SINGAPORE - As Singapore struggles to nudge its fertility rate upwards, the minister in charge of the issue feels strongly about doing more on two fronts - flexible work arrangements and fertility health.
Giving more help to families in these areas, in addition to the cash incentives already available, would create a more holistic framework of support that might encourage more couples to have children, Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said in an hour-long interview.
While not new, flexible work arrangements that include working from home took off during the pandemic and are being heralded as the new normal for employers and workers in a post-Covid-19 world.
Ms Indranee, who took over the National Population and Talent Division portfolio from now Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo in July last year, said such hybrid arrangements have been beneficial for Singaporean families.
Many couples who took part in a recent series of dialogues said such arrangements have allowed them more family time.
Fathers, especially, said they were able to be more present in their children's early years than they would have in the past.
Ms Indranee called for different working norms where family is the focus, especially as flexibility is increasingly important to the younger generation.
"Given that it is not money alone, then if you are just putting more and more money into it, you may not necessarily get the outcome that you want," she said.
Ms Indranee said there were no plans as yet to give incentives to employers to build in more flexible work arrangements, but noted: "The best impetus is really if the companies themselves understand that it is in their best interest (to do so)."
She added: "The question is how do you design workplaces around family without actually sacrificing productivity? My own sense is that it is those companies which can get this right - the ones who have good human resource practices and who are family-centric - that will probably have the highest productivity, employee retention, and ability to attract and recruit."
Civil society groups here have made a strong call for flexible work arrangements to become the norm, with the Association of Women for Action and Research proposing the Government adopt legislation that makes requesting such arrangements a right for all employees.
Ms Indranee and Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling co-led seven dialogues with members of the public on building a nation supportive of families between April and July this year. The sessions come as Singapore's total fertility rate dropped to its lowest - 1.1 - last year, amid the pandemic.
On fertility health, Ms Indranee said a number of women at the conversations were keen to have children but had not found partners yet and were worried that they would have a harder time conceiving a child as they got older.
She noted that some had suggested allowing social egg freezing, and that the Ministry of Social and Family Development was looking into it.
For those who are married but possibly deferring their plans for children, Ms Indranee noted that doctors are encouraging those who wanted to have children to have fertility checks earlier, which is also an area the Government is studying.
"Some attention has to be paid to going upstream to looking at fertility health earlier rather than waiting until such time that it is much more difficult to address," she said.
There is a need to do away with the stigma associated with fertility health issues, she added.
She said: "Some explained how it was difficult for them to take leave, people would say, 'But you are not sick, why do you need to take an MC', and some were just embarrassed to say that they needed to go for fertility treatment.
"If it is difficult to conceive, then we must do what we can, see how we can help with this."