Madam Speaker, let me first thank all members for your comments and suggestions on how we can move forward on this issue together.
Let me round up your comments and put them into three sets of issues that we have to tackle.
First, I think many of you have given ideas on how we can extend the Marriage and Parenthood benefits to more parents. The second set of issues has to do with various suggestions on how we can refine the various leave schemes and benefits from both the perspective of the employers and employees. And third, most importantly, how do we create the entire environment for us to make Singapore the best place to have families and children.
So let me thank all of you for your suggestions. There are some things that we will do immediately; there are other things that we will do, perhaps in due course with your support.
SUPPORT FOR VULNERABLE GROUPS
Let me begin with the first. As Professor Eugene Tan has mentioned, we have two sets of objectives in this entire discussion: many of you have said that we want to continue to promote the family as the central institution in our society. We want to encourage people to get married, we want children to be able to have a happy environment within the ambit of a marriage. And these are the reasons why we have to enhance the Marriage and Parenthood Package.
But many of you have also spoken of a different objective – which is that we should take care of the vulnerable families, especially the children amongst us. As all of you said, the children are innocent. They are brought to this world not because they have a choice, and we should do our best to take care of them, regardless of their parents’ circumstances.
These two are slightly different objectives. On one hand, we do not want to send the wrong signal on the kind of values we hold in society towards marriage and the institution of the family. On the other hand, whatever else has happened, we want to be able to take care of all children amongst us and I think we can all agree to that.
For the first set of reasons, this is why we have the enhanced M&P Package and we have addressed many of these challenges. For the second set of issues, we need another policy instrument. As many practitioners of policy making will know, when you have two different objectives, you will need at least two sets of instruments.
So the M&P package is to meet one set of objectives, and we need another set of instruments to help the family man, the vulnerable families among us. And I must say that we never, never discriminate any children, regardless of what their parents did. I don’t imagine what single parent families go through. I come from one myself. I know it is difficult. Which is why we endeavour to do our best to help the children regardless of their circumstances. But the Baby Bonus may not be the most significant package to help the children. That has a different policy objective.
We have other instruments to help vulnerable children or children from vulnerable families. I think the most important thing that we can do for such children in such vulnerable families, is to provide them with the best education that they can get, to allow them to fulfil their potential to the best of their ability. The second thing that we can do and must do for them, is to make sure that their healthcare is provided for. And these to me are the two critical things from my own personal experience. This is why we have invested so much in education and child care, to ensure that children regardless of race, language, religion, regardless of socio-economic background, get the help that they need, in getting out of the difficult situation that they are in.
If we look at the lifetime investment that we have in a child, I think the most significant one, and even in financial terms, the most significant one, will be in education. The subsidies that we give to every child from infant care to child care subsidies, education subsidies, Edusave, Post-Secondary Education Account and so forth. The other very significant one is healthcare subsidies, which include the Medisave grant for newborns, Medishield coverage for congenital and neonatal conditions, and other social assistance schemes. And we want to do more.
I have said during my Committee of Supply speech that in the coming year, we are looking forward to developing new measures to help vulnerable families - families that do not just need financial help but families who require a long term handholding. Many of the single parent families that you all have talked about fall into that category. They require financial help, they require mentorship, they require training, they require assistance in housing and so on and so forth. Our job and our challenge, is to package that help for them.
At the same time, we want to do what we can, to make sure that the children have access to this package of help and they know where to go to. And as I have mentioned before, the most challenging thing for us to help these families, is to make sure that we can mobilise the resources of the community, to come forward together to provide the mentorship for these people. So I would say that we never ever discriminate any children. Every child to us is precious. And my Ministry will continue to assist them, but we understand different families need different packages and we will continue to design those packages for them.
While trying to simplify the schemes, I think it will not be possible for us to have one scheme to meet all the needs, the diverse needs of the different families in need, and the different vulnerable families. I have no problem running different schemes, as long as I can meet the objectives of helping each and every one of these families. And I would like to encourage Members of this House to come and join us in this, identify these families in need and help us to reach out to them.
REFINEMENTS TO LEAVE SCHEMES
I come to the second issue which is about the refinements to the leave schemes. I think all of you supported the move towards paternity leave, and the shared parental leave. We have made a start towards that trajectory. Where we will eventually end up, will depend on how fast and how ready society is able to adjust. I will not rule out that one day, the proportion may change between the paternity and the maternity leave. These are things that we as a society will have to decide. But let us make the first step, to get us on the right trajectory. The rest of the second order details, we can adjust and refine along the way. On adoption leave, members have suggested a longer leave period, as well as more time for adoptive parents to take the leave.
The Bill now enhances adoption leave by making a voluntary scheme mandatory, and allowing it to be taken over 12 months from the birth of the child, instead of over six months previously. And we have also shifted the start date of adoption leave earlier in the adoption process. Let us monitor this and see whether it meets the needs of the majority of the parents who want to adopt a kid. As of today, the majority of them adopt their kid within the first year. But if we need to make further adjustments, we can consider that in the future.
But I think A/P Eugene Tan has pointed out that there is a difference between maternity leave and adoption leave. Because the maternity leave caters to the time required for the mother to physically recuperate from child birth and nurse the infant before returning to work. It is for this reason that maternity leave is slightly different from adoption leave. Adoptive mothers who wish to take longer adoption leave, or couples who adopt older children, can tap on the 6-days of child care leave and 6 days of unpaid infant care leave, to spend more time with their adopted child.
On refinements to protection provisions, A/P Eugene Tan spoke about higher penalties for errant employers, while Mr Dhinakaran also spoke about the penalties for the errant employees, and a whistle-blowing mechanism. We understand where you are coming from, we appreciate that, and in designing any protection measures, there is always a need to balance the interests of the employers and the employees. But what is most important in this is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.
We hope all employers and employees can come on board to realise that it is a win-win and mutually beneficial relationship, to promote a pro-family environment for employers to support employees in bringing up their families and also for employees to realise that they too, have a duty to work with their employers to work out a mutually beneficial relationship. And this is part of the total environment which I will talk about later. So the current view represents a balance, and this balance will evolve as society evolves.
We have already introduced higher penalties for errant employers, up to $10,000 in fines and/or 12 months of imprisonment for subsequent offences. Section 11 of the Child Development Co-savings Act also enables employers and the Government to recover payment from the employee if the payment was granted based on false or misleading information. Any employer, employee or even a third party can lodge a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower on employment malpractices he observes or suspects and MOM will take the appropriate action. We would like to assure Mr Dhinakaran that all information provided, including the identity of the informant, will be kept confidential.
CREATING A PRO-FAMILY CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT
So, to sum it up, let me come to the most important part, which is the third prong of what we have discussed - how do we, together, create a pro-family environment for Singapore and Singaporeans to have children and a happy family. I will characterise it in terms of three concentric circles. At the heart of it are the parents, the individuals. The second ring has to do with the environment that we live in, the society, the community. And the outermost ring has to do with our policies and the macro environment.
Let me start with the outermost ring. As Members of the House have mentioned, indeed, the Government provides the macro environment through the laws and policies. We try to be as supportive as we can. When we are able, we try to share the fruits of our labour with families, especially those who need it more. And I hope Members of this House will agree with me, that within the finite pool of resources that we have, we should always try to help those who have less, with a bit more. That is the way we go about designing our policies. Of course, some people might feel that they should get a bit more, some people might feel otherwise. But all of us should agree that within the finite pool of resources that we have, we should extend much more help those with less. And that speaks for an inclusive society.
So whether is it in terms of leave schemes, balancing the requirements between employees and employers, we will continue to find that balance. But the government can only provide that part of the circle. We need the support of the employers, we need the support of the businesses, and we need the support of the community, to make a more inclusive, more pro-family environment.
Beyond all the policies that the government has, at the end of the day, the individuals, the parents, come into contact with the employers. They go into the work environment every day. What they experience will shape their perception towards the family. How pro-family the employers’ practices are will shape and influence decisions made by the individuals.
How we design our living environment, how we design even our recreational environments, will send a signal to everyone how welcoming we as a society are towards families and families with young kids. How we, as a community, respond to children screaming among us, running around us. Do we frown upon them? Or do we look at them with appreciative eyes? That speaks to the young parents deciding whether to have a child or not. So I agree with all Members that we all have a responsibility to play in making this pro-family environment; whether it is in the neighbourhood or at the workplace, we all can do our part.
But ultimately, that decision to start a family and have children is a deeply personal one. We can have all the correct policies, all the correct incentives and benefits, and all the help schemes in the world, but if at the end of the day, our individual priorities and value systems are not geared towards having a family, then no matter what policies, what help schemes we have, we will never be able to have that pro-family mindset.
We are not doing this because we are trying to see babies as economic digits. We want Singaporeans to have happy families because this is part and parcel of having a meaningful life in Singapore, beyond having a meaningful career. So no, children are not economic digits, children are part of our family life. It saddens me when people take out a balance sheet and to try and calculate all the pluses and minuses, financially, numerically, before they decide to make that leap of faith. I am sure that our parents, with much less than us, never did that before they conceived us. If they had done that, maybe we won’t be where we are, we won’t even be here today. But it is a deeply personal choice.
What we can do is to make sure that we educate our people, our young people, and help them, at every stage of their life cycle. This is the reason why MSF has embarked on the Family Matters! Initiative. It is a life cycle approach towards promoting family life - getting our people to share in the joys of family, from young till they go out to work, and even after they have their children. At every stage of their life cycle - from young, we have to start inculcating in our youth an appreciation of family life, that the family is the anchor of all that we do and it gives meaning to all that we do. When they are older, we try and help them to have opportunities to meet their life partners and to settle down. Even after they get married, we try to give them help, to make sure that we lessen the burden and the fear of starting a family. That is important.
But I am quite sure you won’t ask for benefits in the short term, because this is a long term challenge. It takes us many years to build that pro-family environment and mindset. And we want to make this possible across the entire environment - from the workplace, to the community. This is why we are going to spend $40 million in the next 3 years to encourage employers, and community partners to bring that about. And we want to use all channels, all mediums, to send this message forth and that is important.
If we get this right, then we will never talk about children as being a digit, because children become an intrinsic part of our family, part of our meaning in life. This is what we seek to do. So at the end of the day, whether we talk about the M&P Package and the TFR at the macro level, it boils down to individual decisions at the micro level. And this is where we need to have our values and priorities right and then we can go forth and build that community that is pro-family, that business environment that is pro-family.
And the government will continue and endeavour to make sure that we walk this journey with all fellow Singaporeans. The government will make sure that the macro environment is right, that we move on the correct trajectories to encourage the second circle - the businesses, the work environment - to do their part. But at the end of the day, we need to get the individual values and priorities right, without which the rest will not work.
On that note, I like to thank all members of the House for their support for this Bill. I am quite sure that with time, we will continue to evolve our policies to meet the changing needs of our society and I hope that we can all walk this journey together, and each of us doing our part, to encourage a more pro-family environment, to encourage a sense of love for our children.