SINGAPORE — While Members of Parliament (MPs) welcomed a proposed law to double Government-paid paternity leave from two weeks to four weeks, several said on Monday (Sept 18) that more needs to be done to support families, such as by mandating more leave for childcare and improving work culture so as not to penalise parents who take parental leave.
The MPs were speaking during a parliamentary debate on the Child Development Co-Savings Bill (Amendment), which proposes to increase Government-Paid Paternity Leave by two weeks on a voluntary basis by employers.
It will also see unpaid Infant Care Leave doubled from the current six days per parent per 12 months to 12 days per parent per 12 months.
Thirteen MPs — including several Nominated MPs giving their maiden speech — rose to speak during a two-hour debate, with more expected to continue to do so on Tuesday.
Speaking at Monday’s debate, MP for Sembawang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Mariam Jaafar, asked: “Is it a missed opportunity to signal the will to take a firm stance by making the shift voluntary rather than mandatory?
“Is it a missed opportunity to signal an intent to work towards narrowing or closing the gap between maternity and paternity leave?”
The proposed enhancements to parental leave were first announced by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in his Budget speech in February.
He said then that the Government plans to make the additional paternity leave mandatory in due course and the voluntary introduction was to give employers more time to adjust.
The Government currently reimburses employers a maximum of S$5,000 for two weeks of paternity leave taken by their employees.
In her opening speech for the debate on the Bill on Monday, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said that increased paternity leave will allow fathers to be more involved in caring for their children from the very beginning.
“To truly make Singapore a place where all families can thrive, we need a collective, whole-of-society effort.
“Everyone has a part to play, from individuals and families to employers and communities. Let us all work together towards this common goal, and join hands to realise our vision of a Singapore Made For Families.”
SHIFT IN WORKPLACE CULTURE NEEDED
An increase in parental leave, while heartening, also carries “concerns and apprehensions” about negative performance evaluations due to extended leave-taking, says Mr Yip Hon Weng, MP for Single Member Constituency Yio Chu Kang.
“This worry is likely to persist even when employees are wholly entitled to their leave privileges,” said Mr Yip.
“How can we ensure that fathers who fully utilise that paternity leave will not face hindered career advancements or negative performance evaluations?”
Ms He Ting Ru of the Workers’ Party echoed Mr Yip’s concerns.
Even though workplaces already offer paternity leave, only 40 per cent of eligible fathers took the full two weeks, she said, quoting a Ministry of Social and Family Development’s reply to a parliamentary question in February this year.
The reason for the low uptake, she said, is “a matter of culture”.
The MP for Sengkang GRC cited factors such as pressure from employers as well as wider societal norms for fathers do not take up paternity leave.
Trust needs to be built in the workplace to make it more conducive for young parents, she added.
“The Government has a responsibility to actively ensure that employers are not punishing fathers for taking up parental leave entitlement schemes and to see what effects this is having on our efforts to promote better support for young families and aspiring parents.”
Ms Yeo Wan Ling of Pasir Ris–Punggol GRC said that the reality is that for many workers, taking time off from work is sometimes a “sticky” issue.
“Many face the dilemma of how taking more time away from work may negatively impact the impression that bosses and colleagues have of them. They may worry about their career progressions at work or even finding alternative employment if they find themselves victims of discrimination,” she added.
“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?” she asked, adding that workplace cultures and arrangements need to catch up with the proposed legislation.
6 DAYS OF CHILDCARE LEAVE ‘SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH’
Besides having more parental leave, some MPs also called for a further increase in paid childcare leave, which currently stands at six days.
For parents with two or more children, this is “simply not enough”, said Ms Jaafar.
She quoted stories of parents who have to “weave together a different patchwork of solutions often based on family-specific factors such as income, the number and age of the children, the availability of grandparents, relatives, neighbours, domestic helpers and on the nature of their work and workplace dynamics”.
She noted that some Government ministries already grant six days of childcare leave for parents with kids under 12 years old, capped at a maximum of 10 days, while NTUC grants five days of childcare leave per child, capped at 15 days.
“Yet the Government has been slow to move to legislate further enhancements to childcare leave.”
Agreeing, Mr Louis Ng of Nee Soon GRC also said that he hopes the Government can consider introducing more childcare leave.
”I wish it was part of this bill. Civil Servants already have childcare sick leave, other Singaporean families should have this too.
”If we are to be a Singapore made for families, will the Government consider providing childcare sick leave on a per-child basis for all Singaporeans?”
MORE SUPPORT NEEDED FOR OTHER PARENTS
Several MPs, while in support of the Bill, also called for more support for parents who are sometimes overlooked or are in different circumstances.
Mr Ng said one such group is single, unwed parents.
“I hope we can now provide them the cash component of the baby bonus. I know this is not part of the Bill today, but it really should be,” said Mr Ng. He emphasised that money is not a luxury but a “lifeline” for so many single, unwed parents.
In his maiden speech, NMP Ong Hua Han highlights how parents of children with disabilities face more challenges, such as an additional financial burden in raising their children.
“Assistive technology can become very expensive, very quickly,” says Mr Ong.
He cited the example of a pair of hearing aids that “offers immense benefits to children with disabilities” but cost thousands of dollars to purchase.
Even though the Assistive Technology Fund (ATF) provides subsidies for persons with disabilities (PWDs), it has a lifetime cap of S$40,000 and is subject to the applicant’s household gross monthly income per person, which can be limiting, says Mr Ong.
“For struggling parents, finding opportunities to enrich their children’s lives can be overwhelming. Some parents come from more difficult backgrounds. Some are single mothers; some just need a bit more help, some encouragement and support,” he added.
Children with disabilities need additional help from their parents. As such, policies have to be put into place to ensure parents feel supported at the workplace, said Mr Ong.
“By enhancing support, we not only ease their financial burden but also send a strong message to these parents that the Government stands with them, recognises their added challenges and is committed to ensuring that all children have an equal start to life.”