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Closing Speech by Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Social and Family Development for Second Reading of Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment) Bill on 19 September 2023

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Sun Xueling,

Topic(s): Children & Families,


1.     Thank you, Sir. I thank Members for the general stance of support for the Bill. I am heartened that most of us agree that a collective, whole-of-society effort is needed to build a conducive environment that values and supports families on their parenthood journey. 

2.     Let me now respond to the questions and suggestions that Members have raised.

Feedback on Current Leave Provisions

3.     Mr Shawn Huang has shared in his speech that the use of paternity leave among OECD countries is increasing overall. We have observed a similar trend in Singapore. To Mr Desmond Choo and Ms Razwana Begum’s question, since the introduction of Government-Paid Paternity Leave, take-up rates have increased from about 25% in 2013 to 53% in 2021. Ms Razwana Begum asked if there is research on the role taken by those fathers who utilise their paternity leave entitlements. From the Marriage and Parenthood Survey 2021, 97% of the married respondents agreed that paternity leave allowed fathers to play a bigger role in their newborn’s life. Our research also showed that fathers found paternity leave useful to support their wives after birth and to settle into the role of fatherhood.

4.     To Ms He Ting Ru’s question, we do survey the reasons why fathers do not fully consume their paternity leave. a key factor affecting fathers’ utilization of paternity leave is workplace support. This includes whether supervisors are adequately assuring that using paternity leave will not affect fathers’ career prospects and that colleagues are willing to cover fathers’ duties in their absence. We will continue to explore ways to encourage employers to support all fathers to use their paternity leave, such as by raising awareness of the benefits of providing a family-friendly workplace culture. 

5.     Ms He Ting Ru also expressed concern on the gap in support for self-employed fathers and those without full-time employment. Ms Jean See further asked if the Government can consider providing paid paternity leave for the full 4-week period of lost income to a self-employed father who stopped working for 7 days a week for 4 weeks. The weekly index of 6 days takes reference from the Employment Act, which stipulates one rest day per week. This makes for a common base of reference to employees who receive the government paid paternity leave. For fathers who are not eligible for the Government-Paid Paternity Leave, such as those on short term contracts, they may receive the Government-Paid Paternity Benefit, which is a comparable cash benefit in lieu of the paternity leave. 

6.     Mr Desmond Choo has asked if we could allow parents to use the Unpaid Infant Care Leave flexibly during the child’s first two years, and whether the number of leave days can be increased based on the number of children. I would like to clarify that parents can take the 12 days of Unpaid Infant Care Leave flexibly as agreed with their employers during the initial 12-month period, following which they will be entitled to another 12 days of Unpaid Infant Care Leave in the second 12-month period in which the child remains under two years old. Employees may discuss their leave plans with their employers to see how best to meet their needs. 

7.     Mr Louis Ng and Ms Mariam Jaafar asked if childcare leave can be increased. I think many of us as employees would like childcare leave to be increased. I fully empathise with the challenges Ms Jaafar had shared her residents have faced. The difficulty is not so much the cost to government, but rather the impact employers and businesses face when leave is made compulsory. Already, based on the current set of proposals to increase paid paternity leave and unpaid infant care leave, Members in this house have highlighted concerns from employers that the increased leave provisions will adversely impact their manpower costs and operations. Mr Mark Lee in his speech yesterday said, “the introduction of GPPL and UICL enhancements may pose significant challenges for certain businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises with streamlined workforces where each employee's role is crucial to daily operations. Frontline service-oriented industries may need to recruit temporary personnel to cover for employees taking extended leaves…”

8.     Mr Yip Hon Weng also shared in his speech yesterday, and I quote from his speech “…appealing for more leave is not a viable solution. As a small, competitive nation, we must weigh these advancements against its potential effects on businesses, ensuring a balanced approach. We must vigilantly track the impact of these policies to discern whether they truly move the needle in the desired direction.” from Mr Yip Hon Weng’s speech.

9.     These seemingly divergent views show that we need to strike a practical balance between supporting parents in their caregiving responsibilities, and meeting employers’ manpower needs. Our leave provisions need to take into account not only the roles of parents as caregivers but also the roles parents play in workplaces as employees.

10.    I understand that parents with more children will require more leave to take care of their children, should they fall ill. Currently, the civil service provides childcare sick leave on a per child basis. Based on the latest available survey data from 2020, 27% of private companies voluntarily provided additional paid child sick leave to employees. I would like to encourage private sector employers to consider providing childcare sick leave, which is available in the public sector on a per child basis. This can greatly alleviate parental stress from taking care of more children.

11.    To Ms Mariam Jafaar’s suggestion, we will look at means, such as surveys, to gauge the take-up rate of unpaid infant care leave.

12.    Mr Louis Ng and Ms Mariam Jafaar asked for the equalisation of parental leave. Mr Melvin Yong asked the Ministry to consider providing adoptive and foster parents with more Government-Paid Paternity Leave and Unpaid Infant Care Leave.

13.    Let me clarify that the current leave provisions are differentiated to meet the needs of the respective parents. Maternity leave is provided for mothers to recuperate physically from childbirth, and care for and bond with their newborn. Hence, it is longer than paternity leave, which allows for fathers to care for their wives and bond with their newborn child. This is also why maternity leave is longer than adoption leave.

14.    Couples who wish to have the father spend more time with their newborns can have the father tap on the Shared Parental leave for up to four weeks from their wife’s Government-Paid Maternity Leave or Adoption Leave. To Ms Hany Soh’s query, we currently do not intend to change the Shared Parental Leave provision under this Bill.

15.    I would like to assure members that the government is on the same page as members in wanting to encourage shared parenting. This is why beyond the minimal stipulations for maternity leave and paternity leave, any additional leave that the Government may consider in future will likely be of a shared nature, as per our move on shared parental leave in 2013.

16.    Unlike adoption, fostering is a temporary care arrangement. Hence, foster parents are not eligible for Government-Paid Maternity or Paternity Leave. However, they are entitled to the same quantum of childcare leave and Unpaid Infant Care Leave as biological or adoptive parents. To better support adoptive and foster parents, MSF and our community partners offer a range of services to meet their needs. All new foster parents are also trained by the Social Service Institute to care for foster children, and can receive advice from more experienced foster parents through peer support networks. To defray the costs of caring for a foster child, MSF provides a monthly fostering allowance, as well as childcare and medical subsidies for foster children.

17.    Mr Desmond Choo expressed concern that some self-employed fathers may not qualify for Government-Paid Paternity Leave, if they take time off from work to support their wives in the pre-delivery phase. Let me clarify that in such cases, self-employed fathers remain eligible for the Government-Paid Paternity Leave as long as they have been carrying on their trade, business, profession or vocation for a continuous period of at least three months prior to the childbirth. They will not be disqualified simply because they took some time off work during this period.

18.    Ms Jean See has asked the Government to consider disbursing a self-employed person’s claim for lost income at the start of his or her leave period rather than after it has concluded. I wish to clarify that claims for leave or income lost are processed on a reimbursement basis to ensure that the leave has been taken as intended first before payment is made. This also helps with the computation of the actual amount of income lost to be reimbursed, which would not be possible to ascertain until the leave has been taken.

19.    Ms Hany Soh asked if flexibility could be exercised to allow expectant mothers to consume their maternity leave earlier in their final trimester. The primary intent of maternity leave is to provide mothers with time to recover from childbirth and to care for their newborn. We allow flexibility for mothers to start their maternity leave earlier, up to 28 days before delivery, but the bulk of their maternity leave should still be used post-confinement. Expectant mothers who need to absent themselves from work earlier than 28 days can tap on their sick leave or hospitalisation leave if they are unwell, for example if they suffer from severe nausea in the first trimester.

Efforts to encourage leave utilisation and normalise shared parental responsibilities

20.    Members such as Mr Yip Hon Weng, Dr Wan Rizal, Mr Don Wee and Ms Razwana Begum, have asked about the Government’s efforts in encouraging fathers to utilise paternity leave, as well as to normalise paternity leave and the importance of shared parental responsibilities.

21.    As Ms Yeo Wan Ling has stated, societal norms must be considered in the discussion of encouraging take-up of parental leave. It is important that the society adopts a mindset that embraces paternal involvement from the outset. To promote active fatherhood and the importance of shared parental responsibilities, we have been working with community partners such as Families for Life Council and the Centre for Fathering on three key family movements in Singapore – the Families for Life, Dads for Life, and Mums for Life movements. These movements look at strengthening family ties and resilience with the aim of increasing marriage stability, as well as advocating the importance of shared parenting and household responsibilities between mothers and fathers. For example, the Centre for Fathering runs several campaigns throughout the year to reinforce and signal the importance of fathers’ active involvement in their child’s development. One of the campaigns is the Great Companies for Dads Awards, which engages and recognises companies that nurture a family-friendly work culture through their policies and initiatives.

22.    The attitudes and mindsets of supervisors and colleagues also make a big difference in helping fathers feel assured that they are not being discriminated for using their leave. We also hope to encourage self-employed persons to recognize the benefits of parental leave and how the government tries to support them through the provision of Government paid paternity benefits, government paid paternity and maternity leave. To Ms Hany Soh’s question, we had indeed sought employers’ views and feedback on the leave enhancements through our consultations with the Tripartite Partners.

23.    We will continue working with our Tripartite Partners to encourage employers to foster family-friendly workplace cultures that will better support parents in managing their work and family responsibilities. We also encourage employers to be supportive and understanding when fathers take paternity leave. This would help employees be more motivated, like what Ms Yeo Wan Ling has shared.

24.    In the long run, progressive employers can stand to benefit from better talent attraction and retention. To Mr Melvin Yong's suggestion to conduct a local study to examine companies that offer the best work-life balance, we will look at best practices today to identify what other companies can adopt.

25.    Ms Razwana Begum asked whether gig workers would benefit from the increase in Government-Paid Paternity Leave, and if not, what support is available to compensate them. Dr Wan Rizal stated that it is crucial to ensure gig workers can also benefit from these leave provisions. I would like to clarify that working parents who do not qualify for Government-paid leave schemes due to their employment arrangements, such as those on short-term contract and gig workers, may be eligible for equivalent parenthood benefits in the form of Government-paid benefit schemes – that is the intent of Government-paid paternity benefit and Government-paid maternity benefit. These are cash benefits granted in lieu of the Government-paid portion of paid leave.

26.    Mr Don Wee suggested launching a public awareness campaign so that more parents are aware of their leave entitlements. Mr Desmond Choo also asked if the Government could broaden its work with the Trade Associations and Chambers and the Labour Movement to spread awareness of the enhanced Government-Paid Paternity Leave, especially among the self-employed.

27.    We thank members for the suggestions. The Government will work closely with our Tripartite Partners to raise awareness of these benefits among employees, the self-employed, including gig workers, to encourage them to utilise their leave or benefits. For example, we have developed an infographic and produced a video on parental leave, targeted at raising awareness among self-employed persons. The infographic was disseminated through our Tripartite Partners’ networks. We will continue to build on these efforts and look for ways to further raise awareness and encourage parents to utilise their leave benefits.

28.    Dr Wan Rizal and Mr Don Wee asked if we will consider conducting a review to assess the impact of leave enhancements. As Mr Shawn Huang and Ms Usha Chandradas have said, it is a continuous process to review our policies to meet the evolving needs of parents and to make our society more family-friendly. We will monitor the impact of our leave enhancements.

Support for employers, especially SMEs

29.    Mr Mark Lee suggested revising the reimbursement schedule of the Government-Paid Maternity Leave and Paternity Leave to more frequent intervals to alleviate cash flow strain on SMEs. I would like to clarify that claims for reimbursement can be submitted for any part of the Government-Paid portion of the leave that has been taken and are not restricted to only after the last day of leave has been fully utilised. This applies to self-employed persons too. 

30.    We recognise that some employers may have concerns with parents taking additional parental leave, due to the nature of the work and the challenge of finding covering arrangements. Mr Don Wee, Mr Mark Lee, Mr Yip Hon Weng and Dr Wan Rizal have highlighted that companies, especially SMEs who have fewer employees, may face operational challenges, and have suggested providing additional support for them. We have introduced the additional two weeks of Government-Paid Paternity Leave on a voluntary basis, so that employers have some time to make adjustments according to their manpower and operational needs. We intend to make this provision mandatory in due course, and we will be conducting the necessary stakeholder consultations with tripartite partners before any such move. In the meantime, employers and employees may exercise flexibility in the parents’ utilisation of parental leave, such as by taking the leave in more than one period within their child’s first year, to minimise disruptions to business operations. Parents should also play their part by discussing their leave arrangements with their employers in advance, so that their employers can plan for the necessary covering arrangements, and any additional resources that they may require. I also thank Mr Desmond Choo for sharing that the National Trades Union Congress is ready to help our SMEs to develop policies that will better support parents.

31.    Another important strategy for companies to build agility in manpower needs is through the adoption of flexible work arrangements (or FWAs). As mentioned by Ms Yeo Wan Ling, FWAs are more sustainable options and can benefit not just parents of young children but also other caregivers. When implemented well, FWAs can increase productivity, lower absenteeism and turnover, which in turn can help companies mitigate the effects of manpower constraints.

32.    Mr Melvin Yong suggested expanding the CDCA to provide incentives to employers who provide good FWAs to employees with children. We review the scope of the CDCA periodically to best serve the needs of parents. For FWAs however, they benefit not just parents but also caregivers of other familial members. As such, incentivising FWAs may take other forms rather than through amending the CDCA.

33.    We share members’ views on the importance of having FWAs. And the Government is on the lookout for positive examples of such companies to share with others at opportune times.

34.    We take heart that some companies have already walked this path and found success. Take for example, 1AND8 Singapore Pte Ltd, the company behind the Museum of Ice Cream. They have adopted the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements, and allow their staff to fully telecommute, only returning to the office for physical meetings when required. The company also practises staggered hours and has part time work available for their frontline Guest Specialist Experience positions. This approach has helped the company to boost work productivity, while also enabling their employees to achieve a better work-life balance, leading to increased job satisfaction and higher morale. The positive outcomes are evident in their employees staying with them for extended periods, contributing to a lower turnover rate.

35.    Mr Mark Lee suggested establishing a comprehensive framework to recognise companies that support national-level initiatives such as the Tripartite Standard and progressive wages. Today, companies that adopt the Tripartite Standards will be profiled with the TS logomark on MyCareersFuture job portal. This allows them to gain greater visibility in talent recruitment. Companies who pay their lower-wage workers progressive wages can also adopt the Progressive Wage Mark to profile themselves as responsible employers that support the uplifting of lower wage workers. This can encourage consumers and service buyers to prioritise purchases from them.

Extending support to caregivers of other dependents 

36.    I will now address comments raised by Members about extending support to caregivers of other dependents.

37.    Mr Yip Hon Weng asked if the different leave schemes could be amalgamated into a family care leave scheme to provide flexibility for parents and caregivers. Today, the leave schemes are differentiated to cater to the needs of different caregivers. They are also calibrated to balance between employees’ caregiving needs and employers’ business costs and manpower needs.

38.    Ms Usha Chandradas, Ms Jean See and Mr Desmond Choo have also called for more support for familial caregivers. Today’s Bill is on amendments to the Child Development Co-Savings Act and so we are discussing maternity and paternity leave and benefits.

39.    On the broader topic of support for caregivers for the elderly, I would like to assure members that your feedback will be provided to the agencies looking into this topic. Beyond legislated leave provisions, it is important that we bring all stakeholders including employers to build a family-friendly work environment, so that caregivers can better manage both their work and caregiving responsibilities.

Broadening Usage of CDA

40.    On the Child Development Account (CDA), Ms Hany Soh has asked for greater flexibility on how funds can be utilised. I thank her for her feedback. The range of approved CDA usages is circumscribed to ensure that the funds are well-utilised to the benefit of the child. Nonetheless, we do regularly review the CDA scheme, together with our suite of marriage and parenthood policies. Over the years, we have enhanced the CDA scheme to provide more support to parents. For example, we have increased the Government co-matching contributions, and also introduced the First Step Grant. We have also expanded the areas where the CDA funds can be used and will continue to review how this can be further refined. 

Support for Children with Disabilities

41.    Mr Ong Hua Han asked if the CDA co-matching or CDA First Step Grant could be increased to better support children with disabilities to cope with the cost of living. These schemes are designed on a broad basis to support all parents in raising their children. We fully recognise that families caring for children with special needs face more financial challenges. Hence, the Government provides funding support and means-tested subsidies for children enrolled in early intervention programmes, Special Education (SPED) schools, and Special Student Care Centres to keep fees affordable for families with children with special needs.

42.    The Government is also working to expand places in early intervention services, SPED schools, and Special Student Care Centres to ensure that children with special needs can access an education that develops their potential and equips them with knowledge and skills to participate meaningfully in society.

43.    Mr Ong Hua Han also asked if the income threshold of means-tested schemes such as the Assistive Technology Fund and Enabling Transport Subsidy can be revised to align with the median household per capita income. He suggested factoring in actual costs borne by families as part of the means-testing calculations. I thank the Member for his suggestions to help families with children with special needs. The MSF regularly reviews the income thresholds for such schemes, to ensure that households receive the help that they need, and we will take in his inputs when reviewing all these schemes.

44.   We recognise the critical role that caregivers play in caring for their loved ones with special needs, and the importance of supporting families with persons with disabilities. Support for caregivers is crucial to the children’s well-being and development. 

45.   Our support for caregivers is thus multi-faceted. Early intervention centres provide caregiver engagement and training so that caregivers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to support their children at home. ECDA has also started the Inclusive Support Preschool pilot to integrate early childhood and early intervention support for children with developmental needs within a preschool setting to provide a more inclusive learning experience and reduce the need for caregivers and children to shuttle between preschools and Early Intervention (or EI) centres.

46.   We continue to improve access to knowledge and skills for parents with special needs children to carry out their caregiving duties and connect them with support networks. For example, ECDA launched a Parents’ Guide last year to provide parents with information on ways to access EI services, support available to facilitate the child’s transition from the preschool years to school-age provisions, as well as self-care strategies and resources. SG Enable has also worked with CaringSG, a caregiver-led organisation, to launch the Step One programme in July 2023.

Support for Single Unwed Parents

47.   Mr Louis Ng asked for the equalisation of benefits to single unwed parents, starting with the extension of the cash component of the Baby Bonus scheme. I thank Mr Louis Ng for his suggestion. Many of the existing benefits are already equalised - these include subsidies for education, healthcare, infant care and childcare, the foreign domestic worker levy concession, as well as the Child Development Account benefits. Rather than see the baby bonus cash gift as discriminatory to single unwed parents, it should be seen as a separate benefit to specifically promote parenthood within marriage. Hence, it is extended only to married parents.

48.   I fully empathise with the challenges faced by single unwed parents, in particular those who are lower income. I would like to assure Members that additional help is available for them. Currently, single unwed parents requiring support with their basic living expenses can approach our Social Service Offices (or SSOs). Our SSOs will assess their households’ needs and circumstances, and provide ComCare financial assistance if they meet the criteria. Our SSOs may also refer them to other Government agencies and community partners for further support. Family Service Centres (or FSCs) also work with single unwed parents and their children to address their social and emotional needs. Not forgetting that there are bottom-up initiatives, such as the Northeast CDC’s “North East Growth Fund”, also provide subsidies for formula milk and diapers to young children up to 6 years old so as to support new mothers.

Implementation and Governance

49.   These are valid concerns as the annual commitment for the enhancements to Government-Paid Paternity Leave and Government-Paid Paternity Benefit amounts to about $57 million. MSF has measures in place to verify the authenticity of parental leave claims. Claim information that cannot be validated against Government data will be verified by our processing officers against supporting documents. In addition, disbursed claims will be selectively reviewed to detect erroneous payments to employers, employees and self-employed persons. If any erroneous payment is identified and verified to have taken place, the CDCA grants the Government powers to recover such monies from employers, employees and self-employed persons, as the case may be. We will undertake the recovery of such monies in a timely manner.

50.   Ms Razwana Begum asked several questions regarding the Approved Persons. The primary role of the Approved Person is to oversee the withdrawal of CDA funds, in respect of an Approved Institution. Approved Persons must be able to fulfil their roles and responsibilities specified in the Child Development Co-Savings Regulations, as well as MSF’s Terms and Conditions for Approved Persons and Approved Institutions. For those who have not been proper in carrying out their role as an Approved Person, MSF will suspend their approval. The suspension safeguards the child’s CDA funds, but does not mean that the relevant Approved Institution has to cease service provision for the child. For instance, a pre-school can continue its delivery of services as long as they remain licensed by ECDA. In the past 3 years, one Approved Person has been suspended due to their failure to keep proper records.

51.   The amendments to Section 7 provide for a simplified process wherein revocation of the approval granted to these Approved Persons does not need to be approved by the Minister. This would be applied in specific situations that can be determined objectively, such as where the Approved Institution is no longer able to provide services because it has ceased operations. This serves to improve operational efficiency. I hope these clarifications address Ms Razwana Begum’s questions.

Conclusion

52.   Sir, let me now conclude. The amendments being made to the Child Development Co-Savings Act via this Bill is a clear signal of the Government’s continuing commitment to increase our support for parents in managing their work and family commitments. We will continue to do our best to provide such assurance to Singaporeans who are planning to embark on their parenthood journey. At the same time, we are fully aware that schemes and subsidies alone are not sufficient. At the broader level, we must strive to nurture a society that embraces family and is family-friendly. Every one of us has a part to play in building a Singapore Made for Families, where families are valued and supported.

52.   With that, Sir, I beg to move.