Want more babies? Let's take a brash approach

ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Current pro-women policies are designed to give women more moral and financial support to continue carrying a disproportionate part of the family burden. The problem is this: If the steps do not result in a redistribution of the childcare burden from women, women will continue to not be able to cope well. These pro-family initiatives will reinforce the mother's status as a needy special interest group, and continue the economic subjugation of the woman in the workplace.

We need to structure our incentives to change how the childcare burden is shared. Here are some brash proposals:

FORCE MEN TO STEP UP

The only viable way to lighten the load on the working mother is to forcibly redistribute the work to the father. The Government cannot mandate that the father attend school parent-teacher association meetings or take the sick child to the doctor, but it can even the burden.

In Sweden, expectant parents are collectively given 16 months' parental leave, of which three months must be taken by the father. Singaporean parents now get about four months' leave in the first year of a child's life (including maternity leave, paternity leave and childcare leave). Let's increase that to six months, of which at least two months must be taken by the father, on a "use it or lose it" basis.

By doing this, we encourage the father to be more hands-on and hope that this will set a pattern for the rest of the child's life.

Sheryl Sandberg says women need to Lean In. As a working mother, my biggest challenge is to not Keel Over. I say that it's about time our policies got men to Step Up and, if it is serious about fixing the problem, for the Government to Stump Up.

Just as importantly, we make both parents share the career sacrifice that having a child entails. This more balanced distribution will encourage a woman to have more babies and/or stay in the workforce.

PAY MOTHERS TO RETURN TO WORK

If having more babies and retaining women in the workforce are both national imperatives with economic upsides, then let's structure our financial incentives in line with this.

Instead of paid maternity leave at the mother's current salary level, she could be paid maternity leave compensation by the Government at a multiple of her salary. This additional payout would be conditional on her returning to work and remaining in employment for a certain minimum period.

By ascribing a higher economic value to a working mother, we financially recognise her twin contributions to the birth rate and to business generally.

We encourage her to return to work soon, and increase the financial incentives for the father to take on more responsibility in the home. If the couple have comparable earning power, this will tip the scales towards a more equitable distribution of the economic burden.

HAVE WORLD-CLASS SUBSIDISED CHILDCARE

The father taking on the childcare burden is not enough. If it was only a matter of having an adult around to make sure the child did not hurt itself, our domestic worker population would take care of that. Parents in First World Singapore want to know that our children are getting the gold class in early education, in structures where we can spend pockets of time with them.

We need to invest heavily in upgraded childcare facilities that are centres of excellence in early learning, not glorified babysitters.

These centres should be accessible (perhaps near the workplace for lunchtime "pop-ins"), affordable (so the Government will need to heavily subsidise this) and must be open until late, so that career women have the flexibility of collecting their children after official working hours.

Yes, this will cost money and will be a huge logistics exercise, but that is something our country is very good at. And if the concern about the low birth rate and women leaving the workforce is essentially over the economic cost, then surely we should spend money to make money.

Sheryl Sandberg says women need to Lean In. As a working mother, my biggest challenge is to not Keel Over. I say that it's about time our policies got men to Step Up and, if it is serious about fixing the problem, for the Government to Stump Up.

• Stefanie Yuen Thio is joint managing director of TSMP Law Corporation. This article appeared first in the law firm's newsletter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Want more babies? Let's take a brash approach'. Print Edition | Subscribe