SINGAPORE - Several MPs called on Tuesday (April 5) for the Government to provide more parental leave, and for a more equal split of leave between mothers and fathers.
Workers' Party (WP) MP Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) urged the Government to adopt a shared parental care leave scheme that would entitle parents to a total of 24 weeks of government-paid leave, in lieu of the current 16-week maternity and two-week paternity leave entitlements.
The proposal, which is in WP's manifesto, will result in a more equitable distribution of statutory parental leave and help reshape societal perceptions about gender roles and stereotypes, said Mr Chua, who was speaking in Parliament during the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development.
Mr Chua said the WP's proposal would see mothers and fathers share the 24 weeks of government-paid leave as they choose, but with a minimum of four weeks to be granted to the father and 12 weeks to the mother.
As an incentive, an additional bonus number of weeks could be awarded to the shared pool if fathers use the full four weeks of parental leave they are entitled to, he added.
"The hope is that over time, these increased entitlements become entrenched as social norms - as has happened in countries like Germany - as more parents utilise their full entitlement, initially to benefit from the bonuses, and over time because it is simply the thing to do," said Mr Chua.
"These new social norms will encourage fathers to spend more time with their children and take on a greater role in the child's development, take on their fair share of household chores, and lead to an overall uplift in our society's perception of gender roles."
Fellow Sengkang MP Associate Professor Jamus Lim said that having a minimum number of weeks being granted to fathers - instead of a maximum of four weeks under the existing shared parental leave scheme - will help families where women may be the primary breadwinner.
He added that mothers who utilise more of their leave entitlement - even when fully justified and accounted for - end up bearing a cost, such as having their career progression delayed.
"This is another reason why minimum paternity leave requirements can also indirectly help limit the gender wage gap from rising even further," said Assoc Prof Lim.
People's Action Party MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) urged the Government to set a target year, perhaps 2030, by which Singapore could see an equal share of paternity and maternity leave.
"We can increase paternity leave in phases, giving our employers time to plan ahead, while also providing a clear signal of our intentions to reduce gendered perceptions of parenthood," he said.
The current low amount of paternity leave entrenches gender stereotypes, said Mr Ng, who referred to a 2019 Institute of Policy Studies research paper that found that family policies in Singapore signal that childcare is a woman's responsibility.
"The worst part of the problem is that it is self-reinforcing. Because we give fathers less leave, they don't get to develop the skills and confidence needed to care for their kids. This, the IPS study finds, causes them to leave childcare to mothers."
He also cited research that showed that fathers' involvement at home has long-term benefits, such as lower family conflict, lower maternal depression, and fewer behavioural problems for the child.
Mr Ng added: "Some have said that mothers need more leave than fathers because mothers need to physically recover from childbirth. But this is all the more reason why paternity leave needs to be equal with maternity leave.
"The father needs to be there as well, otherwise mothers will spend their 16 weeks of leave single-handedly caring for the newborn - and that is no rest at all."
Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa also called for equal parental leave between mothers and fathers, with couples having the flexibility to reallocate the amount of leave based on mutual agreement and a minimum period for each parent.
"The default equal share of parental leave between the couple underlines the belief that parenthood is a responsibility that should be shared equally by both parents. Equal parental leave would also give less reason for employers to discriminate against female employees," she said.
In response, Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling said that any leave enhancements will need to balance parents’ caregiving needs with employers’ manpower and operational needs.
How leave ought to be shared between parents would also depend on other factors like individual families’ considerations, societal mindsets and norms about the role of fathers, she said.
Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Communications and Information, added that providing more leave does not automatically lead to more leave being taken.
There is no simple answer as to whether paternity and maternity leave benefits should be equalised to better reflect the desire for equal sharing of responsibilities between fathers and mothers in caregiving, said Mrs Teo.
“At which point would mindsets have shifted sufficiently, such that the equal provision of parental leave would in fact result in the equal sharing of responsibilities?” she said.
Several MPs like Ms Poa also said more work needs to be done to understand why not all fathers take up paternity leave. Latest figures show that 55 per cent of new fathers used their leave in 2019.
Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah cited a study by the National University of Singapore last year which showed that men with lower incomes were less likely to use paternity leave. This was especially so for those involved in manual labour.
Suggesting that provisions be made to allow for some amount of paternity leave to be compulsory, she said: "This will be a strong signal to the community regarding the importance of shared gender responsibilities as well as towards enhancing the support of women in low-income families as well."
During Tuesday's debate, some MPs like PAP's Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC) and WP's Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) called for family care leave to be legislated.
"This will help in recognising that caregivers' contributions are on par with that of parents with young children," said Mr Giam.
All Singaporean employees should have up to six days of leave to look after young children or immediate family members with long-term illnesses or disabilities, he said.
"The first three days should be paid by the employer, with the remaining days paid by the Government," he suggested. An extra two days could be granted if the employee has more than one recipient to care for, he added.
Likewise, Ms Ong said that childcare leave should be convertible to family care leave, besides being made mandatory.
Respite options for caregivers was another topic covered by MPs such as Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson).
Both MPs proposed expanding institutional capacity for respite care across Singapore, while Ms Tin sought more flexible financing options, including using extended family members' MediSave to pay for such services.
Recognising this, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information, said the Government will enhance the options for respite care to ease the caregiving load, through plans like broadening the Household Services Scheme to include basic elder-minding and childminding services.
"MOH is reviewing the respite care landscape to better meet the needs of caregivers, and make respite care more accessible, affordable, and available," she said, adding that more details will be shared later.
Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, and Trade and Industry, Ms Low Yen Ling said that from next month, community-based peer support networks will be formed to connect caregivers of persons with mental health conditions for mutual support.
A buddy programme will also be set up to match experienced caregivers of individuals with disabilities with new ones, she said.
"With greater respect and partnership in caregiving, men, as well as women, can contribute towards this important role which cannot afford to be neglected, or society and families may suffer," she added.