The socio-moral dilemma of shaping policies relating to single, unwed mothers stems from conflicting views about what forms of parenthood deserve state support. Against anxiety over the possible weakening of the traditional family unit - comprising a married couple and children born in wedlock - is the concern that kids from fragile households headed by an unmarried woman will be trapped in a cycle of poverty. Many feel the plight of such single parents is one of their own making as only legally married parents should have children, according to eight in 10 people surveyed in 2012 by the National Population and Talent Division. Similar sentiments were voiced in the United States two decades ago by former Vice-President Dan Quayle when he criticised the popular TV character of Murphy Brown for deciding to have a child outside of marriage: "Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong."
That notion still holds sway among a proportion of Americans who believe state support will encourage more people to expect the main responsibilities of parenting to be socialised. However, in places like Israel where all births are valued and in Scandinavian nations where there is greater acceptance of single mothers, more support is made available to unwed mothers. That does not imply a rejection of the belief marriage offers the best environment for raising children. Rather, there's an attempt to separate social needs from social norms. The former arises from actual harm (such as the hardship faced by non-mainstream families), while the latter guards against potential harm (by, say, promoting family values and teen-pregnancy prevention efforts in schools).
Singapore's approach is pragmatic in extending a helping hand for the care and development of all children, regardless of the mother's marital status. A single mother is entitled to maternity leave of eight weeks, childcare leave, foreign domestic worker levy concession, centre-based infant and childcare subsidies, and education subsidies for her children. Is there more that ought to be done? For example, could the Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, maternity leave of 16 weeks, tax perks, and housing grant and priority - or some variation of these - be given to them too? It is encouraging to note this is being reviewed by the Social and Family Development Ministry.
The best interests of children ought to be the central focus of all family policies. Of course, promoting marriage should be where this begins. But where this is not possible, support for children should be guided by that key tenet of Singapore's education system that insists that every child matters. Naturally, this should apply to children born out of wedlock as well. They too are precious, especially to a nation that celebrates all births, against persistent anxieties over low birth rates.