Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Parliamentary Speech by WP Ms Lee LiLian on 6.2.13 - White Paper on Population

6th February 2013

A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore – Supporting All Children, A Culture of Equality in the Family, and Work-Life Balance: WP MP for Punggol East SMC, Ms Lee Li Lian

Watch video here [Link]

Dear Madam Speaker,

The recently released Population White Paper seeks to address two challenges-ageing population and low Total Fertility Rate (TFR), by bringing in more immigrants. With projected figures of between 6.5 million to 6.9 million in 2030, it is no wonder that many ordinary Singaporeans have been concerned about the possible decline in the quality of life. The proposed method of importing immigrants to make up for TFR shortfall is not a long term solution.

I believe that much more can be done to encourage Singaporeans to have more children. We have not yet shown enough political will to remove the institutional and structural obstacles that are discouraging young Singaporeans from having children.

If we are going to consider aggressive immigration policies as a way to correct the problem of low TFR and replacement rates, we should also at the same time be considering more aggressive attempts to support the development of Singaporean families to boost the TFR. Even though we may not see the immediate effects of an increasing TFR till beyond 2030, we are talking about long-term, sustainable solutions. Without tackling TFR directly, we will continually have to increase the population by way of immigrants, and this will be a never-ending cycle.

There are three areas in which we must do more. Firstly, we must support and invest in all children, regardless of background. Second, we must support a more equal distribution of family responsibilities between men and women in the family and thirdly, we must institutionalise better work-life balance.

The Workers’ Party acknowledges that a declining TFR is a serious problem for Singapore. However, we disagree that the solution should be to support a much larger foreign population before we have ensured that we are doing enough to support all children in Singapore, regardless of their background or parentage.

The government has spent billions of dollars on incentives like Baby Bonuses, subsidies for IVF treatment and childcare. I believe it can go further in extending financial support and recognition for families, parents and children that are at the margins of society.
The first group in need of more support are low-income families.

While the increase in baby bonuses under the Baby Bonus scheme are a welcome relief on parents, the dollar-for dollar bonus structure tends to favour higher-income groups over those who may be more in need of extra financial help to raise children.

The recent Parenthood Package offers higher baby bonus pay-outs, matching dollar for dollar up to $6,000 each for a couple’s 1st and 2nd child, up to $12,000 each for their 3rd and 4th child, and up to $18,000 each from the 5th child onwards.

The question we must ask is, how many families are able to put down $6,000 or more in order to receive bonuses? How many families are we leaving out of this incentive scheme?
The second group of Singaporeans that tend to be neglected are single parents.

A single mother is under 35, is disqualified from buying a HDB flat until she reaches 35 years of age. Even then, she only qualifies to buy under the “singles” scheme. She is only entitled to 8 weeks paid maternity leave, unlike the 16 weeks for a married woman, and a further 4 weeks of unpaid maternity leave with no government funding.

An unmarried single mom will not qualify for the tax relief for a foreign domestic worker and is entitled to only 2 days of childcare leave per year for a child below the age of 7. Her child is considered “illegitimate” by the government. Despite this she will still need to pay taxes and her son will still need to do national service.

In a recent ST report, Singapore sees an average of 12,000 abortions a year, and 4 out of 10 women who went for abortions were single women. Reducing the discrimination against single mothers may reduce the likelihood of single mothers having to resort to terminating their pregnancies for fear of lack of support. Furthermore, for a country suffering from a fertility crisis, each child should be valued, and not punished simply because he or she is born to unmarried parents.

We must plan for the future, there is no doubt about that. However, before we invest heavily in developing infrastructure to accommodate extensive immigration which is a “worst-case scenario” that the government says they are hoping will not happen, we must ask whether we have done enough to support all Singaporean families that live in Singapore and their children, and to tackle the problems that are here and now. Not investing enough in our own people is what will cause the real worst-case scenario.

In addition to investing fully in our families, we must also look at ensuring a family-friendly environment in Singapore.

Parents-to-be have many concerns, especially given the high cost of living and increasingly competitive environment we live in. This includes the loss of income when they have to drop out of work to look after their children, or experiencing a drop in their career prospects, when they have worked so hard from school days to make a successful career. Many parents are concerned about financial insecurity and how to balance having children and their careers, especially so for mothers.

We must do more to tip the balance in favour of having more children, by reducing these concerns. This can be done by encouraging a culture of equality in the family, and encouraging better work-life balance.

One of the often cited reasons for women not having children or having more children is the lack of support from their husbands. The Marriage and Parenthood survey (2012) noted that 99% of married respondents agreed that fathers and mothers are equally important caregivers.
Given the high-levels of education amongst our women, it is not surprising that many would be concerned about their careers after having a child. Having both parents sharing the responsibilities of childcare can help facilitate the mother’s earlier return to work, and reduces the anxiety and concern she has about being unemployed, or her career prospects going forward.

The introduction of Paternity Leave to one week is a step in the right direction towards the greater involvement of fathers. But more can be done to bring balance to the roles fathers and mothers play in looking after their children.

The current Paternity Leave of one week per year is designed for emergencies and can be broken up into seven days over a year. I would like to propose the introduction of Bonding Leave for fathers in addition to the Paternity Leave. A two week Bonding Leave, where the father can take a week of leave each time to take care of each child, would allow them to care for their children for extended periods in order to share the responsibilities of childcare with their wives and to develop stronger father-child relationships. The cost of this should be shared by the state and the employer. If the scheme is well received, Bonding leave could be further extended to encourage a more equal distribution of responsibilities between mother and father.
Given our woes over declining fertility, it is time to consider going beyond mere tweaks, to ensure that sharing family responsibilities is something feasible for couples to be able to do.
Singaporeans work some of the longest hours in the world.

A recent survey by on work-life balance found that nearly nine out of 10 Singaporeans worked beyond their official hours. After office hours, 70 per cent chose to complete unfinished work in the office while the remaining 30 per cent chose to bring work home. Almost half of them believed that their companies only pay lip service to work-life balance.

Quite clearly, greater government encouragement is needed in the form of corporate tax relief and enforcement of policies to ensure more companies seriously promote work-life balance complete work place. We cannot leave it to private businesses to promote work-life balance on their own, and until bold government measures are introduced, we will always be stuck in this rut.

Many women also feel that even before they have had their babies, they may be stigmatised by their employers. Many tend to immediately cast doubts over whether a woman can have children and also balance a high-demanding career. I know this from my own personal experience. Just recently during the by-election campaign, many were asking whether it would be possible for me to be an MP and have children at the same time. I can imagine many women face the anxiety of wondering whether their bosses feel the same, and consider them a liability if they were to become pregnant, and whether they would be able to come back easily after a long period of leave taken to stay at home with their children.

Apart from working remotely, another option for flexible-work life balance is to make part-time work more mainstream. According to an OECD report, birth rates are higher when there are more part-time jobs available to women, in order to facilitate both work and family responsibilities.

This is practiced in many Scandinavian countries, for example Norway. An important factor in making part-time work a viable option is making sure employees can retain their employment and state benefits. This ensures that part-time work remains desirable and is not considered marginalised labour, but regular employment.

The government must support a mind-set change in terms of how companies can contribute to the larger society. Today, we see many companies in Singapore and around the world embarking on Corporate Social Responsibility campaigns, committing to being part of solutions to problems facing societies. Agilent Technologies, LinkedIn and Hitachi are some examples of companies that were top-ranked by Forbes Magazine for enabling flexible work schedules. We should study these companies to identify what incentivises such highly successful, profit-making entitles to be active proponents of work-life balance and see how they can be applied in the Singapore context.

There may be no immediate solution, or any country that is a shining beacon of success. However, that does not mean we should be resigned to there being no workable solution, hence moving to more drastic measures such as rapid influx of foreigners. The European Union for example, has recognised the need to ensure flexible work arrangements and has set up committees like EU Expert Group on Gender and Employment which conducts dedicated research and provides valuable insight into how to better balance work and family life, as a sign of continued commitment to resolving a complex problem. We should commit resources to an independent commission that looks into long-term solutions work-life balance.

In conclusion, Madam Speaker, the Singapore story is about achieving the impossible. This is why we should not so easily give up on our people and their role in driving Singapore’s success. I do not claim to have all the answers, in my proposals here today. However we are all here speaking with the best interests of Singaporeans at heart, and it is worth considering different points of views on this White Paper, since we have been facing the problem of low TFR and an ageing population for years, and policy amendments up to this point have seen few results. We should consider all options, and not immediately opt for quick-fix solutions through foreign immigration that will have long-term consequences. We already feel many of these consequences today, and they have yet to be resolved. Do we want to pass this burden off onto our children? Do we want them to become minorities in their own country?

Helping support the growth of Singaporean families is what will keep the dynamism of a society going, as people feel they have options and the freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams without being overly bound by never-ending costs, both financial and otherwise. This is the way forward towards creating sustainable policies that will do Singapore well in the long-term.
We should be working towards a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore.
With that, Madam Speaker, I oppose the motion.

Source: Workers Party political website

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