Parliament recently passed an amendment to the Child Development Co-Savings Act, doubling government-paid paternity leave to four weeks for fathers of Singaporean children born from Jan 1 next year
International studies, including those conducted in Singapore, have found positive effects of adequate paternity leave, including longer-term benefits for marital satisfaction and father-child closeness
Experts interviewed also say that increasing paternity leave is essential for reducing maternal stress and promoting gender equality in child-rearing responsibilities
However, some fathers TODAY spoke to expressed the need for a more pronounced change in workplace culture to reduce the stigma against taking paternity leave
Beyond the workplace, there is also a need for society to rethink traditional gender roles where fathers are seen as the breadwinners while mothers are expected to put family first and careers second
SINGAPORE— A mug of coffee in one hand, and a warmed milk bottle in the other to feed his newborn son as the morning news hummed on the television — this was Mr Khai Asyraf’s treasured routine during his two-week paternity leave in 2021.
The 37-year-old managing director recalled his time with his son Khalif: “He’s having his milk, I’m having my breakfast, and we’re watching the news together — just the two of us. That moment is pretty significant to me, a fresh start to the day, and that’s my moment with my son.”
Like Mr Khai, Mr Grover — also a newly-minted father — cherished the times he was there to see his two-month-old baby daughter smile, play with her hands and see the world around her. The 35-year-old sales manager, who declined to give his full name, said he would have missed these “precious” milestones and moments if not for his paternity leave.
The issue of paternity leave — which was first introduced in Singapore a decade ago — came under the spotlight again recently when Parliament passed an amendment to the Child Development Co-Savings Act on Sept 19. The change will see government-paid paternity leave double from two to four weeks for fathers of Singaporean children born from Jan 1 next year. The additional two weeks are to be given on a voluntary basis by employers.
The amendment seeks to allow fathers to be more involved in caring for their children from the very beginning.
Paternity leave in Singapore was institutionalised in 2013 under the Act amid a rise in dual-career married couples and declining birth rates. At the beginning, working fathers were given one week of government-paid paternity leave. In 2017, this was increased to two weeks.
Prior to the amendments to the Act earlier in September, the Government reimbursed employers a maximum of S$5,000 for two weeks of paternity leave taken by their employees. The enhancements will double the reimbursement limits for employers.
Back in 2012, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first broached the idea during that year’s National Day Rally, he said that paternity leave was to encourage couples to have more children and allow fathers to participate more actively in the family. “It’s necessary to signal the importance of the father’s role and shared responsibility in raising children,” Mr Lee said.
For Mr Grover, apart from strengthening marital ties, those two weeks of paternity leave served as “building blocks” for his relationship with his two-month-old daughter and were crucial in his fatherhood journey.
“It’s definitely important, I can’t imagine coming in at five years old and parenting when your kid has already gone through so many milestones that you missed,” he said.
Welcoming the news of more government-paid paternity leave, he noted that two weeks were “not enough”. His wife added the enhancement sends the right message to fathers and can encourage them to get more involved.
“Fathers will also have the impression that, okay, I need to step up more to be there for my wife and not just bring home the bacon. Also, physically getting up and doing more practical stuff to support (their wives), as compared to our parents’ generation where fathers were quite hands-off,” she said.
KNOCK-ON EFFECTS OF PATERNITY LEAVE
Increasing paternity leave in Singapore is “well-warranted” as it allows fathers to be thoroughly engaged in child-rearing, sociologists and psychologists who specialise in parenting and childhood told TODAY.
“The paternity leave will enable new fathers to play a more active role in actual caregiving. It also sends a clear signal from the State that greater paternal involvement is encouraged,” said Assistant Professor Cheung Hoi Shan from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
“This is crucial in helping families strike a good balance when it comes to care work in the home, especially in our predominantly patriarchal society where women’s participation in the labour force is also high,” she added.
Asst Prof Cheung is from the Psychology and Child & Human Development department at the National Institute of Education, where she studies parenting practices and their influence on children’s social development.
Assistant Professor Gerard Chung from the National University of Singapore (NUS), whose work centres on parenting, fathers and family services in the community, said the increase in paternity leave “empowers fathers” to more effectively organise their responsibilities in taking care of their spouse and helping out around the house during the baby’s first month.
When fathers feel empowered and mothers are supported, there is a reduced risk of poor maternal mental health, including depressive symptoms, psychological distress and burnout, according to some international studies.
Mothers are already likely to take on more responsibilities, regardless of whether they have a full-time job outside of the home because they are perceived to be the “natural” caregiver, she added.
On their part, fathers may also feel equally torn by expectations that they must prioritise their careers, even though they may, in fact, want to focus more on their family and children.
“The truth is that no one is a born caregiver — fathers and mothers are just as likely to be good caregivers for their children,” said Asst Prof Cheung.
‘THERE’S NO HANDBOOK’
Fatherhood, for all its joys and excitement, also brings with it a steep learning curve. While Mr Khai equipped himself with books on parenting and fatherhood, there was nothing to prepare him for juggling a newborn and a recovering wife.
“It’s very theoretical at the beginning, but when you get into it and you layer it with sleep deprivation, then things start to descend into absolute chaos,” he said. “It was pretty challenging because I was trying to manage (the household) on top of working full-time, and then trying to get into this new role.”
He added: “There’s no handbook that can actually tell you step by step what exactly you need to do.”
Mr Joshua Lee and Mr Wong — both fathers four times over — also told TODAY that the birth of each child produced a different set of challenges each time. For Mr Lee, the first few months after the birth of his fourth child last year was a “whirlwind” since it had been eight years since he was last on baby night duty.
A LACK OF EMPATHY AT WORK FOR FATHERS
Besides the stress of caring for a newborn, the pressures of work constantly loom in the background for fathers. Such challenges were highlighted during the parliamentary debate on the Child Development Co-Savings Bill (Amendment) on Sept 18, where MPs welcomed the addition of two weeks to paternity leave but also spoke about how fathers face stigma at work.
“How many times has the office congratulated a co-worker on the birth of their child but also, in the same breath, complained about how much more productive they need to be as they cover their colleagues’ work while they are away on leave?” Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency) asked.
For Mr Grover, what was supposed to be a straightforward process of requesting paternity leave escalated to talks with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before he could take time off from work.
Initially, Mr Grover was not granted his paternity leave; his manager said he could work from home instead of taking his entitled two weeks’ break, and did not offer a cover for him.
“I think that was a bit distasteful,” said Mr Grover, who had to seek MOM’s help to negotiate his paternity leave. While the matter was resolved eventually and he was given paternity leave, he still felt “uneasy” with how the situation “was going to be viewed” by his manager and colleagues.
While Mr Grover was on paternity leave, his work was spread among his colleagues. When he got back to work, he could tell his colleagues — most of whom do not have children — felt “bitter” about him taking paternity leave and gave him the “cold shoulder”.
Empathy in the workplace reduces “ambiguity” when it comes to taking paternity leave, said Mr Khai. Even though he had a close working relationship with his boss, he was glad that his boss was having a child of his own, too.