BY: Li Xueying
IF ACCOUNTANT Ulrika Hylander happens to get pregnant here, she would rather return home to Sweden.
After all, she and her husband would together be entitled to more than a year's duration of paid parental leave there. Under existing laws here, she would get three months. Her husband, three days.
The 39-year-old moved here last July when her husband was posted to work as a finance manager in a Swedish company. She mused: "It's tougher to have children here."
Perhaps not for much longer.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew hinted at a dialogue on Wednesday that Singapore is reviewing its procreation policies and could be looking to the Swedish model.
Its measures range from having affordable childcare to paid paternity leave and even child "allowances". In these, the Scandivanian country is a pioneer.
As Sweden's Ambassador to Singapore Par Ahlberger told The Straits Times yesterday: "Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce parental leave in 1974." This is gender-neutral leave. But of the 13-month paid leave, at least 60 days must be taken by fathers.
This has had the dual effect of boosting the employment rate of women in the country as well as its birth rates, added Mr Ahlberger.
According to a 2007 survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 81 per cent of women aged 25 to 54 are employed.
Sweden's fertility rate also went up from 1.6 children per woman in 1978 to 1.88 last year.
While this is below the 2.1 replacement rate for a population to maintain its current size in the long term, it is far above Singapore's rate of 1.29 last year, and is among the highest in Western Europe.
Ms Hylander, a mother of two, listed measures back home to encourage Swedes to heed the stork.
First, all parents get 13 months of leave, and continue to receive 80 per cent of their pay - with the cost borne by both the state and employers. On top of this, they can opt for another three months, though they will get just $40 a day during this time.
Second, they get tiered child allowances - from 105 euros (S$225) a month for the first child, to 190 euros for the fourth child.
Third, companies are legally bound to hire their employees - both mothers and fathers - on a part-time basis if they wish, up to the time their child is eight years old.
Fourth, childcare is "very affordable", capped at $30 a month. In contrast, childcare costs here average $670 a month.
But, of course, there are limitations to the Swedish way.
A study by the Institute for Futures Studies in Sweden said that the fertility rate is "highly fluctuating". The lion's share - over 80 per cent - of parental leave is still taken by mothers, "making it difficult for women to compete on equal terms with men in the labour market".
But for Swedes such as Ms Hylander, the measures are already "very good".
Meanwhile, Singapore is also taking note, with a delegation having recently visited Sweden to follow the day-to-day activities of a typical family at home and at the kindergarten, said Mr Ahlberger.
"It has obviously taken Sweden some time to reach these figures and each society must find its own solutions," he said.
"Having said that, I personally believe that one can find inspiration and good examples in the Swedish model, simply because we have almost 35 years of experience, and that the model in my opinion has worked for us."
This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 11, 2008.