The big push for more babies

New package of measures will raise yearly spending to $2b

SINGAPORE is banking on a wide range of meaures to persuade citizens to marry and start families. These are targeted at working couples, those who already have children but do not have homes yet, as well as those struggling to conceive.

There are bigger baby bonuses, new health-care coverage for babies, subsidies for fertility treatments and paternity leave to encourage fathers to play a bigger part in raising their babies.

The package announced yesterday will see government spending on pro-family measures rise from $1.6 billion a year to $2 billion.

And there is more to come: measures to address parents' concerns about the availability, quality and cost of child care will be announced tomorrow.

Singaporeans have not been replacing themselves since 1975 and the total fertility rate (TFR) has plunged to 1.2 in 2011, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

With the raft of new measures, the Government hopes to see the TFR rise to 1.4 or 1.5. That would boost the average of 36,000 babies born each year by another 6,000 to 9,000 annually.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who oversees population matters, said at a press conference yesterday: "It's not really the amount of money that's important (but) the kind of signals we're sending, the kind of help and support we're giving families."

The new measures address couples' practical concerns in five areas: housing; conception and delivery fees; the cost of raising children; work-life concerns; and paternity leave. And they are targeted at specific groups.

The housing measures, for example, help couples who have gone ahead and started families before getting their flats. Now, they will get priority for the HDB's Build-to-Order and Sale of Balance flats, and can rent flats from the HDB at discounted rates while waiting for their flats to be ready.

The baby bonus cash gift goes up by $2,000 to $6,000 for the first two births and $8,000 for the third and fourth births.

All newborns will receive a $3,000 Central Provident Fund Medisave grant for health-care needs, and from March 1, the MediShield scheme will cover neonatal and congenital defects.

Couples with problems conceiving will receive higher subsidies for fertility treatments, even if they already have one child.

To help working couples balance the demands of job and family, parents of children aged seven to 12 will each get two days' childcare leave. Such leave is now available only to those with younger children under seven years old.

There are new maternity benefits for women employed on a contract basis. And pregnant working women will be protected from retrenchment and unfair dismissal throughout their pregnancy.

From May 1, fathers will get one week of government-paid paternity leave and, if they wish, they can also take a week of their wives' paid maternity leave.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said Singaporeans want to marry and start families but have other priorities such as jobs and financial stability.

"Part of the goal of the Government is to try to put marriage and parenthood back up on the list, to stress that it's not something that you can wait for for too long, because there's always a sweet spot for doing this, for getting married, getting to know people," she said.

jcheam@sph.com.sg