baby bonus cash gift goes up by $2,000 to $6,000 for the first two births and $8,000 for the third and fourth births.

All newborns will receive a $3,000 Central Provident Fund Medisave grant for health-care needs, and from March 1, the MediShield scheme will cover neonatal and congenital defects.

Couples with problems conceiving will receive higher subsidies for fertility treatments, even if they already have one child.

To help working couples balance the demands of job and family, parents of children aged seven to 12 will each get two days' childcare leave. Such leave is now available only to those with younger children under seven years old.

There are new maternity benefits for women employed on a contract basis. And pregnant working women will be protected from retrenchment and unfair dismissal throughout their pregnancy.

From May 1, fathers will get one week of government-paid paternity leave and, if they wish, they can also take a week of their wives' paid maternity leave.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said Singaporeans want to marry and start families but have other priorities such as jobs and financial stability.

"Part of the goal of the Government is to try to put marriage and parenthood back up on the list, to stress that it's not something that you can wait for for too long, because there's always a sweet spot for doing this, for getting married, getting to know people," she said.

Priority is to 'grow citizen core'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

WHEN it comes to population policy in Singapore, the most fundamental goal is to grow the core of citizens.

So regardless of what else is done, the main thing is to encourage citizens to marry and have more children, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who oversees the population issue.

"And this is the starting point of all that we do," he said yesterday, introducing the enhanced $2 billion-a-year Marriage and Parenthood package. The stubbornly low birth rate among Singaporeans is the reason the country has a population challenge, he said.

Estimates put last year's total fertility rate at 1.28 to 1.3 - an increase from 2011's 1.2 - due to a "mini Dragon Year effect" when more Chinese couples had babies in the auspicious year.

But the rise was smaller than the bounce previous Dragon years had produced, he noted.

If there is no improvement in the birth rate, the citizen workforce will start to decline by 2020 and the citizen population by 2025 if there is no immigration.

The new suite of measures is the first and most important part of the Government's population road map, said Mr Teo.

Two other components will follow. They will be on providing good education and good jobs, and on maintaining a high-quality living environment.

Mr Teo set the scene at yesterday's press conference which was attended by six office-holders from four ministries. This, he noted, illustrated the scope of the new package.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong later posted on Facebook that he hoped the new measures would "encourage more couples to start planning, and we will see more babies soon".

Mr Teo was also asked if he thought Punggol East residents, who are in the midst of a by-election, would welcome the improved incentives. He said he hoped so, but added that the by-election was "not a factor in consideration". He said the Government had been discussing the measures for almost a year.

7,000 new flats for parents with young kids
Housing Board sets aside that many BTO units for them this year

By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

MARRIED couples with young children can take their pick of new Housing Board flats from a stock of at least 7,000 units reserved for them this year.

This will be the allocation from the 23,000 Build-to-Order (BTO) flats being planned for this year in mature as well as non-mature towns, said a Ministry of National Development (MND) spokesman.

She was elaborating on the new selection process for parents under the revised Marriage and Parenthood package announced yesterday and which takes effect immediately.

Now, 30 per cent of flats in new BTO projects will be kept for parents who have not received a housing subsidy and whose child is younger than 16.

But this is just part of the total stock. The other part will be made up of unsold flats in soon-to-finish BTO projects. As many as 50 per cent of these units will be set aside for them. The MND is unable to provide immediate figures.

Before the new Parenthood Priority Scheme, the HDB selection process distinguished only between first-time and second- time buyers, with at last 85 per cent of new flats reserved for the first-timers.

Explaining the new move, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said young parents can be given priority because there are enough new flats for each and every first-time buyer.

Another reason he gave is the growing number of engaged but yet-to-marry couples getting a flat during balloting when they can wait, while some married couples with young children are not as lucky although they want a home immediately.

"There's enough flats for all first-timers now, let us recalibrate and let those who are married with children go ahead," he said.

Mr Khaw is confident the change will allow young parents to ballot "almost certainly within this year" for a flat, as they form fewer than half of all first-time buyers applying for HDB flats.

Besides priority in buying, the new Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme will make it easier - and cheaper - for young parents to rent. HDB will offer 1,150 three- and five-room flats in Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Jurong West and Queenstown for rent.

These are primarily HDB flats emptied for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers), where old blocks of flats are redeveloped to optimise land use.

The rents of these unfurnished flats range from $800 to $1,900 a month, depending on location and size. This is up to 40 per cent below market rent.

Young parents like assistant project manager Mohammad Shahrul, 28, cheered the changes, saying they were timely.

He, his homemaker wife and their two sons, aged six and four, live with her parents, who own a four-room flat in Jurong West.

In the past four years, he balloted three times but failed to get a flat in the same estate as his parents-in-law.

"I want to be near them so that I can look out for them and they can take care of my children," he said. "I hope things would go my way this year."

Analysts interviewed foresee the changes will encourage couples to have children earlier.

Realtor Eugene Lim said the changes could draw demand away from the HDB resale and rental market. "This will set the stage for a long overdue price correction in the resale market."

Higher subsidies for fertility treatments
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

COUPLES looking to science to help them conceive will get more help financially, with increased subsidies for fertility treatments.

The subsidy will now also be made available to couples who already have children, and will cover in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment using frozen embryos. Before, only treatment using fresh embryos was covered.

IVF cycles sometimes yield extra embryos. These spare embryos are frozen and can be thawed to be implanted later in what is known as a frozen cycle.

The subsidy will now cover up to 75 per cent of treatment costs for Singaporean couples undergoing the procedure. Singaporeans married to permanent residents will be eligible for a 55 per cent subsidy, while those married to foreigners will get 35 per cent.

Ms Sandy Tan, 36, who declined to use her real name, said it means an additional option for those like her who have already exhausted one cycle of fertility treatment.

"The subsidies cover only up to three cycles, so if they now cover frozen cycles, it means we have three more chances," said the scientist, who just had her embryos transferred yesterday at the National University Hospital in her second round of IVF treatment. She did not get pregnant after the first round last year.

Others, like Ms Joanne Wee, wondered if limiting it to public hospitals would only disadvantage those who are already trying to battle time.

The 39-year-old marketing executive put off having a second child for eight years, only to find that age had caught up with her, making conception difficult.

"Cost is definitely a factor," she said.

Her first round of IVF last year in a private hospital cost her and her husband $15,000. But she did not get pregnant.

"The subsidies will be helpful to those who are not in such a rush. I'm turning 40 later this year, so I cannot wait any more," she said, adding that the wait at public hospitals was longer than at the private hospitals.

Bigger baby bonus, plus Medisave grant
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

HAVING a child is not all about the money, but new parents will still be getting more of it in the Marriage and Parenthood Package announced yesterday.

Married couples, with children born on or after Aug 26 last year, will receive a bigger baby bonus and a grant for their child's Medisave account. With these gifts, they start out on their child-rearing journey with at least $9,000.

Part of it will be in cash, from the bigger baby bonus which will be paid out more quickly as well.

The bonus for couples having their first or second child goes up to $6,000 and for the third and fourth child, $8,000 - this is $2,000 more than before.

They will also be given in three instalments, with 50 per cent handed out when the child is born, instead of the current four equal instalments.

Bank executive Han Kwang, 34, who is expecting twins in May with wife Vanessa Ng, 32, who also works in a bank, said people will not have kids just for the bigger bonus but it will make things easier for those who do. "For us, it's $14,000, so it will definitely come in useful. Diapers and milk powder cost quite a lot."

But others, like Dr Wang Lushun, 31, said the entire baby bonus does not go far in defraying the costs of raising a child here.

The doctor, whose lawyer wife gave birth last week, said: "What's more useful is that they are enforcing more time off from work for parenting duties."

Parents will also receive help with health-care costs, with a $3,000 Medisave grant for newborns. The money can be used to pay for medical expenses such as vaccinations and outpatient treatment and MediShield premiums.

MediShield coverage will also be extended to include congenital and neonatal conditions, with all Singaporean children diagnosed after March 1 this year eligible for cover. This new coverage was most useful, in the eyes of Mr Han, who had been hoping for it.

"There have been a lot of cases of twins who are born premature and need to be put in the neonatal intensive care unit. This can cost up to $1,000 per child, per day. That was definitely a concern for us," he said.

"The grant might not be able to cover everything, but it's a step in the right direction," he added.

New dads to get guaranteed week off
Paternity leave paid for by Govt 'sends signal' dads should play greater role
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

MARRIED fathers will get a guaranteed week off work to spend with their newborns - paid for by the Government.

Currently only dads working for companies that offer paid paternity leave get such a benefit. But such leave will soon become mandatory, and will extend to fathers who are self-employed.

Announcing the change yesterday, which comes after years of lobbying by pro-family groups, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said it sends a signal that fathers should be more involved in raising their children.

The leave will be given to fathers of children born on or after May 1 this year. Its value is capped at $2,500, including Central Provident Fund contributions.

But employers are also encouraged to voluntarily offer the paternity leave to employees with children born on or after Jan 1 this year. They will be reimbursed by the Government.

To qualify, the father must have served his employer for at least three months before the birth of his child, who must be a Singapore citizen.

If the child's mother qualifies for the current 16 weeks of government-funded maternity leave, the father may also take one of those weeks, if mum agrees.

Housewife Teresa Tay, 29, called it a good and useful move. She and her husband, financial business owner Andy Lim, 36, are trying for a second child.

Their son, Darius, is a year old.

But Ms Tay noted that many fathers may not be able to make use of the paternity leave due to work commitments. "Many of my male friends who are fathers and work in banks, for example, can't afford to take leave because there is so much work to be done. If they take the leave, the work will pile up and they have to clear it anyway," she said.

Nonetheless, the move is a strong signal from the Government that a father plays a major role in his child's development, said Mr Josh Goh.

The assistant director in recruitment firm The GMP Group said: "It's definitely a welcome measure. These days, a lot of fathers want to be there when their child is born. Even though it's just one week, it helps because that first week is critical."

Employers said that the length and flexibility of the paternity leave struck the right balance. It is to be taken within 16 weeks of the child's birth, or over a one-year period if employer and employee agree.

In a press statement yesterday, the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) welcomed such flexibility and said it was glad employers' concerns had been heard.

SNEF president Stephen Lee also noted that maternity leave had been kept at 16 weeks, which was helpful to employers, given the tight labour market.

Maternity benefits for women on short-term contracts
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

SOME 3,000 married women employed on short-term contracts are expected to benefit each year from new government maternity payouts.

The benefit is equivalent to the government-paid portion of maternity leave and calculated based on the mother's income in the 12 months before childbirth. It is capped at $10,000.

The move provides these working women with some income in the months after the birth, when they are unable to work.

This group of women did not previously qualify for maternity benefits, noted National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong.

For example, if they had given birth after their work contract ended, they would receive nothing from that employer.

She said: "But now, any working woman will be covered. Whether you're self-employed, freelancing or permanently employed, you will at least have these government maternity benefits."

These women form about 15 to 17 per cent of those who work on contract, she added.

Other new measures to help working couples balance work and family commitments include an extension of protection for expectant mothers from retrenchment and unfair dismissal.

Employers will now have to pay a pregnant employee maternity benefits if, at any point of her pregnancy, she is retrenched or dismissed without sufficient cause. This is to discourage employers from cutting costs by not paying pregnant employees maternity benefits.

Parents of children aged seven to 12 will now each get two days of government-paid childcare leave a year. Previously, only those with children aged seven and below were entitled to six days of childcare leave.

The leave must be taken in the 12 months after the child is born.

These new measures take effect on May 1 this year.

Ministers give their takes on the measures

On the move to reserve 30 per cent of new Build-to-Order flats for couples with children below 16 years old:

"It is fair and reasonable to do this re-adjustment since there are enough flats for all first-timers.

So, let us recalibrate and let those who are married and have children go ahead of those who are applying under the fiance scheme.

Once we have cleared the backlog of those married with kids, then we can go to the next group - which is, married but kids coming."

On the significance of the Marriage and Parenthood package:

"Singaporeans are the core of society, and the best and the most fundamental way to build a stronger Singaporean core is to encourage marriage and parenthood.

So regardless of whatever else we do to deal with the population challenge, the core and the most fundamental thing that we want to do is to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have more children and this is the starting point of all that we do."

On getting young Singaporeans to prioritise marriage and parenthood:

"The key message from Singaporeans is that many of them do plan to get married. But at the moment, there are many other options in their lives: career, financial stability. These feature very high up on their priority (list).

Part of the goal of the Government is to try to put marriage and parenthood back up on the list, to stress that it's not something that you can wait for for too long, because there's always a sweet spot for doing this, for getting married, getting to know people."

Package sends pro-family, gender-equal message: Experts
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2013

THE enhanced Marriage and Parenthood package goes beyond financial incentives to send a social message, said observers and experts yesterday as they cheered the measures.

To them, the message is this: the Government prizes a pro-family and gender-equal environment as much as it does a competitive, business-friendly climate.

"The immediate intent of the policies was to make it easier for people to get married and have kids," said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

"But the second intent was to set the ideological tone, to say very boldly that the Government stands behind family formation."

"Compared to 2008, the measures are much bolder," said National Family Council chairman Lim Soon Hock, referring to the last time the Marriage and Parenthood package was revamped.

"It is more than financial incentives now, it's also trying to create a supportive and convenient work environment for parents."

The week of government- funded paternity leave, plus the ability for women to share one week of their maternity leave with their husbands, sends a powerful message, said Ms Anita Fam, chairman of Marriage Central's advisory board.

"It's a recognition that parenting is a shared role."

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong saw the entrenchment of paternity and parental leave as "a significant milestone in promoting work-life harmony in working families", and one that recognised fathers' roles as primary caregivers.

Ms Helen Lim-Yang, board member of voluntary welfare organisation I Love Children (ILC), welcomed the provision of two days of child-care leave for parents of children aged seven to 12.

Previously, only parents of children below seven years old were eligible for child-care leave.

This is a "long-term approach" which will encourage young couples, she said.

"Handouts help a couple initially with a newborn. With this, couples thinking of starting a family can see that, yes, there is help all the way down the road."

But there were areas where observers wished that the Government had dared to go.

Ms Cham said the NTUC wants to see the right of parents to ask for flexi-work arrangements, especially if they have children with special needs, to be entrenched in guidelines if not written into law.

The National Family Council's Mr Lim said that the measures to meet the housing needs of couples with young children did not get to the nub of the problem.

Such couples can now rent affordable flats from the Housing Board while waiting for a new flat to be built.

"This helps only those who already have kids," he noted. "But couples actually don't start families because they don't have access to public housing."

Allowing young couples who have not yet had children to rent flats as well would help, he said.

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