Build support networks for young parents: Josephine Teo

Ms Josephine Teo (centre), Senior Minister of State at the Prime Minister's Office, carrying the first 2016 baby, Khairy Rusyaidy (left) and the last SG50 baby, Ansley Soong (right) at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) on Jan 1, 2016.
Ms Josephine Teo (centre), Senior Minister of State at the Prime Minister's Office, carrying the first 2016 baby, Khairy Rusyaidy (left) and the last SG50 baby, Ansley Soong (right) at Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) on Jan 1, 2016. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

This is Govt's new focus in birth push as it seeks increase in childcare spots, explores no-pay leave in child's first year

Fifteen years after the Baby Bonus scheme was introduced to encourage Singaporeans to have children, the Government is shifting its focus.

It is, for now, putting on hold further increases in incentives such as the baby bonus and leave benefits.

Instead, the spotlight will be on building up support networks to help young parents, said Mrs Josephine Teo, the Government's point person on population issues.

For instance, it hopes to increase the number of childcare spots from the current one for every two children, to two for every three.

She also revealed the civil service - Singapore's biggest employer - is taking the lead in exploring giving parents the right to ask for no-pay leave during, say, a child's first year. The hope is the private sector can be nudged in this direction as well.

 

Mrs Teo was speaking to The Straits Times in an interview two months after the term "millennials" made its appearance in a National Day Rally. In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said more will be done to help this segment of Singaporeans - aged between 16 and early 30s - form families. They number nearly a million.

Said Mr Lee then: "Singapore must be a place where millennials can chase their dreams - not just in their careers, but also in families, which add meaning to our lives."

The change in focus from monetary incentives to a support network is what millennials want, said Mrs Teo. "That is the direction and that seems to be what the young people are telling us too," she said.

She added that the 15-year-old Marriage and Parenthood package "probably" already has most of the benefits it can have. Last August, it was enhanced: The baby bonus cash gift was increased by $2,000 and the Medisave grant for newborns by $1,000. An extra week of paternity leave was also introduced.

Such measures, said Mrs Teo, had helped reverse Singapore's decline in the total fertility rate. It tumbled to a historic low of 1.15 in 2010. Last year, it inched back up to 1.24, though still well below the 2.1 needed for a population to replace itself.

When it comes to things like leave entitlements, "I think we have done quite a lot and we're probably going to take pause now", she said.

Mrs Teo, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Transport, Foreign Affairs and in the Prime Minister's Office, took over the population portfolio last October.

She has since spoken to a slew of young Singaporeans and a key piece of feedback is the need for more childcare places. "At this point in time, we are probably still some distance away (in meeting the demand), even though the childcare sector has expanded so much."

Another is for employers to be more flexible in offering work arrangements. "One part that is still a bit tough for them is in the first year of the newborn's life," she said.

A mother gets 16 weeks of maternity leave. She also gets six days of childcare leave and six more days of unpaid infant care leave a year. Even if she uses them all, they add up to only about 41/2 months of leave.

Infant care is available from two months onwards, but most parents may not be comfortable leaving their newborns in centres at such a young age, noted Mrs Teo.

"So the question is, how do we address this gap?" she said.

The civil service, she revealed, will look at providing other leave provisions such as no-pay leave during this gap period. However, Mrs Teo said Singapore may not be ready to legislate the right to ask for flexible work arrangements, as in the case of countries such as Britain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Build support networks for young parents'. Print Edition | Subscribe