Missing Pieces In The Parenthood Scheme
By Kokila Annamalai
Giving certain families access to piecemeal benefits will not solve the care-giving problem. We need to think about how we can build a more family-friendly society.
Every Singaporean’s right to family and a good life – that’s the message we were hoping the new parenthood schemes would send out. But it is sorely disappointing to see that the latest policies still send a strong signal that the right to support for children is a privilege of the “ideal family” that meets the marital, employment and citizenship status prescribed by the state.
This is counter-productive to fostering a sense of equality, community and belonging – sentiments which are fundamental to people’s decisions to start a family. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and policies must be mindful and supportive of the increasingly diverse choices Singaporeans make.
An incomplete picture
Baby bonuses and tax rebates haven’t worked over the last 20 years, and they won’t work now. Children are a life-changing, lifelong commitment – not something we can give people a “kickstart” on by offering them a lump sum of money. Like Einstein quite rightly said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Rather than pumping more money into these short-sighted measures, we need to reflect deeply on what it is that people really care about.
A public survey conducted by AWARE in 2004 concluded that the quality of life is the single most important reason why Singaporeans are not having more children. People will only have children when they can imagine a good life for those children, and when the larger society reassures them that they will receive the support they need to care for themselves and their loved ones. This support must be in the form of universal benefits that all citizens have equal access to.
Greater social security, affordable public housing and pre-school education, as well as a flexible, stress-free work culture and an impartial education system that gives children of all backgrounds the same opportunities are important to give Singaporeans the peace of mind and confidence to consider starting a family.
Giving certain families access to piecemeal benefits will not solve the care-giving problem. We need to think about how we can build a more family-friendly society. When support is offered at the public level, rather than at the individual level, it will take the stress of comparing and competing with their fellow citizens off Singaporeans, and give them the autonomy to determine their own lives, and start families at their own pace.
Falling into place
The new M&P Package definitely shows encouraging signs of moving towards a more gender-equal and inclusive approach to care-giving, but bolder moves are necessary to change social mindsets about parenting.
The introduction of paternity leave is a positive step, but one week is not enough for dads to play a significant role in parenting. To lighten the load of working mothers and allow fathers to participate actively in childcare, paternity leave must evolve into a more substantial provision. A gender-equal approach includes helping moms return to work after childbirth, by providing job security and protecting them against discriminatory hiring practices.
And while the latest measures have expanded to include alternative modes of parenting such as adoption, we must broaden the definition of family beyond married parents, and the definition of care-giving beyond childcare, so that single, divorced, widowed or unwed parents and care-givers of elderly, sick or disabled family members all receive the support they truly need.
The move to heavily subsidise child and infant care services for middle and low income families gives us much hope that going forward, the State will adopt principles of equality and universality in place of individualised solutions and differentiated benefits.
As we cast a wider net to support parenthood, we must make sure that no family falls through the gaps.
The insights and recommendations in this article are heavily drawn from AWARE’s 2012 paper on Marriage and Parenthood Trends, submitted to the National Population and Talent Division. Read the full paper here.