SINGAPORE: The government is pulling out even more stops in its bid to get Singaporeans to have more babies.
Among the moves was a surprise mention by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his National Day Rally that it’s time to look at paid paternity leave.
And to help defray medical costs of raising children, the government is looking at a Medisave account for children at birth.
Couples with children could also get priority when getting an HDB flat.
More Singaporeans are remaining single or getting married later, and this has affected the country’s total fertility rate.
The rate reached a low of 1.2 last year, a far cry from the replacement rate of 2.1, said Mr Lee at the Rally on Sunday.
He said: "Many Singaporeans explained their concerns about having children. Recently, I talked to one young lady — a teacher. She has four kids, young ones, from the age of 14 to age of one.
"She has gone back to work as a teacher and she appreciates the schemes we have for working mothers — paid maternity leave, flexi—work arrangements and so on.
"But she said, ’if I took all these schemes, then I am pushing my work to my colleagues and other teachers and further more when it comes to assessment time, my head of department and my principal will not know what grade to give me. Even if you give me more of these leave and perks, it will not help me with my career’, which is important to her.
"So I asked her what was the one thing that would encourage Singaporeans to have children. She said ’improve work—life balance’. But then she added ’but that is not in your power to give’.
"She understands we want work—life balance, we encourage people to have work—life balance but finally it’s the attitudes of the employers, it’s the attitudes of the individuals who are pursuing the careers, social norms — everybody is working, so I have to work long hours too, and so we are stuck in that position."
Other feedback received include promoting flexible work arrangements, keeping childcare affordable and fathers getting time off for their newborn.
"Maternity leave at 16 weeks is about alright. You can make it longer but employers have serious worries and we should take them seriously and I think employees have worries too," said PM Lee.
"But this idea of paternity leave in some form — either you give some to the husband or you make some of the maternity leave convertible. We said ’no’ for a very long time, but I think it’s time we change, to signal the importance of the father’s role and your shared responsibility for raising children. So, use the paternity leave for the purpose it is given."
Such suggestions will be considered as part of the National Population and Talent Division’s study into the population issue.
The division will work out a Marriage and Parenthood package by the time the White Paper on population strategies is published.
Mr Lee said the measures aim to address the practical problems couples face.
Ultimately, it’s not about money but of value and deep motivations, said the prime minister.
He said the government wants to create the right social environment and ethos for Singaporeans who want to settle down and have kids.
Besides families, Mr Lee said memories — of places, old friends, past events — are also essential to keeping Singapore as the best home.
He said: "I remember 9 August 1966 — our first (National Day) parade. (There was) nothing to march with, except some national flags and coloured flags, and then (in later years there were) more variety, more equipment (in the parade), helicopters, the national anthem — and you especially remember the moments when the flag flies past and you sing Majulah Singapura.
"The helicopter changes — from the UH1H to Super Puma and now we have the Chinook. We are now on the floating platform (during the National Day Parade), but when you sing Majulah Singapura, the pride and emotion are the same."
Mr Lee said such memories define the Singapore story.
And in creating a better Singapore, Mr Lee said the drive to keep the Singapore story vital and fresh must never falter.
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