Marriage and Procreation Review 2012

In June 2011, the new MCYS Minister of State launched an appeal for views that could contribute to their review on marriage and procreation.  Yesterday, it appeared in the news again. Not sure why they are still “reviewing” this anew, but for what it’s worth, this was my letter to them last June.

In response to your call for suggestions, here are some thoughts from me as a parent of two young children. I would like to preface this with the point that govt incentives should be premised upon helping those who want to have kids but genuinely find it a struggle to cope in the demanding work environment and amidst Singapore’s high cost of living.

People will never decide to have kids merely because of some govt incentive, since the emotional energies and total lifestyle change involved, far outweigh a few thousand dollars. I hope these suggestions are helpful at driving policy-making towards what is really needful.

We should not shy away from treating procreation and parenthood policies as on par with National Defence issues, and not flinch from increasing spending to Mindef levels if need be. Afterall, replacing our population is a matter of national survival.

Top challenges/needs:

1. Care for the child in the first 5-6 years – affordable, good quality infantcare and childcare (no one wants to place their young children in the care of strangers, but many parents are left with no choice. More focus should be placed on this sector, since it is afterall preferable to having an unsupervised maid care for the child, unless one can find a very trustworthy helper, which is rare these days).  The Govt should regulate the sector more, such that caregivers/teachers receive standard, high-quality training (akin to what MOE teachers undergo in NIE), so that they can command higher pay (at least $2k).

The whole system should be modelled after the primary school system, where teachers are paid well, and parents pay standardised, subsidised fees (say at most $50 a month), instead of the current vast range where there is no assurance of quality even if parents pay top-level fees.

At present, those who are profiting from the whole childcare sector are the owners and franchisees. If children matter to the government, then added focus should be placed on quality care for children for their formative first 5-6 yrs. There should also be an alignment in subsidies between MOE-registered preschools and MCYS-registered childcare centres – both provide similar services and it does not make sense that MOE-registered preschools do not qualify for any subsidy at all.

2. Finding time to be a parent – Family-friendly employment policies The public service can do more in leading by example by being the most family-friendly employers around. I applaud AWARE’s suggestion to legislate more paternity leave (at least 2 weeks, and up to 2 months ideally) to fathers. An increase from 6 to 12 days of parental childcare leave (which actually only works out to 1 day per month) would also be helpful, and there should be more flexible working arrangements for women with young children, publicised through the government hiring portal. In many countries (e.g. Australia, Scandinavia, even global cities like London and Brussels), parents reach home by 530pm or 6pm, whereas in Singapore, parents often reach home at 8 or 9pm, just as their young children are about to sleep, and most families can’t even have dinner together.

3. High cost of a child’s needs (first 3 yrs)

– Remove GST on formula milk (some families spend hundreds on this a month!), doctor visits, diapers etc, which are extremely costly. The absence of GST / VAT on children’s products is already in place in UK, US and most EU countries.

– Monthly child grant and relaxed CDA matching requirement for lower-incomeA small grant every month towards each child’s needs would help if possible. Finland grants S$350 a month per child until the child is in their teens. Whilst this is unlikely to come about here, given our lower tax rates, perhaps something in the vicinity of $50 a month would still help, and this can be means-tested. Also, the CDA matching requirement should be relaxed for lower-income families, e.g. for every $6k from the govt they should only be required to put in $2-3k. The total CDA limit could be increased as well, since $12k can be easily used up within a year of infant care fees.

4. Space

– Housing Subsidies/priority queue for those with children. Flats are already so small, and a family really needs at least a 4 rm flat if they have more than 1 kid. Those with 3 kids should qualify for larger flats (EA or EM) more easily, or pay subsidised rates (e.g. the equivalent of a 4 or 5 rm flat for an EA/EM).

– Transport no COE / less COE if you have 2 kids? subsidies for SUV if you have three? It is physically impossible to have three carseats in a normal sedan, if both parents are still to be in the car, not to mention space for domestic help/grandparent.

5. Significant jump in incentives for third child onwards – There are high barriers to entry for those considering having a third child, not least the space issues mentioned in point 3. Remove the Foreign Domestic Worker levies for all families with children, train special FDWs to help larger families, etc etc.

6. Remove bias against the poor/uneducated – no drop in subsidies.

Regardless of how poor / uneducated the parents are, there should not be a sudden drop in subsidies for the 5th or 6th child onwards (e.g. delivery fees are not subsidised at KK for the 5th child onwards?!). The onus in on our education system to give them fair opportunities and to educate them to contribute to society. And for our social safety framework (social workers, community VWOs) to be strong such that these children do not fall through the cracks due to less capable/responsible parents. Every Singaporean should count.

7. More help for stay at home parents (SAHPs)

No discrimination against those who opt to be SAHPsAt present, SAHPs get a double whammy – they survive on less household income and do not receive subsidies. For instance, if they send their children to childcare centres/preschools, they get less subsidies than working mothers.

Whilst I understand that this is meant to encourage women to work, the govt has to realise that the best caregiver for a child is usually their parent. Having parents who are main caregivers usually make for well-adjusted children, which contributes to social stability as opposed to the majority of students being latch-key children.

Those who make the personal sacrifice of loss of income should not be made to s
uffer the injustice of having to paying more to send their kids to the same half day preschool that a working mum does. If a working mum gets $150 worth of subsidies to send their kid to a half day childcare, this should extend to any SAHP who does so too. A SAHP might need to send one child to full day childcare so that she /he can care for an infant, so it does not mean that SAHPs should not require childcare at all.

I hope that these suggestions can be carefully considered, and that implementation will be swift, such that the problem does not continue to fester, or snowball to proportions that will stymie reversal.

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