Saturday, 12 November 2016

Two weeks paternity leave from January 2017; unwed mums to get 16-week maternity leave

By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

Fathers of newborns will have paternity leave doubled to two weeks from Jan 1 next year.

All women will also be entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave - whether they are married or not.

Parliament yesterday passed changes to the Child Development Co-Savings Act that Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said "further support parents in caring for and bonding with their children".

Mothers with adopted children will also get more paid leave from July next year - 12 weeks of adoption leave, up from four now.

Mothers will have the option of sharing up to four weeks of maternity leave with their husbands from next July, from just one week now.

"The combined enhancements to paternity leave and shared parental leave mean a father can take a maximum of eight weeks' leave in his baby's first year - two weeks of paid paternity leave, four weeks of paid shared parental leave if his wife so elects to share, six days of paid childcare leave and one week of unpaid infant care leave," Mr Tan said.

These "support fathers in experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood with their wives".

He urged parents to take advantage of the leave: "Mothers usually are there but fathers need to be there as well. This is something we can encourage and support, but ultimately the individual parents must make those choices."

All nine MPs who spoke welcomed the changes, but asked if more could be done for unwed mums. Still, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) called the extension of maternity leave "a baby step in the right direction".

Firms welcomed the pro-family steps, but some felt they could be a stretch on their manpower.

MPs welcome new pro-family measures
Main moves: giving unwed mums same maternity leave as married mothers, longer paternity leave
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

MPs, including opposition members, voiced support for the pro-family changes to the law yesterday, with the two main moves being equalising maternity leave for unwed mothers and the doubling of paternity leave.

From January next year, unwed mothers will get 16 weeks of maternity leave - the same as their married counterparts - and fathers will have two weeks of paternity leave.

In July next year, two other changes will take effect - mothers can share up to four weeks of their maternity leave with their husbands, an increase from one week, while adoptive mothers will get their adoption leave tripled to 12 weeks.

All nine MPs who spoke on the amendments to the Child Development Co-Savings Act welcomed the new moves that will let parents, as Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said, "spend both quantity and quality time with our families".

"We are not just breadwinners, but we are role models for our children. We need to be active and present in our children's lives, especially during a child's formative years," he said.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), a champion of unwed mothers, called the extension of full maternity leave to unwed mothers "a baby step in the right direction".

But he added: "Still, I wonder if more can be done for this group of single unwed mothers... like entitling them to receive the $8,000 Baby Bonus cash gift, and allowing them to rent, or even better, own a roof over their heads."

His call was echoed by Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, with some asking for unwed mothers to also receive tax relief.

Mr Choo said: "The money saved (in taxes) could go towards the needs of the child."

Associate Professor Goh said the Government ought to let unwed mothers and their children be taken as a family nucleus. "The ministry must be aware of the housing problems faced by... unwed single parents with young children."

Mr Tan said unwed mothers and their children do have options. Those older than 35 qualify for the singles scheme and younger ones can buy flats with their parents.

"On a case-by-case basis, HDB also exercises flexibility to help divorced parents and single unwed parents buy a flat within their means, or to provide rental housing to those with no other housing options or family support," he added.

As for the Baby Bonus and tax relief, the minister said the Government believes in parenthood within marriages, hence certain measures are only for married couples.

He reiterated that many benefits are available to children regardless of their parents' marital status. "These are education and healthcare benefits, including the Medisave grant for newborns, and infant and childcare subsidies."

There are no figures on the total number of unwed mothers in Singapore, but last year, 345 children were born to unwed mothers.

In 2014, these babies totalled 375 while the number was 415 in 2013.

Several MPs noted the low take-up rate of paid paternity leave since it began in 2013. The rate was 38 per cent in 2014, and 42 per cent last year. "More needs to be done to help young fathers overcome mindset and workplace constraints to improve the consumption rate," said Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC).

Mr Choo asked if the Government could study whether it was due to a lack of support from employers, "especially smaller companies which might genuinely face operational constraints".

The minister said the 4 percentage point increase was "not bad" and the Government was still tabulating last year's take-up rate.

He also said his ministry will see if it can study the constraints faced by firms and fathers when it comes to paternity and shared parental leave. Shared parental leave was introduced in 2013 and as of August this year, 4,000 fathers have taken it.

Firms back longer paternity leave for dads
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

Companies said they support the new pro-family law that will double the paternity leave for fathers to two weeks, starting from January next year.

While it will be a burden on many small and medium-sized enterprises, the larger businesses said the extra week is manageable.

Said Mr Max Loh, Asean and Singapore managing partner of professional services company EY: "How different is it from reservist duties where the men get called away for three to four weeks? You just have to deal with it."

Bigger companies like United Overseas Bank already give fathers two weeks of paternity leave. The bank introduced it last year.

But small firms, while supportive of families, will find it an uphill task, said Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises: "We have to be sensitive to their manpower and cost predicaments. Companies in Singapore are not going through a very good time at this point."

Businesses were also in favour of unwed mothers getting 16 weeks of maternity, equal to that of married mothers. Mr Ricardo Sentosa, founder of start-up Veneurific, said it was "only fair" they get it while start-up MyDoc viewed it as "an upgrade to our team's benefits".

Added Mr Wee: "Businesses should not be discriminatory about whether a mother is wed or not."

Welcome shift in tone as unwed mums are treated with empathy
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Nov 2016

When Parliament yesterday passed a Bill that gives unmarried mothers 16 weeks of paid maternity leave - equal to what married mothers receive - it marked a significant shift in government policy.

The debate on the Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment No. 2) Bill was also marked by another notable shift - in tone.

In previous parliamentary debates on the issue of unwed mothers, office-holders - and sometimes even MPs - often struck a judgmental or cautionary note.

In contrast, the mood yesterday was one of warmth and inclusivity, even as Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin noted that the Government ultimately encourages parenthood within marriage.

This has been the Government's consistent stance. But it used to be expressed much more harshly.

Just over a decade ago, in 2004, then-Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan spoke of how the state should not step in when fathers are absent and there is a "breakdown in the sense of responsibility".

"We recognise that there are needs and we will do our best to help them, but (unwed mothers) cannot be pegged at the same level as women who are married, or who were previously married and are now divorced, or are widowed through no fault of their own," he said.

A year later, replying to then- Non-Constituency MP Steve Chia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Government should not "be encouraging women to make single parenthood a lifestyle choice".

Just last year, then-Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing framed the question as one of competing objectives: supporting single unwed mothers versus supporting parenthood in the context of marriage. His emphasis on how "the child is innocent" evoked - whether intentionally or not - the rhetoric of bad behaviour.

Even MPs urging support for single parents previously used such rhetoric.

In 2011, Dr Lam Pin Min, then an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, first noted how the Government did not want to encourage "the growth of 'undesired' alternative households and the erosion of Asian values" before launching into a plea to help single parents who face pressure and "discriminatory government policies".

In contrast, both Minister Tan and MPs yesterday framed the issue in more compassionate ways.

There was no rhetoric of crime and punishment, or of the dangers of encouraging single parenthood.

In his opening speech, Mr Tan ran through the changes - announced in this year's Budget debate - in simple, non-judgmental language.

In the ensuing debate, MPs did not frame such support as a last-resort measure to save an "innocent" child from parental sins. Instead, they spoke about equality and inclusiveness.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) appealed for compassion not just for the child, but for the single mother as well: "Imagine the stress of a pregnant, unwed mother having to deal with basic housing issues on her own, in an undignified manner, and not able to feel a sense of security nor provide a secure environment to her child once he or she is born."

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) spoke of how unwed mothers and single fathers make brave decisions, choosing to keep and raise their child despite the difficulties.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) framed it in terms of levelling the playing field for unwed parents and mentioned "the struggles they face and the risks they are exposed to".

Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) hailed the "big move towards greater inclusiveness".

And all four called for more to be done to help single parents, from making them eligible for the Baby Bonus cash payout, to letting them form a family nucleus with their child to buy subsidised HDB flats.

Mr Tan rejected the suggestions. But he did so in a gentler tone than his predecessors. "I think it is... important to understand that we continue to believe in the importance of the family institution. We encourage married couples to have children," he said.

This is why measures like the Baby Bonus are targeted at married parents, he added. "However, as mentioned earlier, for unwed parents, there are also various ways in which we can support them."

He did not pit the well-being of unwed mothers against the Government's priority of parenthood within marriage, nor imply a fundamental inequality between married and unmarried parents.

Such a reply may not satisfy those who want more to be done. Still, it is a step forward.

As Singapore strives to be a more inclusive society, such advances in both policy and rhetoric are to be welcomed.

A level field for all mums
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2016

From Jan 1 , all mothers will get 16 weeks of maternity leave, whether they are married or not.

The policy change means all unmarried mothers will no longer be half as deserving of time off to care for their newborns as their married counterparts.

Before the law was amended, women with children out of wedlock were entitled to just eight weeks of paid maternity leave. The numbers of unwed mothers are not high - just 345 babies were born to single mothers last year and 375 in 2014.

Still, this change signals that the child of an unwed mother is as valuable to Singapore as the child of a happily married couple. This newborn can have the same amount of his or her mother's time.

As Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament, which approved the changes to the law last Thursday: "Our children will not be babies forever." It is key, in those formative years, for parents - married or not - to have time off work to bond with their children.

Other benefits have been equalised in recent years: Unwed mothers were given infant care and childcare leave in 2013, and this year the Child Development Account, which helps pay for childcare and healthcare needs, was extended to their children.

Maternity leave remained the key area with unequal benefits, and it was heartening to see all nine MPs who spoke in Parliament back this inclusive move.

The House also approved the extension of paternity leave for married fathers to two weeks, up from the current one week, from Jan 1.

This one week of paternity leave was introduced in 2013, but only 38 per cent of eligible fathers made use of this in 2014, and just 42 per cent did so last year. This low take-up rate bears looking into: Are companies unsupportive, or do these fathers not see childcare within their ambit?

As Mr Tan said: "Mothers usually are there, but fathers need to be there as well." Hopefully, more Singaporean fathers will take the opportunity to be present in their newborns' first months too.

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