July 14th, 2015

Support parents rather than incentivise parenthood

asian parentBy Goh Li Sian, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, AWARE

We were not surprised to learn that measures such as the Baby Bonus have been found to be ineffective “incentives” for childbirth and parenthood (“Fewer sold on incentives to start a family: Survey”; last Tuesday).

Whether to have children is an intensely personal decision.

Not everyone wants – or is able – to have children, and direct incentives cannot affect people’s deeply held attitudes about children. A one-off cash injection also does little to address the anxieties that many have about combining caregiving with continued employment.

For this reason, direct incentives have been shown to be ineffective elsewhere. In 2011, an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study showed that publicly funded childcare raised fertility rates more than money given away to families as subsidies.

The policies with the greatest effect on birth rates aimed to help women combine career and family, rather than try to directly boost the birth rate.

For instance, quality early childhood care and education enable women to re-enter the workforce. The knowledge that they would not have to give up life outside the home may make parenthood a less daunting prospect for many women.

Another important measure is paternity leave, which supports childcare as a shared responsibility between parents.

The current allowance of one week is too short, and does not do enough to encourage substantial involvement in caregiving.

Maternity leave in Singapore, at 16 weeks for married women, is relatively brief. Notably, it is shorter than six months, which the World Health Organisation recommends as the period for babies to be exclusively breastfed.

By contrast, Britain offers up to 52 weeks of shared parental leave, which can be allocated flexibly between parents.

Moreover, employers may discriminate with impunity against women who have children.

A woman who returns from maternity leave to find a termination notice on her desk has no legal recourse.

For us to develop a parent-friendly society, a change in work culture is necessary. Singaporeans have one of the longest work weeks in the world.

While shorter working hours may impose short-term costs on employers, companies will benefit from the higher morale and productivity of more fulfilled workers with happier family lives.

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 14 July 2015.

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