Paternity leave: Cheers and concern

Parents, would-be parents and employers have welcomed the idea of making paternity leave compulsory - at least in principle.

They support the idea of giving new fathers time off, saying this will not only help mothers, but also send society a strong signal that fathers are responsible for taking care of the family too.

But they worry about what form this leave will take - such as whether mums will have to share their maternity leave - and how it might affect the workplace.

"The Government is no longer just throwing money at the problem. Giving fathers leave... is responding to what people actually need to have families," said Mr Yeo Puay Khoon, 35, an architect whose wife is expecting their first child.

His was a typical response from parents to some of the pro-family measures that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said would be considered.

While the list included other likely measures, such as promoting work-life balance and housing priority for couples with children, paternity leave in particular struck a chord with many.

Mothers interviewed were certainly all for the idea. Ms Chan Hui Yuh, 35, believed it would level the playing field between men and women workers.

"It takes away the stigma of maternity leave for women," said the director in a construction firm who delivered her second child last week.

Groups like the National Family Council and fathers' group Dads Amazing also cheered the prospect. Dads Amazing chairman Husain Khan Ali said: "Having the dad closely involved will go a long way towards helping the child develop in the early years."

But questions remain over how it will work in practice.

Experts, parents and family groups are asking for durations ranging from one week to two months and divided on whether it should be taken from the existing maternity leave of four months.

PM Lee had raised the possibilities in his speech, saying: "Either you give some to the husband or you make some of the maternity leave convertible."

But new mother Cheryl Lim, 29, is against the latter for fear of losing bonding time with her two-month-old infant.

But if the four months had to be shared, she said, "it might be workable only if the Government leaves it up to the husband and wife to work out together how to share the leave".

Another first-time mother, Mrs Phyllis Chng-Yee, 32, wondered whether self-employed fathers would miss out. "If the paternity leave can be extended to contract workers in some way, if they can claim the days' wages from an agency, that would be very helpful," she said.

Employers, meanwhile, are worried about the manpower shortages that compulsory paternity leave could create in smaller companies and in male-dominated industries.

The managing director of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, Ms Andrea Ross, said: "The changing of mindsets will still be the greatest challenge."

The Singapore National Employers Federation reiterated its stand that paternal leave should not be mandated and noted that many firms already gave fathers time off for their newborns.

Its executive director Koh Juan Kiat said: "Paternity leave for a short duration... is an industry practice. We would prefer that companies be incentivised to offer it to complement their other leave schemes."

Still, employers were overall supportive of the measures, observing that paternity leave can bring benefits to the company. Some suggested allowing new dads to take a few days of leave at a time - instead of a long period - to help companies adjust.

Ms Pauline Sim, human resources senior manager for offshore drilling firm Jasper Offshore, said paternity leave would ultimately make employees happier and more productive - and help bosses retain talent.

She added that in terms of hiring practices, "it will definitely make employers less likely to discriminate against women".