Madam Speaker, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time”.
The Child Development Co-Savings Act (CDCA) covers a range of benefits in our Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Package. Members may recall that we amended the CDCA earlier this year. We provided for reimbursement to employers who gave the voluntarily week of paternity leave, as well as payment to self-employed men for lost income for the 2nd week of paternity leave. We also extended the Child Development Account benefits to all eligible children, regardless of their parent’s marital status.
We are now amending the Act to introduce further support for parents in caring for and bonding with their children.
The key amendments arise from the enhancements to paternity leave, shared parental leave and adoption leave. These enhancements had been announced at the National Population and Talent Division’s Committee of Supply in April this year. Amendments covered in the bill include amendments to better support mothers on different working arrangements, as well as various amendments to align legislation with policy intent. This Bill will also amend the CDCA to extend certain leave benefits to unwed parents, a move I announced earlier this year.
Greater support for fathers
I have often said that a father’s role in the family is not just to put food on the table, but also to be a good role model to guide his children, and mould their values and characters in a positive way. We need to make a conscious choice to be active fathers, and we have to cultivate this mindset from the start.
Our children will not be babies forever. We know that it can be challenging to ensure we have work-life balance, but it is important for us to adopt an active parenting lifestyle. Our children should be our priority now, not later. We need to make the effort to spend both quantity and quality time with our families.
We want to better support fathers to achieve this through the proposed amendments. Hence, we are making the second week of paternity leave mandatory. This was announced by the National Population and Talent Division in April, 8 months ahead of time, to give employers sufficient time to prepare. Both weeks of paternity leave are fully funded by the Government. The amendment is intended to take effect from 1 January 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date.
We are also increasing Shared Parental Leave from 1 week to 4 weeks. Couples will now have more flexibility in caring for their newborn, and can work out an arrangement that best suits them. As with the current one week of Shared Parental Leave, the four weeks will be shared from the mother’s maternity leave. Shared Parental Leave is also fully funded by the Government. The amendment is intended to take effect from 1 July 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date.
The combined enhancements to paternity leave and shared parental leave means that a father can take a maximum of 8 weeks leave in his baby’s first year – comprising 2 weeks of paid paternity leave, 4 weeks of paid shared parental leave (if his wife so elects to share), 6 days of paid childcare leave and 1 week of unpaid infant care leave. These leave enhancements support fathers in experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood with their wives.
Greater support for adoptive mothers
We will also be enhancing Adoption Leave, to better support adoptive mothers in caring for their adopted infants. Adoption leave will be increased to 12 weeks. This is three times more than the current 4 weeks. Similar to what is provided for maternity leave, the Government will fund the last 8 weeks of leave if the adopted child is the 1st or 2nd child, and the full period of 12 weeks, if the adopted child is the 3rd and subsequent child. The amendment is intended to apply to adoptive mothers whose formal intent to adopt is on or after 1 July 2017.
Greater support for children of unwed mothers
We will also extend maternity leave to unwed mothers, to better support the child’s developmental and care needs. An unwed person adopting a child would also be eligible for leave. An unwed adoptive mother would be eligible for adoption leave. An unwed man adopting a child would be eligible for paternity leave. The amendments are intended to take effect from 1 January 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date, or in the case of adopted children, the formal intent to adopt is on or after that date.
Madam Speaker, we choose to have children and naturally want to invest our time, energy and love in them to ensure they grow up to become contributing members of society. While families raise children, instil values in them, and nurture them, the Government will continue to complement these efforts by supporting families in their caregiving responsibilities. I encourage all parents to make good use of the leave schemes, to be there for our children and inspire them to do the same for generations to come. And my heartfelt thanks go to the employers who play an important role in supporting families’ aspirations.
With that, Madam, I beg to move.
Madam Speaker, I thank all Members for supporting the Bill. To recap, the key amendments are based on enhancements which were announced earlier at my Ministry’s and National Population and Talent Division (NPTD)’s Committee of Supply in April this year.
Further Support for Children of Unwed Parents
I am glad that Members such as Mr Alex Yam, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Seah Kian Peng, Ms Cheryl Chan, Mr Desmond Choo, Associate Professor Daniel Goh and Ms Thanaletchimi support the extension of Maternity Leave benefits to unwed mothers. These will improve the outcomes for their children.
Associate Professor Goh shared his concern about housing security for children of unwed parents and divorcees. I share that concern. He asked if the Government could include unwed parents in its definition of family nucleus, in assessing applications for HDB flats. Mr Seah, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Choo asked if housing options can be improved for this group, such as allowing unwed mothers to purchase a HDB flat before turning 35. Our public housing policy recognises the traditional family unit. That said, single unwed parents are not without housing options. Those aged 35 and above may apply for a new 2-room Flexi flat in a non-mature estate or a resale flat, and also enjoy housing grants. Those below 35 years old may apply for new HDB flats or resale flats jointly with their parents. As for divorced parents with young children, they are given priority under HDB’s Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers when they apply for a new 2- or 3-room BTO flat in non-mature estates. Additionally, on a case-by-case basis, HDB also exercises flexibility to help divorced parents and single unwed parents buy a flat within their means, or to provide rental housing to those with no other housing options or family support.
Mr Patrick Tay asked whether unwed fathers could be granted paternity leave. Well , it is generally the case that unwed mothers would be the main caregivers of their children. However, we will consider appeals by unwed fathers on a case-by-case basis. All working parents, regardless of marital status, can avail themselves to infant care and childcare leave to meet their caregiving needs.
Mr Louis Ng, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Seah Kian Peng, and Mr Desmond Choo asked if more could be done for unwed parents. Some suggestions include the extension of Baby Bonus Cash Gift and tax benefits. Now, it is good to take stock of the support we have given to all Singaporean children to enhance child outcomes, regardless of whether their parents are married. I have said this a couple of times in this House, and I think it is important for me to repeat it here again. These are education and healthcare benefits including the Medisave grant for newborns, and infant and childcare subsidies. All working parents, regardless of marital status, also get infant care leave, child care leave and extended childcare leave, and the foreign domestic worker levy concession to support caregiving to enhance child outcomes.
Beyond these, we know that children - and I think many of your concerns really center around children who come from more vulnerable backgrounds - and if you compound that with unwed parents, it makes it even more difficult for them. We know that children of unwed parents from low-income and vulnerable families need even more support. Which is why we are introducing KidSTART. It is a very important programme. It may be in its pilot stage but we do hope and we do want this to work so that we can extend this much more extensively amongst the vulnerable families, even starting from year zero when women can be identified at the pregnancy stage as well. Financial and social support is also available at Social Service Offices and Family Service Centres. So I do urge members to take note that even for unwed mothers, there is a range of support available, and with the recent changes and the changes we are putting in place, it extends it further.
However, I think it is also important to understand that we continue to believe in the importance of the family institution and we encourage married couples to have children. Hence, specific measures like the Baby Bonus cash gift, tax benefits, and Government co-funding for Assisted Reproduction Technology treatment and priority for housing are targeted at married families. However, as mentioned earlier, for unwed parents, there are also various ways we can support them through various means.
Let me now turn to the topic on adoption leave. Mr Louis Ng asked why the length of maternity leave and adoption leave differs. We are increasing adoption leave from 4 weeks to 12 weeks from July 2017, and this is to strengthen the support to adoptive mothers. Natural mothers currently have 16 weeks of leave. Now maternity leave is longer by a month, largely because natural mothers need time to recover from childbirth.
Mr Ng also asked whether adoption leave could be extended to adoptive mothers of children older than 12 months. Similar to maternity and paternity leave, adoption leave is intended to support parents of infants in the first year of delivery. Beyond the child’s infancy, all working parents – including adoptive parents – can take 6 days each of paid childcare leave when the child is below age 7, and 6 more days of unpaid infant care leave when the child is below age 2, to spend more time to bond with their children.
Mr Henry Kwek touched on the need for our society to support adoption. He suggested a grant to offset foreign adoption costs for couples who have failed repeatedly to conceive. As the focus of adoption is to find a suitable family for a child, subsidising the fees charged by commercial adoption agencies is not the right solution, we think, in terms of protecting the best interests of the child. Mr Kwek also suggested allowing single parents who were previously married and adopted a related child to benefit from the Parenthood Tax Rebate. We thank him for the suggestion, which we will study further. That said, all things being equal and in the child’s best interest, we encourage parenthood within marriage. That is still something that we would like to see, and that we would like to encourage.
Members including Mr Tay and Mr Kwek also raised suggestions to support foster parents through various measures such as leave benefits. I agree with Mr Kwek that we should make it easier for foster parents to discharge their parenting responsibilities. We have about 400 foster parents caring for over 400 children today. Mr Kwek mentioned about the Bao lady, and in fact I visited her and spoke to her, and talked to her and her family. They are really quite amazing. I have visited various foster families as well. It is really quite encouraging to see families with such capacity to love, not only just for their children, but for many children over many years. And it really makes a difference for these children, whose families may not be ready to take them in and look after them for a period and foster parents play a very significant role. And we are heartened to see that Singaporeans are willing to go the extra mile to care for vulnerable children. We certainly do want to encourage more Singaporeans to come on board to be foster parents. We will certainly keep these suggestions in mind as we continue to develop foster care.
I will now move on to the topic of stay-at-home mothers. Mr Patrick Tay asked if the Government would consider putting in place Returnship Programmes to help match women jobseekers and employers. He also suggested providing an Income Supplement to stay-at-home mothers, and for Workfare Scheme benefits to be extended to a select group of such young mothers. This is an idea we can consider, though we should take a hard look at all the current job-matching services and to really minimise duplication of efforts. But this is something I think we should work at.
I want to assure Members that we recognise and value the contributions of stay-at-home mothers in caring for their children. Today, eligible stay-at-home mothers already enjoy all the measures under the marriage and parenthood package except understandably, those related to employment such as leave benefits. They will get the Baby Bonus cash gift, Child Development Account benefits, Medisave Grant for newborns, foreign domestic worker levy concession, and basic child and infant care subsidies. So we appreciate the suggestions from Members, and will take them into consideration as we continue to study ways to enhance the family-friendly environment in Singapore, to support both working and non-working parents.
Support for caregivers of elderly and other dependents
Mr Patrick Tay is right that there are other caregivers, such as those of the elderly and other dependents. He suggested allowing flexing of medical leave under Employment Act for them, as they may not qualify for the current leave benefits. We will study these suggestions as well. While we want to support such caregivers, we also need to consider the impact on businesses and the overall leave support already in place for employees.
Protection for Workers and Employment-Related Concerns
Now, let me touch on protection for workers and employment-related concerns raised by Mr Tay. Mr Tay asked to extend the protection beyond pregnancy and maternity leave for female employees. We will work with tripartite partners in the next round of review to study this, while being mindful not to change the laws so drastically that it results in unintended consequences - such as resentment against mothers and impact on gender bias - as this could also impact on their employability. But this is something we just have to be careful about but it is an important area to look at. In the meantime, we will continue to encourage employers to adopt flexible work arrangements to support families.
Associate Professor Goh highlighted the need to protect contract workers, as this group is fast becoming a substantial group in the gig economy. I agree. In fact when I was in the Ministry of Manpower, this was an area that we flagged out for close attention. Although what we also realise is that the whole space is actually quite complex as there are many, many different types of contract work. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will work with tripartite partners to study this suggestion further, taking into consideration the overall leave provisions already in place by employers and the caregiving needs of workers.
Ms Thanaletchimi raised four technical areas for clarification under this Amendment Bill. Firstly, she asked what measures will be taken to ensure that workers who are terminated without just cause know their leave entitlements upon termination of employment. MOM encourages employers to implement fair and non-discriminatory employment practices. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment (TAFEP) takes an active role in looking into complaints of unfair employment practices, and will refer cases to MOM for enforcement if found to be true. An employee who feels discriminated against can approach TAFEP for assistance.
Secondly, Ms Thanaletchimi asked about the process of calculating benefits for a woman returning from overseas to deliver her child, especially if it seems to be an “inflated claim”. We will determine the amount of Government-paid maternity benefit for such a woman based on documents such as her payslip. Where there is reason to doubt the documents or the claims, we will ask further questions and we may not always approve the claim.
Thirdly, she asked how the weekly index works for a person who works 7 days a week. The weekly index simplifies the provisions of the Act, and does not change entitlement. A self-employed person who works 7 days a week, and takes the full maternity leave continuously, will be paid based on 7 days a week. Where maternity leave is taken flexibly, it will be based on the number of days she works in a week, or 48 days, whichever is lower. This mirrors the computation of entitlement for employees on continuous and non-continuous leave.
Fourthly, she asked about the circumstances and mechanism under which the Government will recover over-payment of Government Paid Maternity Leave and Government Paid Maternity Benefit. As with other civil debts, the Government has the option to commence legal proceedings to recover over-payment of Government-Paid Maternity Leave and Government-Paid Maternity Benefit. In practice, we will seek to recover through calls, letters or physical visits if necessary.
Finally, just a technical clarification. Ms Thanaletchimi said that employees whose services are terminated with just cause cease to be entitled to Adoptive Leave, Government Paid Maternity Leave and Government Paid Paternity Leave. I would like to clarify that a woman only forfeits her Government Paid Maternity Benefit (GPMB), and even then, only for the relevant employment period where she is dismissed with sufficient cause. If she had worked satisfactorily in other jobs in the 12 months preceding delivery, she can still receive a GPMB amount based on income earned from those jobs.
Child Development Account (CDA)-related Suggestions
Miss Cheryl Chan suggested some enhancements relating to Child Development Accounts (CDAs). Miss Chan would be pleased to hear that CDA monies can be used to purchase the child’s premiums for Medishield Life or Medisave-approved plans. At the end of 12 years, all unused CDA monies are also automatically transferred to the child’s Post-Secondary Education Account which can be used for post-secondary education fees.
She also suggested that the Government facilitate donors or payments of cash assistance into the CDAs of children from low-income families, so that they can benefit more from the CDA scheme. Now, we are mindful that low income families face more challenges in saving into the CDA. This is why we have introduced the CDA First Step of $3,000 earlier this year. This is directly provided into newly-opened CDAs, without parents having to save first. We also reach out to lower-income families through touchpoints such as the Social Service Offices and Family Service Centres, to increase awareness about the CDA.
We also welcome initiatives by society to help families defray the cost of child-raising. One such example is the OCBC Starter Scheme, which was introduced in 2012 and will end in December 2016. Under this scheme, if lower-income parents saved $50 in the CDA, OCBC would contribute $100 into the account. As Government provides matching contribution of $150, the children will effectively be receiving co-savings of $250 in return for the $50 saved.
Leave for fathers
Let me now move to leave for fathers. The Government is mandating the second week of Paternity Leave from 1 January 2017 and extending Shared Parental Leave from one week to four weeks from 1 July 2017. On Mr Louis Ng’s request for the updated take-up rates for Paternity Leave, well, this was 38% in 2014 and 42% in 2015. So this is an improvement of 4%. Not bad, but we hope that more fathers should just take it up. The 2015 figure is still increasing, and will only be finalised at the end of March 2017, when the deadline for the submission of claims is over. On Ms Thanaletchimi’s request for statistics, about 4,000 fathers have taken shared parental leave as at the end of August 2016.
Mr Seah Kian Peng asked if independent leave can be considered. We are now increasing paternity leave and shared parental leave. For any further leave enhancements, I think we do need to balance the needs and concerns of both employees and employers. We will also look into Mr Desmond Choo’s suggestion for an in-depth study of constraints faced by companies and fathers in consuming these two leave schemes.
The enhancements to paternity leave and shared parental leave signals the Government’s strong support to encourage fathers to spend more time caring for their children. Shared parental leave also provides parents the flexibility to decide and to choose their leave arrangements to care for their newborns, based on their respective family’s circumstances. We really do hope that more fathers will make use of the enhanced leave to be involved in child-raising. That being said, ultimately it is for the fathers to decide whether to take the leave or not. Maybe we should persuade mothers to convince the fathers to take the leave.
I thank Mr Louis Ng for sharing his good news, congratulations and to encourage Mr Desmond Choo to work harder and I think also to thank Mr Louis Ng for his interesting parenting experiences. I’m sure many of us would have our own respective, really interesting stories as well. Indeed, those of us who can look back and honestly say “I’m glad I did”, we do remember the lessons we learnt as parents. Children enrich our lives in the most unexpected ways, just as we fathers play an important role in the family. We are not just breadwinners, but we are role models for our children. We need to be active and present in our children’s’ lives, especially during a child’s formative years.
Certainly in MSF, I mean when we look at the various social issues, I can tell you that the two common denominators that we pick up, is that as you connect the dots and trace it back, a lot has got to do with a stable environment and especially the presence of the father. The other point is about making an impact in the formative years, where the greatest development is experienced by a child. Are we there shaping those formative years? Mothers usually are there, but fathers need to be there as well. This is something that we can encourage and support but ultimately the individual parents must make those choices. So fathers do shape a child’s confidence immensely in their development. I fully agree with Mr Seah Kian Peng’s point that as parents, we should be focusing on the child’s health, growth and well-being. Parents sometimes do not know what impact their comparisons have on their children. In some situations, the child loses confidence in his ability and he starts to wonder if he will be unloved by his parents the moment he fails to meet their expectations. Fathers have the means to demonstrate unconditional love and support to their children, and I do urge all of us to do so.
I also agree with Mr Alex Yam on the importance of creating a pro-family and pro-children environment. The physical environment is important. There are 35 ministries and government agencies with childcare facilities within their buildings. While these will certainly help working parents, more and more young fathers are willing to make use of these facilities and not just expect mothers to do so and that is encouraging. Families for Life, as well as government agencies, provide parenting and family events and workshops at the workplaces itself. I encourage more fathers to avail themselves of these, and be more engaged in pro-family workplace programmes.
When the 2 weeks of mandatory paternity leave kick in next year, we hope that more fathers will take the opportunity to actively bond with their children from the time they are born. Like Mr Patrick Tay, I also hope more fathers will use the shared parental leave so that they can further bond with their children.
These leave enhancements are focussed on the critical infant period. But fatherhood continues beyond infancy, and as one important tagline says, we are “Dads for Life”. I hope that we, as fathers, will continue to be involved and always present in our children’s lives. It may be different for everyone, and we all need to find our own way to connect and bond with our children. It need not be something elaborate. It could be through simple everyday activities like reading a bedtime story, kicking a soccer ball around, going out to cycle or just going out for a meal. It may surprise some of us, but to our children it is not what we do, but that we are doing it together with them.
Active fatherhood also strengthens marriages. Fathers show that they care and are committed to their wives and their families, when they share the parenthood journey. The journey may be, and will be, a bumpy ride with ups and downs, but we learn along the way to be better parents together with our spouses. And it is these ups and downs that result in the creation of special moments and special memories, memories unique to our families, memories which we will always hold dear to ourselves and memories which will last us a lifetime.
Mdm Speaker, I beg to move.