Govt to beef up support for young parents

Fifteen years after the Baby Bonus was introduced to encourage Singaporeans to have children, the Government is shifting its focus.

It is, for now, putting on hold further increases in incentives such as baby bonus and leave benefits.

Instead, the spotlight will be on building up support networks to help young parents, said Mrs Josephine Teo, the Government's pointman on population issues.

For instance, it hopes to increase the number of childcare spots from the current one for every two children, to two for every three.

She added that the civil service is exploring giving parents the right to ask for no-pay leave during a child's first year.

Mrs Teo was speaking to The Straits Times in an interview two months after the term "millennials" made its inaugural appearance in a National Day Rally. In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said more will be done to help this segment of Singaporeans - aged between 16 and early 30s - form families.

The change in focus from monetary incentives to a support network is what millennials want, said Mrs Teo. "That is the direction and that seems to be what the young people are telling us too," she added.

She said the 15-year-old Marriage and Parenthood package "probably" already has most of the benefits it can have. Last August, it was significantly enhanced: The Baby Bonus cash gift was increased by $2,000 and the Medisave grant for newborns by $1,000.

An extra week of paternity leave was also introduced.

Such measures, said Mrs Teo, had helped reverse Singapore's decline in the total fertility rate. It tumbled to a historic low of 1.15 in 2010.

Last year, it inched back up to 1.24, though still well below the 2.1 needed for a population to replace itself.

"So I think it's safe to say that for now when it comes to things like leave entitlements, I think we have done quite a lot and we're probably going to take pause now."

Mrs Teo, who is also Senior Minister of State for Transport, Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister's Office, has spoken to a slew of young Singaporeans on what they want. One key feedback is the need for more childcare places. Another is for employers to be more flexible in offering work arrangements.

A mother gets 16 weeks of maternity leave. She also gets six days of childcare leave and six more unpaid infant care leave a year. Even if she was to expend them all post-birth, they add up to only about four and a half months of leave.

Infant care is available from when the baby is two months old onwards but most parents may not want to leave their newborns in centres at such a young age, noted Mrs Teo.

"So the question is, how do we address this gap?" she said.

The civil service will look at providing other leave provisions such as no-pay leave during this gap period, she said.

However, Mrs Teo said Singapore may not be ready to legislate the right to ask for flexible work arrangements.

Get MyPaper for more stories.