Housing priority for parents?

Govt mulling if such a move and paternity leave could boost birth rate

In a move that is bound to stir controversy, the Government is thinking of giving couples with young children priority when they book HDB flats.

A less controversial measure to boost Singapore's declining birth rate: allowing paternity leave, or some form of it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made these announcements on Sunday when he turned to a perennial rally topic: How to arrest Singapore's total fertility rate, which was a dismal 1.2 last year.

The Government is looking at a range of measures, which take in views from a public consultation exercise ahead of the release of the White Paper on population next January.

Mr Lee noted that housing issues are now "off the boil" with more flats having been built and many more in the pipeline.

"I think that we should give some consideration to giving couples with young kids priority when they book HDB flats," he said. "Firstly it will solve their problem faster. Secondly, it may encourage them to have a kid so that the flat will come faster."

He noted how in other countries, people get married, have children, then eventually save up and buy a house. "In Singapore, it's the other way round. House first. Then you think about marriage. Then you think about kids."

As to how parents care for the baby once it arrives, he said that keeping maternity leave to 16 weeks "was about all right". The National Trades Union Congress recently proposed extending it to six months.

"You can make it longer but employers have serious worries and we should take them seriously. And I think employees have worries too," he said.

Then, with a smile, he announced: "But this idea of paternal leave in some form - either you give some to the husband or you make some of the maternity leave convertible, we have said 'no' for a very long time, but I think it's time we change."

This is "to signal the importance of the father's role and your shared responsibility for raising the children. So please use the paternity leave for the purpose it is given".

The audience applauded.

Another measure he raised was to give each newborn baby a Medisave account, which will come with a "small hongbao" to lessen the load of childhood medical expenses. More will also be done to promote work-life balance, such as encouraging flexible work arrangements and improving work culture and employers' attitudes.

Mr Lee added: "Maybe you should take seriously the idea of having one day a week when you close shop at 6 o'clock and if you are seen in the office after that, that's a minus for promotion purposes!"

More help should also be given to low- and middle-income families for childcare and infant care.

While Singapore's total fertility rate is on the downward trend, the Government "cannot give up" in its quest to encourage Singaporeans to settle down and start families, said Mr Lee.

However, not everything can be solved by the Government, he noted. It can do only so much to change workplace culture, while money alone will not encourage people to have children.

Observers and family groups hailed the move to legislate paternity leave but had reservations about giving couples with children priority for housing.

But banker Neil Yang, 29, and his teacher wife Elizabeth, 25, said the move might help young couples like themselves start families earlier.

andreao@sph.com.sg