Thursday 13 October 2016

Josephine Teo: Sex and babies in the Lion City

You don't need much space to have sex: Josephine Teo on ‘no flat, no child’ belief
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2016

You do not need much space to have sex.

That was the feisty rejoinder from Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo, who oversees the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), to a question on whether young people are not getting their flats early enough to have children.

The suggestion was that this could be a chicken-and-egg problem. To qualify for the Parenthood Priority Scheme, which gives first- time married couples first dibs on getting a flat, they must be expecting or have a citizen child below 16.

But to have a child, some say they need to have a flat first.

With a straight face, Mrs Teo declared: "You need a very small space to have sex."

Known for her candid blog posts on dating and marriage, Mrs Teo does not mince her words - think "menstruation" and "cysts" - when it comes to urging young people to look for love and settle down early.

In an interview on marriage and parenthood issues last week, the mother of three teenage children tackled issues ranging from infertility to why the Government should not be "too kaypoh" (Hokkien for busybody).

She noted that the Singaporean love story has a different arc from that of countries in the West. "In our case, man meets woman, man falls in love with woman, man proposes to woman, they then plan the wedding and do the house," she said.

"In France, in the UK, in the Nordic countries, man meets woman, tonight they can make a baby already. They love each other. Both of them partly have their own family, so it is a matter of living in yours or living in mine, and they also don't have to worry about marriage - that comes later," she added.

So how about having a couple declare that they wish to have a child in two years and get the flat first?

"What if they can't conceive? Take back the flat from them? How do you know they really tried to conceive? Can we check whether they use contraceptives? Cannot, right?" she replied, amused.

Instead of having the Government poke its nose into the bedroom, Mrs Teo relied instead on persuasion. She urged women to have babies early as they would not know if they are fertile or not.

"You never really know that you're not fertile until you try. Unfortunately, it is one of those things. There is no fertility indicator. As a woman you will know, if you have regular menstruation, okay, (there is a) likelihood. But maybe you have a major cyst and how would you know until you attempt to conceive, only to realise that you can't?"

The search for love is also not something to be left to chance, she said. "When I meet young people and ask if they go and look for upgrading opportunities, they said 'yes'. I said, 'What about love? Do you go and look for love?' They said 'no'. I said, 'Why not?' They said, 'If it happens, it happens'.

"I said, 'You don't think that upgrading and a good job, if it happens it happens, right? So why is it that you would apply that thinking to your career and your own education, but you don't apply it to your personal life?"

However, the minister was quick to point out that there is a need to respect personal choice when it comes to marriage and children.

She said: "In this day and age, it is not possible for us to say that you are somehow bad, you are not doing your part for society.

"No, there are many reasons why people remain single. Sometimes, (for) very good reasons. Why should we pass judgment on them?"

Build support networks for young parents: Josephine Teo
This is Govt's new focus in birth push as it seeks increase in childcare spots, explores no-pay leave in child's first year
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2016

Fifteen years after the Baby Bonus Scheme was introduced to encourage Singaporeans to have children, the Government is shifting its focus.

It is, for now, putting on hold further increases in incentives such as the baby bonus and leave benefits.

Instead, the spotlight will be on building up support networks to help young parents, said Mrs Josephine Teo, the Government's point person on population issues.

For instance, it hopes to increase the number of childcare spots from the current one for every two children, to two for every three.

She also revealed the civil service - Singapore's biggest employer - is taking the lead in exploring giving parents the right to ask for no-pay leave during, say, a child's first year. The hope is the private sector can be nudged in this direction as well.

Mrs Teo was speaking to The Straits Times in an interview two months after the term "millennials" made its appearance in a National Day Rally. In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said more will be done to help this segment of Singaporeans - aged between 16 and early 30s - form families. They number nearly a million.

Said Mr Lee then: "Singapore must be a place where millennials can chase their dreams - not just in their careers, but also in families, which add meaning to our lives."

The change in focus from monetary incentives to a support network is what millennials want, said Mrs Teo. "That is the direction and that seems to be what the young people are telling us too," she said.

She added that the 15-year-old Marriage and Parenthood Package "probably" already has most of the benefits it can have. Last August, it was enhanced: The baby bonus cash gift was increased by $2,000 and the Medisave grant for newborns by $1,000. An extra week of paternity leave was also introduced.

Such measures, said Mrs Teo, had helped reverse Singapore's decline in the total fertility rate. It tumbled to a historic low of 1.15 in 2010. Last year, it inched back up to 1.24, though still well below the 2.1 needed for a population to replace itself.

When it comes to things like leave entitlements, "I think we have done quite a lot and we're probably going to take pause now", she said.

Mrs Teo, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Transport, Foreign Affairs and in the Prime Minister's Office, took over the population portfolio last October.

She has since spoken to a slew of young Singaporeans and a key piece of feedback is the need for more childcare places. "At this point in time, we are probably still some distance away (in meeting the demand), even though the childcare sector has expanded so much."

Another is for employers to be more flexible in offering work arrangements. "One part that is still a bit tough for them is in the first year of the newborn's life," she said.

A mother gets 16 weeks of maternity leave. She also gets six days of childcare leave and six more days of unpaid infant care leave a year. Even if she uses them all, they add up to only about 41/2 months of leave.

Infant care is available from two months onwards, but most parents may not be comfortable leaving their newborns in centres at such a young age, noted Mrs Teo.

"So the question is, how do we address this gap?" she said.

The civil service, she revealed, will look at providing other leave provisions such as no-pay leave during this gap period. However, Mrs Teo said Singapore may not be ready to legislate the right to ask for flexible work arrangements, as in the case of countries such as Britain.


1. Housing

Reduce the wait for Build-To-Order Housing Board flats

2. Childcare

Increase childcare spaces to two for every three children

Look for suitable spaces in buildings, such as underutilised carparks, that can be converted into childcare centres

Attract childcare teachers through better pay and career planning, and elevate their social status to that of school teachers

3. Caring for babies at home

Match local nannies to those who need them

Train maids to look after babies

4. At the workplace

Get employers to offer flexible work arrangements and promote work-life balance, with the Government taking the lead as an employer.

Millennials are ‘gung-ho’
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2016

How are millennials different from baby boomers and Generation X?

They live longer and have more options.

This means they will be open to being "gung-ho" pioneers by taking the leap to have children even as they begin building their careers, Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo believes.

This is what gives her cause for optimism that Singapore's future population picture is not as dire as it could be.

She said: "This generation must think differently. They are the new pioneers."

One way in which millennials may differ from older Singaporeans is how they view career and families. Unlike some older Singaporeans who see building careers and raising families as two distinct and sequential phases of life, millennials can pursue both at the same time, said Mrs Teo.

And they have the right aptitude to pursue both, she added in an upbeat tone. "They are very gung-ho. And they are game."

She singled out a group that she found intriguing - young couples with children. "I'm the one who asked them, 'Isn't it very difficult?' And they are the ones who shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Ya, but we manage,' " said Mrs Teo with a laugh.

She also noted that living longer and having more opportunities mean that the younger generation will lead different lives from the generations before.

"The tempo of their life, the way their whole life story has to be written probably has got to be different," she said.

"If you are going to live to 80, and just going to peak at 40, 50, then after that what happens?" she asked.

"So this generation must think differently... and redefine how personal, family and career aspirations can be met."

Striving to balance work, life and raising kids
By Janice Tai and Muneerah Ab Razak, The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2016

When Mrs Lindy Loh had her first child three years ago, she took four months of no-pay leave after four months of maternity leave.

When she had her second child last year, she took seven months of no-pay leave.

Both times, it came at a cost. The first led to an internal transfer while the second caused her position to be made vacant and ultimately led to her decision to move to a new job.

Her former employer had its reasons, she acknowledges. "I think it's fair... because there is work that has to be done. But it will be good to extend the (leeway) period so that mothers can remain in the same jobs if they want to," said Mrs Loh, 32, now a civil servant.

Millennials, from dating teenagers to young mothers such as Mrs Loh, say they face their own set of challenges when it comes to getting married and starting a family.

For one thing, expectations are different. Notes Ms Samantha Chin, a young adults specialist from Focus on the Family Singapore: "Millennials tend to want to 'have it all' - to be successful both at home and at work."

And while they are no different from their parents or grandparents in desiring the basics - a home, a job, a pre-school that will take good care of their offspring - what has changed is the nature of these needs.

So, for instance, today's young parents may no longer be satisfied with the run-of-the-mill pre-schools, but instead hanker for more expensive options such as Montessori schools.

And if they cannot meet the cost, homeschooling may even be an option.

Says Ms Nursheila Muez, 24, a research analyst: "Kindergarten education is so expensive now as competitiveness among parents to send their children to the best school increases. I might consider homeschooling as an option."

Millennials whom The Straits Times spoke to are striving to attain some measure of financial security amid the rising cost of living and uncertain economy and employment scene. Even as they struggle to find some form of work-life balance, they also feel pressured to raise children who could succeed as adults.

"Things are so expensive and salaries aren't rising as fast. It's stressful," says Ms Amalina Rozman, 25, a creative director.

But the silver lining is also that millennials are more adept at harnessing the latest technologies for greater convenience. For instance, polytechnic student Faith Ong, 19, says employers can offer options such as telecommuting or lighter workloads during the gap period. "When I become a mother, at least that allows me to continue earning an income, and yet be near enough to look after my children."

Get ready for millennial families
By Josephine Teo, Published The Straits Times, 12 Oct 2016

Speaking at the National Day Rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed to technological disruption as a defining feature of the future economy, and the resultant need to adjust the ways we work and live.

What about the impact on families? Specifically, how will the millennial generation - Singaporeans in their mid-teens to early 30s - approach marriage and parenthood? Might disruptions in industries and workplaces also disrupt plans by millennials to settle down?

One thing is clear. Millennial Singaporeans, who number nearly a million, are not about to start families because someone exhorts them to.

If and when they decide to, it will likely be because they regard marriage and parenthood to be achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

With or without disruption, millennials won't accept that settling down means giving up on the chance to fulfil other meaningful life goals.

One might wonder if millennials can really have it all.

Instead of asking them to "get real", how about challenging the whole of society to "get ready"?


Let's start with home ownership, an aspiration of most marrying couples in Singapore.

Everywhere in the world, couples tend to start their early life together in their parents' homes or in rental units.

Nowhere else is there as extensive a high-quality public housing programme as in Singapore, making home ownership possible for 90% of the population.

With 115,000 Build-To-Order flats launched from 2011 to last year, the application rate for first-timer families in non-mature estates dropped from 2.6 applicants per flat to 1.6. This means that most first-timer couples can get their flats within a few attempts. However, waiting times could stretch to three and sometimes four years.

For first-timer couples who prefer to live on their own while they wait, the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS) allows them to rent an HDB flat at below-market rates. There are now about 1,900 PPHS flats, and 365 babies have been born to couples living in these flats.

Can we get flats ready earlier and reduce waiting times for more first-timers?

In fact, an option with almost no waiting time already exists through resale flats, which offer the added benefit of mutual support for those who buy near their parents' homes. The Proximity Housing Grant has made such resale flats more affordable.

The Housing and Development Board is studying ways to better support couples getting their first homes.

It will help too if home buyers keep an open mind about locations and flat types. Their first home is rarely their last. How about getting to a dream home in smaller steady steps rather than one big exhausting leap?


In Singapore, around eight in 10 mothers with young children work.

Often, mothers returning to work at the end of maternity leave look to grandparents to help with daytime caregiving.

However, we can reasonably expect fewer grandparents to be available in future. It's already happening.

The labour force participation rate for seniors aged 60-69 is 54 per cent today, up from about 35 per cent 10 years ago. This is a good thing, because seniors add experience and depth to our workforce. But it also means fewer familial care options for our young.

We must get ready to provide more places in infant-care and childcare, and deliver quality at affordable fees. It means a lot to parents that our children are in safe, nurturing environments while we work. Even stay-at-home parents appreciate the opportunities for their children to socialise and learn useful skills.

Since the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) was set up in 2013, childcare provision has expanded. Localised shortfalls, mainly in new estates which attract young families, are being tackled.

To increase pre-school places, a ramp-up of teaching and care staffing is absolutely critical, which the ECDA is committed to do.

Centre-based care can also be complemented by home-based options such as nannies and better-trained domestic help.


In all likelihood, millennials will start families when they feel they can enjoy parenthood even as they pursue other meaningful life goals. Yet there are many competing priorities, and parenthood rarely takes top spot; some may even see it as a hindrance. A fresh perspective is needed.

For some time now, Singaporeans have become used to the idea that marriage and parenthood can wait till after careers are firmly established. What if we exercise a choice to reset priorities, settling down as we build up careers?

First, there is the benefit of not working against the biological clock. As fertility declines with age, late-starters find it harder to conceive and often discover problems too late.

Second, as lifespans have stretched, having multiple careers in a lifetime will likely become the norm. Isn't it time to start thinking in terms of a mountain range of satisfying career peaks throughout life, rather than a single ultimate peak leading to a long continuous downhill slide thereafter?

In the era of continuous disruptions, our skills also need constant refreshing. Pausing long enough at every stage to recharge and retool will be essential.

All of this means there will never be a time when career-building is done and learning can end.

If marriage and parenthood are to feature at all, they must be priorities earlier rather than later in life. As a bonus, they also build skills useful to many aspects of life.

Such thinking can work if millennials see themselves as a new generation of pioneers, redefining how career and family aspirations are met.


They alone can't get things going, however. Employers and co-workers need to come on board.

Already, leave entitlements have been expanded considerably. Most employers are gracious providers but some show grudging acceptance. We need a fundamental shift in mindsets towards more family-friendly workplaces.

For starters, employees with caregiving roles need more flexibility.

The Ministry of Manpower thinks in terms of "the three flexis" - flexi- place, flexi-time, flexi-load.

Such flexi work arrangements should not be confined to parents only; their co-workers need them too to support other family members.

The wider community must also play their part. How easy is it for families to access public transport or breastfeeding facilities? Do restaurants and recreational facilities welcome families with family-friendly amenities? Is parenthood celebrated by our communities?

There is hope yet for the millennials. According to a 2014 report by the National Youth Council, marriage and having children were important life goals for about 80 per cent of 15-34-year-olds in Singapore.

In other words, aspirations for marriage and parenthood remain strong.

Through a whole-of-society effort, we can give millennials the confidence that marriage and parenthood are achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

We should get ready by taking bold collective actions in the three key areas of housing, pre-school services, and workplace and community support.

Together, they add up to a Singapore that's a great place for families.

The writer is Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Transport and oversees the National Population and Talent Division.


Starting a family? Get a flat first, say couples
Many prefer to live on their own before having kids, but some see benefits in living with parents
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 13 Oct 2016

It does not take much space to have sex, but it would be ideal to have their own homes to raise children, said young Singaporean couples.

That said, some who did live with their parents - and had babies - while waiting for their own homes, acknowledged that there could be benefits to such an arrangement.

They were responding to a comment by Mrs Josephine Teo, when answering an interview question on whether young people are deterred from having children earlier because they do not yet have their flats.

"You need a very small space to have sex," replied the Senior Minister of State in charge of population, suggesting that couples do not have to wait until they have their homes to begin trying for children.

In a Facebook post last night, Ms Teo said that "an honest conversation" is needed on how the society can support millennial families.

Elaborating on her comment that has since set social media alight, she said: "With such an extensive public housing programme in Singapore, 90 per cent get to own homes. So it's a matter of time.

"But if a married couple waits too long to start a family, we could end up with a house with no children to share it with."

However, in Singapore, many equate flat ownership with starting a family. An ST online poll found that of the 16,880 responses, 93 per cent said a flat should come first.

The young couples interviewed yesterday said they preferred to live on their own before having babies. Some said they want to do so to avoid possible conflict with their parents or in-laws in raising children.

Ms Chloe Tang, 27, who is getting married next month, said she and her fiance are putting plans to conceive on hold, until they have their own place. They will be living with his parents as their flat applications over the last two years were unsuccessful. "To build a family, the very first thing I will think of is to have a house. I would also want my own privacy," said the IT analyst.

Some young people said they did not mind living with their parents for the short term, although moving out would still be a priority.

Civil servant Cherie Teo, 29, said: "It's helpful to have family support in the early stages of being a new mother because it's physically tiring."

She and her husband, who have a one-year-old son, lived with their parents for about two years before moving to their executive condominium this year. "Having your own space is important - you need to learn to take care of yourself, live with your spouse - before you can really raise a child," she said.

But Mr Loi Heok Gam, 34, a church worker who married in 2013, said he agreed with the spirit of what Mrs Teo said. His wife conceived during the nine months they were living with his parents that year.

"We need a bit more faith and courage to start families. You can't always wait for everything to work out perfectly according to plan."

They later rented a flat while waiting to move to their flat in January last year as they wanted to raise their sons - now aged three and 101/2 months - on their own.

Recognising such wishes, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said last week that couples can look forward to a shorter waiting period of two to three years, from three to four years now, for Build-To-Order flats. Since 2013, 365 babies have been born to couples living in temporary public housing as they waited for their new flats to be completed. There are about 1,900 such flats now.

1 comment:

  1. Keep building flats for children to start family,

    aged but forever healthy parents...