Population: 'Extra push' to help couples have babies

Jubilee babies like twins Charlotte and Colette will benefit from some of the new measures, such as the raised Medisave grant, which will be backdated to take effect from Jan 1 this year.
Jubilee babies like twins Charlotte and Colette will benefit from some of the new measures, such as the raised Medisave grant, which will be backdated to take effect from Jan 1 this year.PHOTO: COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION MINISTRY

New measures aimed at boosting family support, easing costs for young families

Couples who want to have children will get an extra push to do so through a raft of measures aimed at boosting family support and easing the costs of raising a child.

These measures are: A new housing grant to help them live nearer their parents, an enhanced Baby Bonus package, an increased Medisave grant for newborns, and an extra week of paternity leave.

"Having a child is a major responsibility but we will help you because every Singaporean child is precious to us," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday in his National Day Rally speech.

Children ensure Singapore will have a future, he said. "In fact, our children are why we want Singapore to have a future - for them."

Although Singapore's low birth rates have been a perennial worry, things have been looking up.

Showing a graph of the number of babies born in the past 15 years, Mr Lee said the 33,200 births last year were the highest in 10 years.

It was all the more remarkable because last year was not a Dragon year, considered the most auspicious zodiac sign by the Chinese. But last year saw as many births as in 2012, the last Dragon year.

"I expect that this year, we will have about the same number as 2014," Mr Lee said, adding that 129 babies were born on National Day itself this year, the highest since 2007.

"These are the statistics, but what I see directly when I go around confirms this. Nowadays, I often see families who have lots of kids, and they are proud and happy that they have many children."

It is therefore a good time to give families and their efforts to have babies an extra push, he said.

"I know it is a serious decision... You sacrifice your time, your sleep. You have to buy milk powder, diapers. And parenting goes on for many years, well after your children have supposedly grown up," said Mr Lee, a father of four, before he listed the policy changes.

First, there will be a new Proximity Housing Grant to encourage couples to live closer to their parents.

Every Singaporean household is eligible. They will receive the grant when buying a resale flat with or near their parents, or when parents buy near their married children.

Second, the Baby Bonus scheme, which includes cash for newborns and childcare subsidies in a co-savings account, will be enhanced.

The bonus amount will be raised to help cover more of the child-raising costs during the child's infancy, said Mr Lee. It will also be given to every child. Previously, it was given to a married couple's first four children.

"This provides more support to parents with larger families, and reflects our attitude that every child is valued in Singapore," he said.

Third, newborns will get a larger Medisave grant. The higher grant will be enough to cover the child's new MediShield Life premiums until age 21, and also to help with healthcare expenses like recommended vaccinations, said Mr Lee.

Fourth, fathers will get two weeks of paternity leave, double the existing one week, and backdated to take effect at the start of this year. Mr Lee said the public sector - Singapore's largest employer with 143,000 people on its payroll - will start the ball rolling.

For other employers, the extended paternity leave will be voluntary for now, to give bosses time to adjust. The Baby Bonus and increased Medisave grant will also take effect from Jan 1 this year. "I hope this will help many more couples to experience the joy of parenthood," said Mr Lee.

Speaking to reporters after the Rally, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, who oversees population issues, said she hoped the added support will send "a strong signal to young couples to consider having families, and bigger families".

The tweaks are the result of consultations with young couples. But the goal, she added, is to recognise the high costs of raising a child, not to lift the total fertility rate, which was 1.25 children a woman last year.

Additional reporting by Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline ''Extra push' to help couples have babies'. Print Edition | Subscribe