GOVERNMENT'S BABY BOOSTERS

Package sends pro-family, gender-equal message: Experts

THE enhanced Marriage and Parenthood package goes beyond financial incentives to send a social message, said observers and experts yesterday as they cheered the measures.

To them, the message is this: the Government prizes a pro-family and gender-equal environment as much as it does a competitive, business-friendly climate.

"The immediate intent of the policies was to make it easier for people to get married and have kids," said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

"But the second intent was to set the ideological tone, to say very boldly that the Government stands behind family formation."

"Compared to 2008, the measures are much bolder," said National Family Council chairman Lim Soon Hock, referring to the last time the Marriage and Parenthood package was revamped.

"It is more than financial incentives now, it's also trying to create a supportive and convenient work environment for parents."

The week of government- funded paternity leave, plus the ability for women to share one week of their maternity leave with their husbands, sends a powerful message, said Ms Anita Fam, chairman of Marriage Central's advisory board.

"It's a recognition that parenting is a shared role."

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary- general Cham Hui Fong saw the entrenchment of paternity and parental leave as "a significant milestone in promoting work-life harmony in working families", and one that recognised fathers' roles as primary caregivers.

Ms Helen Lim-Yang, board member of voluntary welfare organisation I Love Children (ILC), welcomed the provision of two days of child-care leave for parents of children aged seven to 12.

Previously, only parents of children below seven years old were eligible for child-care leave.

This is a "long-term approach" which will encourage young couples, she said.

"Handouts help a couple initially with a newborn. With this, couples thinking of starting a family can see that, yes, there is help all the way down the road."

But there were areas where observers wished that the Government had dared to go.

Ms Cham said the NTUC wants to see the right of parents to ask for flexi-work arrangements, especially if they have children with special needs, to be entrenched in guidelines if not written into law.

The National Family Council's Mr Lim said that the measures to meet the housing needs of couples with young children did not get to the nub of the problem.

Such couples can now rent affordable flats from the Housing Board while waiting for a new flat to be built.

"This helps only those who already have kids," he noted. "But couples actually don't start families because they don't have access to public housing."

Allowing young couples who have not yet had children to rent flats as well would help, he said.

rchang@sph.com.sg