The View From Asia

Building better societies

Parental leave would improve prospects for families with children, says a commentator in China Daily, while another in The Korea Herald muses on the merits of age-old South Korean beliefs as times change. Here are excerpts from two papers that are members of The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network.

Social importance of parental leave

Pia Schober

China Daily, China

One of the biggest policy reforms that will fundamentally change Chinese people's lives is the universal two-child policy that has been in effect since Jan 1 this year.

Parental leave policies which encourage greater fathers' involvement in childcare and domestic work may facilitate having a second child in several ways.

Firstly, several studies from Britain, Sweden, Hungary and Italy suggest that a more gender-equal division of domestic work may facilitate having a second child for couples.

One of my studies of British couples finds a positive relationship between fathers' involvement in domestic work and a faster transition to a second birth among double-earning couples but not among couples where mothers do not work.

Secondly, in terms of family harmony, several studies point to consequences for the quality of mother-father relationship and the likelihood of a breakdown in the relationship. Two specific studies on British couples with young children show that fathers' greater involvement in childcare is associated with greater relationship quality between partners and lower risk of separation.

A parent prays for students sitting the annual college entrance exams at the Jogye Buddhist temple in Seoul last November. Koreans believe that high exam scores will decide their fates and future. Hence, there is tremendous pressure on students to score well in such exams. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Thirdly, fathers' involvement in childcare may have positive effects on child well-being, especially when it offers children interactions that are different from what mothers provide.

A recent Norwegian study used a quasi-experiment of a four-week paternal leave quota in 1993 to identify the causal effects of fathers' greater involvement in childcare for children's cognitive outcomes. It found that children's school performance at the age of 16 improved if the fathers were more highly educated than the mothers.

Some studies suggest that by taking at least several weeks of leave to look after their newborn children, fathers develop a better understanding of their wards' needs and greater respect for domestic work.

Ideally, fathers should take extra leave after mothers return to work so that they can shoulder the main responsibility of childcare. Generally speaking, the 98-day leave for mothers and one week of leave for fathers is relatively short compared to most European countries. If the maternal leave entitlement is not even partly transferable to fathers, then they cannot be more involved in childcare even in families, where, for instance, the women earn higher wages than men and would want to return to work sooner.

There is not enough evidence to conclude whether leave arrangements have different consequences for the first, second and third childbirth. One may argue that the first transition to parenthood requires more changes and learning of new skills and, therefore, warrants longer leave, but the workload is much higher after the second or third child is born. So it is not clear after which child parents require more or less leave.

The cost of granting parental leave for mothers and fathers should be borne in part, if not in full, by the government, because, otherwise, some employers may start discriminating against employees of childbearing age and force them not to take the leave.

Three strange phenomena of Korea

Kim Seong-kon

The Korea Herald, South Korea

I often get to meet people from various other countries and hear their impression of Korea. I have noticed they find three things in Korea especially hard to understand. One is Koreans' perceived strong sense of equality and the other two are Korea's social system and indifference to crisis.

According to newspaper reports, Incheon International Airport has been named the Best Airport Worldwide each year since 2005. Hearing the news, foreign tourists agree, saying: "It's an excellent airport, for sure."

However, they often complain about the same thing: "How come there are no fast tracks at Incheon Airport?"

Indeed, international airports in other countries almost always have fast tracks for those with top-class tickets.

Airports in South-east Asian countries even lay out red carpets on their fast tracks for high-spending passengers.

However, that is not the case in Korea. Koreans think everybody is equal and thus everybody should be treated accordingly. Koreans seem to think it would be unfair to provide special treatment to higher-class passengers.

But foreigners would ask: "Isn't South Korea a capitalist country?"

In fact, I once heard a foreign passenger complaining: "In a capitalist country, you can buy fast service and convenience. It is neither an unfair privilege nor bribery. It is a given right which is fair and square."

However, many Koreans would not agree with them. They would think that something is fundamentally wrong and unfair with privileged tracks at the airport. Then they would blame their society and government for the seemingly unfair phenomenon.

Of course, not all people in Korea would think that way, and yet, it is undeniable that quite a few Koreans would display hostility towards the privileged people, masking it under the umbrella of "social justice".

The second weird thing for foreign observers is that Koreans are preoccupied with exams because they think high exam scores will decide their fates and future.

If you fail at the college entrance exam, for example, you will become a failure in Korean society.

That is why you should start early to prepare for the college entrance exam - even from elementary school. It is no wonder then that the purpose of education in Korea is to train students to get high scores on entrance exams, not nurture students to become decent, cultured human beings.

In Korea, students are allowed to take the college entrance exam only once a year. But what if you were to catch a severe cold and thus suffer a headache, a runny nose or a coughing fit on the day of the exam? Just like that, your life is ruined forever. This is surely absurd and unfair, and yet we have neither a remedy for this chronic disease nor an intention to cure it.

Meanwhile, we just helplessly watch our youngsters wither under the tremendous pressure of exams.

In the Joseon era, the national exam called "Gwageo" was the only way to climb up the ladder of social ascension. Thus people bet everything on it. The tradition still persists in Korean society even in the 21st century. If you pass the Bar exam, the high-ranking government officials' exam or the diplomats' exam, your future is guaranteed. If you fail the exams, you will end up being a complete loser.

In the eyes of some from abroad, the third enigma is that few Koreans wear masks even when the peninsula is covered in dust and smog. Koreans do not seem to care about anything, including the extremely hazardous yellow dust coming from China, despite the possibility of developing lung cancer or other ailments.

Both Chinese and Japanese people wear masks as a precaution in smoggy weather. Only Koreans think it looks bad to wear a dust mask, hopelessly confusing bravery with bravado. Outside views on Korea are often enlightening and illuminating, and we should pay heed to them.

•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Building better societies'. Print Edition | Subscribe