Why It Matters

A level field for all mums

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'A level field for all mums'. Print Edition | Subscribe