Parliament No:13
Session No:1
Volume No:94
Sitting No:29
Sitting Date:10-11-2016
Section Name:Second Reading Bills
Title:Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment No 2) Bill
MPs Speaking:The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin) The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin) Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade) Mr Seah Kian Peng, Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee), Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member), Mr Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (Nee Soon), Ms K Thanaletchimi (Nominated Member), Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan (West Coast), Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling (Fengshan), Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon), Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines), Mdm Speaker

Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment No 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.36 pm

The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin): Mdm Speaker, I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time".

The Child Development Co-Savings Act (CDCA) covers a range of benefits in our Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Package. Members may recall that we amended the CDCA earlier this year. We provided for reimbursement to employers who gave the voluntary week of paternity leave, as well as payment to self-employed men for lost income for the second week of paternity leave. We also extended the Child Development Account benefits to all eligible children, regardless of their parent’s marital status.

We are now amending the Act to introduce further support for parents in caring for and bonding with their children.

The key amendments arise from the enhancements to paternity leave, shared parental leave and adoption leave. These enhancements had been announced at the National Population and Talent Division’s Committee of Supply in April this year. Amendments covered in the Bill include amendments to better support mothers on different working arrangements, as well as various amendments to align legislation with policy intent.

This Bill will also amend the CDCA to extend certain leave benefits to unwed parents, a move I announced earlier this year.

I have often said that a father’s role in the family is not just to put food on the table, but also to be a good role model to guide his children, and mould their values and characters in a positive way. We need to make the conscious choice to be active fathers, and we have to cultivate this mindset from the start.

We know that it can be challenging to ensure we have work-life balance, but it is important for us to adopt an active parenting lifestyle. Our children grow up faster than we realise and they should be our priority now, not later. We need to make the effort to spend both quantity and quality time with our families when we can. It should also not be leftover time. We need to actively weave in time with family into our schedule.

We want to better support fathers to achieve this through the proposed amendments. Hence, we are making the second week of paternity leave mandatory. This was announced by the National Population and Talent Division in April, eight months ahead of time, to give employers sufficient time to prepare. Both weeks of paternity leave are fully funded by the Government. The amendment is intended to take effect from 1 January 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date.

We are also increasing Shared Parental Leave from one week to four weeks. Couples will now have more flexibility in caring for their newborn and can work out an arrangement that best suits them. As with the current one week of Shared Parental Leave, the four weeks will be shared from the mother’s maternity leave. Shared Parental Leave is also fully funded by the Government. The amendment is intended to take effect from 1 July 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date.

The combined enhancements to paternity leave and shared parental leave means that a father can take a maximum of eight weeks leave in his baby’s first year – comprising two weeks of paid paternity leave, four weeks of paid shared parental leave if his wife so elects to share, six days of paid childcare leave and one week of unpaid infant care leave. These leave enhancements support fathers in experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood with their wives.

We will also be enhancing Adoption Leave, to better support adoptive mothers in caring for their adopted infants. Adoption leave will be increased to 12 weeks. This is three times more than the current four weeks. Similar to what is provided for maternity leave, the Government will fund the last eight weeks of leave if the adopted child is the first or second child, and the full period of 12 weeks, if the adopted child is the third and subsequent child. The amendment is intended to apply to adoptive mothers whose formal intent to adopt is on or after 1 July 2017.

We will also extend maternity leave to unwed mothers, to better support the child’s developmental and care needs. An unwed person adopting a child would also be eligible for leave. An unwed adoptive mother would be eligible for adoption leave. An unwed man adopting a child would be eligible for paternity leave. The amendments are intended to take effect from 1 January 2017 to benefit children born on or after that date, or in the case of adopted children, the formal intent to adopt is on or after that date.

Mdm Speaker, we choose to have children and naturally want to invest our time, energy and love in them to ensure that they grow up to become contributing members of society. While families raise children, instil values in them, and nurture them, the Government will continue to complement these efforts by supporting families in their care-giving responsibilities.

I encourage all parents to make good use of the leave schemes, to be there for our children and inspire them to do the same for generations to come. And my heartfelt thanks, especially, go to the employers who play an important role in supporting families’ aspirations. With that, Madam, I beg to move.

Question proposed.

2.42 pm

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade): Mdm Speaker, it seemed not so long ago, that quite a few Members of Parliament and I had appealed for more support for fathers to be active in the child-raising process, and where this show of support was manifested in the form of one week’s legislated paid paternity leave in 2013. In fact, I recalled speaking for this in Parliament for six consecutive years.

I am thus delighted that the Government has now decided to mandate the second week of Government-paid Paternity Leave (GPPL) to be effective from January next year. It is a double celebration for me, both as a Board Member for Centre for Fathering and as the Government Parliamentary Committee chair of MSF.

Many new parents I know welcome the slew of measures as lending weight to nurture a generation of caring fathers, and purging the traditional mindset of the woman as de-facto care-giver for newborns.

It is indeed good news that shared parental leave has increased from one to four weeks. However, it is still up to the mother whether to decide to share her maternity leave with the father. Placing the decision on the mother’s hands seems like a mixed signal from the Government. When sharing leave is still left to parents to decide, I am not sure if the take-up rate by fathers will be as rapid as we would like. As is – I asked a PQ on this a few months ago – I note that the number of paternity leave fully taken up by eligible fathers have not been as high as one would expect.

Perhaps, the next step is to consider independent leave for each parent.

I also welcome the amendments to extend maternity leave benefits to unwed mothers and unwed persons who wish to adopt. This is a very significant move and much welcome by all single mothers. Indeed, it took some time coming but I am glad that through the persistent efforts of many Members of Parliament including those who have retired, Government has listened and answered our call.

Still, I am wondering if more can be done for this group of single unwed mothers with plans to improve other aspects of unwed mothers’ lives, like entitling them to receive the $8,000 Baby Bonus Cash Gift, and allowing them to rent, or even better, own a roof over their heads from HDB. Is MSF supportive of improving housing options to this group, although I know this comes under MND's purview?

Imagine the stress of a pregnant, unwed mother having to deal with basic housing issues on her own, in an undignified manner and not be able to feel a sense of security, nor provide a secure environment to her child once he or she is born.

Madam, if I may, I think after this large step of granting greater equality to single parents, this is perhaps the last step the Government ought to take with regards to parenting, for a while at least.

I have, for many times in the past, argued for the Government to do less, and for the people to do more. In this, family life, children and how we define success, not just as parents, not just for our children, we need people, society and individuals to decide whether it is time to reset our highly competitive and academically-focused norms.

The Government can and should put in place Bills like the Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment) Bill. We should give greater support to fathers. We should continue to give greater support for adoptive mothers. We should most certainly give even much more support for single unwed mothers.

But this is only half the story, and perhaps the easier half of child development. The Government cannot stop this ceaseless race, these endless comparisons that parents subject their children to. People accuse the Government of setting up high-stress exams, I say, it is neither the Government nor the schools which put the stress on children – it is the parents.

Parents blame the PSLE not because it is an exam, but I believe it is because it is a nation-wide exam – one that allows a child in Woodlands to compare himself against another in Chancery Lane, against another in Bishan. Once we take away the common points of comparison, the argument goes, we no longer have this frenzy. Perhaps so, the comparisons can actually stop right now. They stop when we, as parents, stop. When we look as we should at child development in a manner that takes into their health, growth and well-being.

Mdm Speaker, this is what today’s Bill was meant to be. It was tabled because we the legislators want to encourage young Singaporeans to have babies, to experience the joys of parenthood, to dream and love and cry over the little lives that come out of a happy union.

Today, we can amend the law to better fulfil these ambitions, but it will take many more tomorrows because we can change the world into a better place for the children of Singapore. To do that, we need more than just the law. We need to rethink what it means to be a parent, what it means to support our children’s development. Madam, I support the Bill.

2.48 pm

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee): Mdm Speaker, twice this year, we have amended this particular Act – perhaps two baby steps in the right direction toward a pro-children and pro-family society.

Having children is not an easy decision to make. Children complete us as families. As a father of two young sons, we wake up every morning, feeling tired, dishevelled, covered with spittle and spilt milk. But amidst all of these is joy. Amidst all of these is a sense of fulfilment. And so, while it is not easy for complete families to raise children, it is perhaps even tougher for families that may not have the joy of being complete, through various circumstances, sometimes not of their own doing.

Unwed mothers, single fathers make courageous decisions to carry on with the pregnancy with all its attendant risks, pains and for single fathers to also take up the mantle to care for their children. These amendments that are proposed today help them in this journey.

There were people who have pointed out: will these moves encourage a journey away from the traditional model? But as I mentioned earlier, it is already not an easy decision for them to make to carry on and have these children. They could easily have said, "End this. Have an abortion. Carry on with life". But they have made the difficult decision to carry on to bring the child to term and give the child a fighting chance.

I made a point earlier this year during the Budget debate that while all these benefits are useful, they are not the end-all, and not the solution. There are still dramatic changes to the family model, not just in Singapore, but the world over. The way we live our lives, the way we work, our commitments, our own life expectations, our wants and our needs shape the way we view the family. And so, it takes a lot more than laws, as Mr Seah Kian Peng has mentioned. This is a long journey for us to get to this point to have these amendments put in place.

When I was younger, I perhaps shared the views. I thought, "Why get married? You have the freedom. You make decisions on your own. You are un-incumbent, you are free" – figuratively speaking. But then perhaps, as fate would have it, love came along. We got married, settled down and have two wonderful young children. But time has also passed very quickly. My eldest son will be three years old very soon, and three years seem to have gone by so quickly. I think for all of us in this House, as well as many Singaporeans, we work long hours, and so, there is sometimes a lot of lost opportunities.

And so, I would like to make a case once again for single parents. They bear the burden of raising their children on their own. What we have put in place in terms of leave, in terms of Government-paid paternity benefits is useful, but there are still many hindrances in their way. They are solely responsible for the welfare of their children. We have not made moves in terms of the Baby Bonus, the cash quantum, and in terms of housing. While they have children, while they are parents, they do not qualify for parenthood tax benefits. While we do not want to encourage any move towards single parenthood, I do not think many of them made a decision on the fly, saying that, "Hmm. How about being a single parent?"

I hope the Government, although many of these are outside of the purview of MSF, will consider this for the sake of the children.

We have also talked a lot about how we can better improve care for children as they grow up. The Government must take the lead in this. The Government can change perceptions. We talked about childcare facilities. One question would be: how many Ministries or agencies currently actually provide childcare facilities within the workplaces? There are provisions under the law. But how many?

While we encourage private sectors and other employers to do so, perhaps, as Government, perhaps as a public organisation, we should take the lead in that area. Children are the focus of these amendments. And I hope that with these amendments, we will move towards a more compassionate, merciful society when it comes to viewing unwed mothers. They have it tough enough, and very often, they come from backgrounds that may not give them the advantages to raise their children single-handedly. They have multiple issues, and if we do not extend a further hand to them, their children may undergo similar circumstances in the future.

Mdm Speaker, I think what we are doing today is a big baby step in the right direction. But as with children growing up, there is a lot more angst to encounter and a lot of changes to adapt to. Mdm Speaker, I support the amendments.

2.55 pm

Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, this Bill recognises that equality matters for the promotion of family life. While it is important to continue to promote parenthood within the ambit of marital unions, there is a need to balance it with the recognition that not everyone is so fortunate to be able to sustain a happy marriage, or even obtain it.

Economic pressures, relationship problems or errors of judgement may be to blame for marital breakdown or unwed pregnancies. But the most important thing is that children should not be published for the prejudices and the mistakes of adults.

I believe that putting the well-being of the child at the centre of social policy affecting the family is the key to the balancing act. I therefore support this Bill to equalise the various parental leave schemes for unwed and adoptive parents. Our children will stand most to gain from these equalising moves. I would like to raise two issues.

First, protect the family life of contract workers. The economy is fast-changing to what has been termed as the gig economy, and according to the MOM's Labour Force Report last year, 11% of our workers are employed on term contracts. This percentage will grow, as it is a worldwide trend for developed economies that are restructuring. It has been predicted that 40% of workers in the United States will be independent contractors by 2020.

The profile of short-term contract workers is also changing. They are getting younger, possessing professional credentials and making the conscious choice to be term contract workers. In the coming years, more of the children benefitting from the enhanced parental leave schemes will see their parents working on term contracts. These parents, and their children, will need better protection of their entitlements for this legislation to be meaningful.

Employers have been known to avoid leave obligations by signing workers on contracts that are shorter than three months and renewing them with breaks in between. I am aware that the tripartite partners have set up new guidelines in June this year where employers are encouraged to treat contracts renewed within a month as continuous and grant leave cumulatively.

In the short term, I urge the MSF to work with the MOM to track whether employers are following the guidelines and to intervene when they are not, so that "encourage" will become "strongly encourage". In the longer term, I ask that the Government enact comprehensive laws to better protect term contract workers, as this group is fast becoming a substantial group in the new economy.

Second, without housing security, parental leave can be meaningless. I would like to echo the hon Member Mr Seah Kian Peng on the importance of housing security. This is the biggest issue for divorcees and unwed single parents. Other than income security and retirement adequacy, housing security is a key foundation stone for our social security system. I cannot stress enough that having a secure roof over one’s head is crucial for the proper development of children. It is not just a physical need. This is an emotional need.

Children who grow up in a home that is more or less permanent will experience familiarity and love, while those who need to constantly move around will experience psychological stress due to the uncertainty of residence. Some studies have shown that for adults, moving homes can be more stressful than divorce and relationship breakdowns and changing jobs. What more for children who need the certainty in their environment to grow up nurtured and feeling secure?

The Ministry must be aware of the housing problems face by divorcees with custody of young children and unwed single parents with young children. Most often, these parents are women, who are thus faced with the dual roles of breadwinner and caretaker. Unwed single parents are not allowed to purchase a subsidised BTO flat because their family unit is not considered an eligible family nucleus. But what can be more nuclear than the parent-child relationship?

For the sake of the children, I urge the Government to expand its definition of family nucleus to include unwed single parents. Placing unwed single parents in the singles category, who can only buy a flat when they reach the age of 35, is a double whammy for the children. The Government is depriving the children housing security when they need it most at the very young age at the most crucial phase of their development. Not only that, by treating their parents as singles, the Government is also refusing to recognise the children and sending a terrible signal of shame to the children, who are innocent and should not suffer the sins of their parents.

It may be to balance against the need to promote parenthood within the ambit of marital unions, the Government would choose to make an exception for a parent, regardless of marital status to apply for a 2-room BTO flat at any age. I believe this will be an acceptable compromise balanced in the favour of the well-being of children.

For divorcees with young children, the problem is with hefty mortgage loans linked to the HDB flats that they co-own with their ex-spouses. Most will be compelled to sell their flat. Many will have to purchase smaller flats and their children will face the psychological stress of dislocation and relocation.

Low-income divorcees will find themselves and their children in a terrible situation, as they will not be able to afford to purchase a flat and will not be eligible for a public rental flat until five years later. Economic disruption may become the norm, but we should keep disruption to family life minimal.

The problem may well be that the HDB flat has long been treated as the matrimonial home rather than a more inclusive definition of the familial home. I urge the Government to consider expanding its definition to fit with the times. We need to have the courage to change the social infrastructure to meet changing social structures and economic circumstances.

Mdm Speaker, we already have the Family Justice Courts and the family justice paradigm placing the well-being of children at the centre of their work. The Ministry of Social and Family Development have made reforms that move in the same direction, as the previous and current amendments to the Child Development Co-Savings Act show. These are laudable moves and I support the Bill. But the work is only beginning and the reforms need to be holistic. I hope the Government would move next to tackle the whole housing issue.

3.01 pm

Mr Kwek Hian Chuan Henry (Nee Soon): Mdm Speaker, I stand in support of the Bill. There is a beautiful saying about motherhood: "Being a mother is like having a piece of your heart running outside of you". Most of us have experienced such love. And I would go further to say that such love extends to both parents and, frequently, to our extended family as well.

Our society recognises the value of these bonds through our policies. The CDA Bill is a solid step to further support parenthood in Singapore.

Our parents welcome the additional maternity leave, for it affords them more precious moments with their new-born child. Both our unwedded mothers and adoptive parents also welcome the increase in maternity leave.

Taken together, it signifies a further step in making our society inclusive and it also signifies that every Singaporean child is precious. So, there is much to celebrate, with the passage of this Bill.

Today, I would like to speak about two other groups which can benefit more from support. One, foster parents, especially those who are related to the children. Two, adoptive parents who have tried unsuccessfully to have children. Taken together, families from these two groups may not be large. But they too are part of this society, and the children from these families too are precious. They deserve our full support.

Historically, foster and adoptive parenthood has been well-accepted in our society, especially in post-war Singapore. While this number has diminished in our society, many of us know elderly relatives who have been fostered or adopted. Foster and adoptive parenthood is therefore an accepted part of our societal fabric. I therefore believe we can do more to strengthen support in these areas.

Let me start by talking about fostering in Singapore. Today, more than 5,000 children have benefited from MSF's Foster Parents Scheme. But against MSF’s current target of 500, we only have around 300 foster children and 250 foster parents. So, there is still some way of achieving MSF’s goal.

The existing MSF criteria are: one, resident of Singapore, at least 25 years; two, medically fit to care for children; three, household income of at least $2,000 a month; four, preferably married couples; and five, preferably experienced in caring and living with children.

I understand that there is also a monthly allowance per foster child, with more support for child with special needs.

To strengthen foster parenting in Singapore, I hope that the Government can provide parents with similar rights as adoptive parents with regards to leave. Specifically, I hope that foster parents can benefit from childcare and extended childcare leave, adoption leave, share parenthood leave, and unpaid infant-care leave. Why? Because foster parents have parenting duties just like other parents, and many of them struggle to do so. Therefore, such leave will go some way to help them out.

In addition, to enlarge the pool of foster parents, I hope MSF can relax its income criterion of at least $2,000 per month, especially for relatives such as grandparents, uncles and aunties. The logic behind the income criterion is understandable. However, there are retirees who have assets but no income who could provide excellent fostering care. Some of these could be relatives who have a deep love for their foster children.

Also, foster parents could also tap on our society for resources to help our children, for example, the MSF's monthly allowance I spoke about, as well as all the various social safety nets that we have strengthened over the years. But, of course, we can also have a safeguard where MSF's assessment and approval is needed to overcome this criterion.

Lastly, I hope that the Government can vest MSF with the power to recommend to the Family Justice Court, when necessary, legal guardianship for a selected group of foster parents. We all know that family dynamics can be complicated in cases where fostering is needed. Sometimes, it would be wise if the foster parents, especially relatives of the foster children, to get legal guardianship. Currently, it costs six to nine months, and $5,000 to $7,000 of legal fees to achieve that, which could be a burden to some foster parents. So, if MSF is empowered to recommend legal guardianship as needed, we can cut out unnecessary costs.

Next, I would like to talk about easing the financial burden on adoptive parents. Let me share on the state of adoption today. There is less adoption than it used to be. In 2014, 352 children have been adopted, which is a sharp drop from 732 a decade ago. The number of adoption agencies has also halved. For Singaporeans that embark on the adoption process, it is a costly process. Why? Well, there are not many children available for adoption locally, as many unwanted pregnancies have resulted in abortions. So, many potential adoptive parents have to look at adopting overseas, especially if they want someone who can fit well into their family circumstances. However, internationally, many countries are strengthening their adoption guidelines, and understandably so. The net effect is that the cost of adopting overseas, usually through an agent, has gone up considerably. I was told that the cost ranges from $25,000 to $50,000 to adopt from overseas.

I can think of two ways to encourage and strengthen adoption in Singapore. Firstly, perhaps our Government can consider providing a small grant to subsidise foreign adoption cost for Singaporean couples who have failed repeatedly to conceive. Why? Even after the recent generous increase in subsidies for IVF in public hospitals, many Singaporean couples who tried unsuccessfully to conceive have to still incur costly and repeated IVF treatment, especially if they do so in a private hospital. These couples would also have drawn down on their Medisave funds. As such, a small grant to offset this cost, perhaps helping all but couples in high-income brackets, would be welcomed.

Secondly, with regards to the Parenthood Tax Rebate, I also hope that MSF and MOF will extend it to beyond married adoptive parents, to single adoptive parents who are previously recognised as married under Singapore law, or older single close relatives to the adopted child.

In conclusion, in the course of my work, my grassroots volunteers and I have met several foster and adoptive parents. For example, there is a pair of grandparents from Kebun Baru, whose daughter, a single mother herself, has passed on. So, this pair of grandparents are striving their best to be adoptive parents to their grandson. They are both in their 60s and 70s. They are both struggling to have full-time jobs, so that they can support their grandson who is also their adopted son. From what I can see, they have no less love for their grandson than any parents out there.

And then there is a 52-year widow in Kebun Baru, whom the press affectionately called the Bao Lady. She is a hawker supporting three children of her own. She also takes in unwed mothers, as well as homeless children of all races. She is a wonderful foster parent well-loved by the children.

These two families which I highlighted here – one bonded by blood, the other bonded by conviction, choice and love – can get more help.

So, I hope that the Government can examine the possibilities that I propose, and add them to this excellent CDA Bill in due course, because this small group of families deserves our full support, because every child in Singapore is precious. Thank you, Mdm Speaker, I fully support this Bill.

3.10 pm

Ms K Thanaletchimi (Nominated Member): Madam, the Bill is a step in the right direction in recognition that parenthood is a joint responsibility of both fathers and mothers. It also acknowledges the growing role of fathers in smaller nuclear families. The Bill also addresses the perennial concerns of single mothers as it provides needed relief to them.

While I fully support the changes to the Bill, I also would like to seek clarifications on the following clauses stated in the Bill.

In section 9(8), 12AA, it is stated that the employees who are terminated with just cause cease to be entitled to Adoptive Leave, Government Paid Maternity Leave and Government Paid Paternity Leave. Many workers, especially lower income workers, may not know these. If the employer were to dismiss a pregnant employee, should the employer be made to inform Ministry of Manpower as a default, instead of having employee to lodge the complaint with Ministry of Manpower as these leave entitlements are associated with employment. In other words, can this done by default? I know this comes under the purview of MOM, but education awareness can be a joint effort of both Ministries.

Some unscrupulous employers may find ways and means to shrug off their responsibilities under the Act and resort to easy ways of termination. This issue has been raised and addressed in the past. However, with the slowing economy, more can be done to protect the interest of these working mothers and fathers as well as pregnant women. These issues can be jointly addressed by both Ministries too.

How are the benefits calculated for a woman who was employed or self-employed overseas if at the time of delivery of her child the mentioned woman is a resident in Singapore and ceased to be employed or self-employed overseas? What is the documentary proof required preventing abuse that is inflated claims? In the computation of claims, a weekly index is used limiting the claims to a maximum of six days whilst the self-employed such as the hawkers operate seven days a week. Can the period be stretched to seven days on a case-to-case basis, based on appeal?

On recovery of payment, the Bill states the Government "may" instead of "shall" recover Government Paid Maternity Leave and Government Paid Maternity Benefit beyond statutory limits. What would be the circumstances where such payments would not be recovered? As such payments are classified as civil debts, what are the channels to recover these debts?

Pertaining to section 12E, what is the number of cases of shared parental leave being shared between spouses since its introduction? If the numbers are low, how best can we promote sharing of parental leave between fathers and mothers and realise the importance of joint parenting? The intention of shared parental leave certainly includes the responsibilities of not only mothers but fathers in raising children. As a society, there must be more concerted effort to push for shared parenthood.

Madam, I strongly support this progressive Bill that is relevant to not only the current context of what family is and constitutes, but also for the future. Be it a single parent or dual parent family nucleus, the Government has shown that at the end of it all is the child’s interest that is of paramount importance and that no child should be deprived, penalised or robbed of parental love through no fault of theirs. The various leave schemes for both natural and adoptive parent is a welcome one. With that, I thank the Minister for the changes, and I support the Bill.

3.14 pm

Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan (West Coast): Mdm Speaker, I rise to support this Bill and welcome the enhancements as it is a move in the right direction to support shared parenting. However, I urge that we pay attention to the consumption rate of paternity leave as only 40% of fathers used their one-week paternity leave in 2015. More needs to be done to help young fathers overcome mindset and workplace constraints to improve this consumption rate.

Besides enhancing leave schemes for young parents, the Government should consider care-givers of elderly and other dependents as well. It is suggested that we allow flexing of medical leave provided under the Employment Act for care-giving needs.

I have four points to make on unwed fathers, maternity protection, stay-at-home moms and foster parents.

First, unwed fathers. Enhancements have been made to grant fathers of adoptive children two weeks of paternity leave. While unwed mothers are now entitled to full maternity leave of 16 weeks, are there considerations made to allow unwed fathers to enjoy the same? While they may be few but due to circumstances, there may be fathers who have to bear the responsibility of caring for the infant in the absence of the baby’s mother.

Second, maternity protection. Female employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave are protected by law from being dismissed or retrenched. Can the protection be extended beyond pregnancy and maternity leave period so as to give security and assurance to mothers who return to work after childbirth? The transition back to work after maternity leave ends is not an easy period as they learn to cope with balancing demands of work and the needs of their babies. While they were away, their jobs may have been re-allocated by employers and upon their return, these mothers may face possibilities of re-deployment or even redundancy. As a result these mothers may eventually be out of the workforce, whether by choice or not and it becomes a lose-lose situation for both the mothers and our economy.

The International Labour Organization Maternity Protection Convention No 183 states that "The standard also prohibits employers to terminate the employment of a woman during pregnancy or absence on maternity leave, or during a period following her return to work, except on grounds unrelated to pregnancy, childbirth and its consequences, or nursing. Women returning to work must be returned to the same position or an equivalent position paid at the same rate."

Third, stay-at-home mothers. Studies have shown that women choose to leave the workforce mainly due to family commitments and whether they are raising children or caring for elderly dependants, their contribution is invaluable to our society and nation’s development. However, the work that these women are doing goes unpaid and they are relying on financial resources of their spouses and loved ones alone. Without financial independence, their retirement adequacy is questionable. Hence, it should be a priority to provide support and interventions to help these women in securing their retirement.

Two ways. Firstly, transiting PME women Back-to-Work. As educational standards of workforce rises and women choosing to have children later, more and more who leave the workforce are PMEs in mid-career. This loss to the talent pool can be mitigated by enabling seamless transition of these women back to work. While many of their skills may have become outdated or irrelevant in the many years when they were at home, these PME women do possess skills and experience which can be transferable to new jobs. Various Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) targeted at mid-career PMEs can be enhanced to make the jobs more attractive to back-to-work PMEs, the women especially, in terms of pay, career prospects and flexibility in work arrangements.

At the same time, improving on the delivery mode for training and duration will entice more to make the commitment to embark on the PCP. Besides the Career Support Programme and Professional Conversion Programme, to give confidence to these women and also potential employers, I suggest the introduction of a Returnship Programme spanning four to six months to facilitate the matching of women jobseekers and employers. During the Returnship period, women jobseekers are given guidance and training to update their skills, better understand the job and ascertain her suitability for the position. Upon successful completion of Returnship, women jobseekers can embark on PCP for further training to make the career switch. This can all be done through an enhancement of current Career Support Programme and Professional Conversion Programme.

Second, income supplement. Besides granting CPF Cash Top Up Relief to encourage spouses and loved ones to voluntarily contribute to the CPF accounts of these stay-at-home moms, the Government should recognise the value of the unpaid work done by these women. Can Government also regularly top up the accounts of these mothers directly?

On the Workfare Scheme, can mothers who are younger than 35 years old and spouse having a higher than $70,000 assessable income who engage in part-time, temporary or freelance jobs be entitled to cash supplement, CPF contributions and training grants too? This is to encourage mothers to stay in connection with the job market and keep their skills updated while they are away, thus making an entire transition back to workforce in future a much easier and smoother one.

Finally, extension of childcare leave to foster parents. Expansion of leave to single parents and adoptive parents are laudable, perhaps timely to also consider extension of child care leave to foster parents fostering young children so that they can spend time helping the foster children to settle into their new home. The Fostering Scheme under the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) provides care arrangements for children who have been abandoned, neglected or ill-treated by their parents or guardians, or those whose parents or guardians are in ill-health and, therefore, unable to look after them. Thank you.

3.20 pm

Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling (Fengshan): Mdm Speaker, I welcome the amendments introduced to the Child Development Co-Savings Act and believe that these will serve to enhance the support for parents to better care for their children. Some of the amendments made the definition of parenting more inclusive and gives flexibility to accommodate different parenting style, particularly in the areas of adoption, unwed parents and provides clarity on administrative matters related to parental entitlements.

The Bill shows that we have positively progressed on some topics where there is a growing trend and our willingness to recognise and accept some diversity in family nucleus. I remembered a few striking cases of my own residents who attempted to have their own children but they were unable to due to age and also medical conditions. The tremendous efforts these families undertook to adopt the children from overseas impressed upon me that it is not the financial aids that we provide that is material to them, but the acknowledgement from society that they are akin to the child’s natural parents for their love in raising the child as though it is their own and also the fairness in including them under such benefit schemes that really makes the difference.

Similarly, for cases where marital status used to be the qualifying criterion, with the introduction of the new amendments; this would help quite a number of families with differing circumstances. As I believe the CDA touches the lives of every child and family in Singapore, the schemes implemented therein should not only encourage the families to have more children, but to give those children that is from vulnerable background a boost and also a better quality in life.

Today, the CDA fund is given to every child at birth and can be utilised when it is used at the approved institutions. With the introduction of the Baby First Step Grant and dollar-for-dollar matching benefits that was introduced on 24 March 2016, this gives further financial relief to all the families.

However, I feel that the low income families may not be able to benefit fully from this scheme. Firstly, some families are not aware of all the approved institutions where the funds can be used including those indirect expenses. Secondly, they do not have immediate financial means to capitalise on the matching grants even if they understand and wish to save for their children’s future. Thirdly, some families with challenging backgrounds are using this pretext of lack of funds to delay enrolling their children for pre-school or childcare.

With this context and to further support some of this families, I would like to ask the Ministry of Social and Family Development to consider how and what can be done to maximise the usage of the CDA funds, especially for the low income families. I would like to suggest four areas.

First, to assist parents who are already receiving the aids from the Social Service Office or those with low income capped at specific limit, and who have young children and schooling children in maximising the usage of the CDA funds. If required, MSF or even an appointed guardian can disburse and utilise the funds for the children’s benefit instead of giving the cash amount directly to the families under their name.

Second, to enable automatic transfer of any unused CDA funds for the child’s post-Secondary or Tertiary education.

Third, to facilitate our public donors who wish to contribute funds to this low income families by topping up their CDA accounts of the needy in order for the savings to receive this matching grants.

And fourth, to permit the parents or even trustees to tap on the CDA funds to purchase education endowment or insurance policies for these children.

Through some of all these above suggestions, we can better support those children in need and enable social and financial support to be given by willing individuals, apart from the child’s natural parents or even legal guardians. This also extends the aid beyond the early childhood and primary schooling years of the children and better utilise the funds provided.

In conclusion, I support the amendments and some of the positive changes that will impact these families.

3.25 pm

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Madam, I stand in support of this Bill, which is essentially about the most finite part of our relationship with our children. It is about the time we have with them, it is about the time we spend with them.

I fully and wholeheartedly applaud the Ministry of Social and Family Development for the amendments they are proposing in this Bill and for levelling the playing field for fathers, for adoptive parents and for single unwed parents. These amendments move us one huge step forward towards becoming a more inclusive society.

Parenthood has been one of the greatest joys in my life, and it remains close to my heart to see that every parent in Singapore is able to watch their child speak their first words, walk their first steps, and hold their hand every step of the way.

Ample research have shown that the bonds forged between parent and child in the earlier stage of his or her development is a one-time opportunity. Once the window closes, it closes forever.

Thus, this remains one of my highest priorities: contributing my thoughts and suggestions about parenthood.

With regards to this Bill, firstly, I firmly support the additional week of mandated Government-Paid Paternity Leave, and the increment of Shared Parental Leave eligible to fathers. These changes send a strong signal on the Government’s resolve to put family first.

Minister Tan had previously stated that in 2013, about 28% of fathers took the Government-Paid Paternity Leave; in 2014, it was about 36%. Can the Minister share what the percentages are for 2015 and to date, for 2016, and most importantly, what steps the Ministry will be taking to increase the percentage of fathers taking the paternity leave?

Secondly, I applaud the Ministry for a radical shift in the support given to adoptive parents. This is reflective of a government policy, which keeps up with times, as adoption becomes more common.

While I applaud these changes, I would like to ask the Minister why adoptive parents are not given the same benefits as birth parents. Why does adoption leave only apply to children under 12 months old? Why do adoptive mothers who qualify for leave still get only 12 weeks of maternity leave compared to the full 18 weeks?

I understand that adoptive mothers do not require extra time to recuperate after childbirth, but it is still important to note that adoptive mothers – like birth mothers – require time to bond with their babies.

Could we further consider the age of the child to determine the length of parental leave accorded to adoptive parents, and consider giving adoptive mothers the full 18 weeks of maternity leave if they have adopted a new-born or a baby under a certain age?

Thirdly, I have met many unwed parents. I hear about the struggles they face, the risks they are exposed to. By introducing these changes, we are levelling the playing field for children born to unwed parents and reducing the disadvantages they face from birth.

However, can the Minister share what are the factors delaying the complete levelling of this playing field?

Lastly, Madam, I spoke at the Second Reading of the Child Development Co-Savings Bill in May this year and I spoke about my wish to have the power to turn back time.

In that speech, I said that "As much as I try to live a life without regret, there will always be regrets, always a wish that we could have done things better, always a wish that we could have spent more time with our loved ones. Time spent with our children is precious and should be cherished, the memories created will last forever and are priceless. We can’t buy time and we can’t turn back time. We can’t get back the hours, the minutes and the seconds lost. But we can every day treasure and value the time we have with our children and our loved ones."

I did not mention this earlier but when I wrote that speech and in particular those few paragraphs, I was thinking about my late father who passed away last year and whom I miss dearly. He worked hard but he did not work hard for himself or purely for money. He never wore branded clothes or liked expensive things. But he worked hard for his family, his company and his staff members. He never really had time for family and he passed on before he retired, before he was about to have more time for family, especially his grandchildren.

There is a quote, which reads, "Spend time with those you love. One of these days you will either reply, 'I’m glad I did,' or 'I wish I had'." For my father, I’m sure his reply was: "I wish I had" and with him, I wish I had too but I know that I cannot turn back time and I will have to live with that regret.

But for my children, I will make sure my reply is "I’m glad I did" and I hope everyone will ask yourselves this question as you embark on your parenthood journey and even those already on this journey.

I mentioned in my previous speeches that this journey has changed me and it continues to change me. My daughter remains the most stubborn person in my family, she continues to say "no" all the time, even though it is actually more "nos" now – to be exact it is five "nos" at a go: "no, no, no, no, no". Probably more cute when she says it. But she has also learnt new words. Her favourite words are now: "Daddy, what is this?" or "Daddy, what is that?" I swear she even says this in her sleep. Every day is like an exam now! Thankfully, for parents these days, there is something called "Google"!

Madam, I hope Members in this House enjoy the stories I share about my daughter and about my parenthood journey because there is going to be more stories, as my daughter now graduates to become a big sister. I am happy to announce we are expecting our second child [Applause]. And that was a promise I made. But there was a one-for-one offer and so I am happy to announce we are also expecting our third child – we are having twins.

Just saying the word "twins" makes me feel tired already but we are extremely excited about welcoming our two little girls. I look forward to welcoming them into this world and to spend time with them. But I have to say that after these two little girls, this factory is closed.

On a more serious note, I am grateful for the amendments in this Bill especially as a father as it gives us more time to spend with our children. I am grateful that this sends a strong signal about the importance of spending time with your children, and I am hopeful that in the future, when asked about the time spent with your children, everyone will reply, "I am glad I did".

Madam, let me end with a beautiful quote from Jen Hatmaker and it reads, "You will never have this day with your children again. Tomorrow they will be a little bigger than they are today. Today is a gift. Breathe and notice. Smell and touch them. Study their faces, their little feet and pay attention. Relish in the charms of the present. Enjoy today. It will be over before you know it". Madam, I wholeheartedly support this Bill.

3.31 pm

Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines): Mdm Speaker, I rise in support of this Bill. As a father of a young daughter, it is perhaps only appropriate that I declare my interest. But unlike my fellow Member Mr Louis Ng, I do not have very good news to update. Neither will I promise.

This Bill is very timely especially during a time when our young mothers and fathers face tremendous constraints in managing work and family. There are two important messages in this Bill. One, families need greater support and we can help fathers to play a larger role in caring for their children. Two, every Singaporean child is important and must be given every chance to fulfil his or her potential. Let me take this in turn on how we can enhance them.

As my fellow Labour Member of Parliament, Mr Zainal Sapari, often reminds us, the younger Members of Parliament – he is a wonderful father to six lovely children, so he has every right to do so – he often reminds us that to be in your children's memories tomorrow, you have to be in their lives today. This Bill does include support and provision and time for parents that rightfully fulfil what he advised us.

It is trite knowledge that our younger Singaporeans are finding it increasingly difficult to raise a family and have a meaningful career. Furthermore, they believe strongly in shared parenting. In fact, gender stereotypes on child-caring is evolving. It is already archaic to think that only women must bear the primary care-giving role. Legislating a second week of paternity leave and allowing for shared parental leave of up to four weeks cater for such demand and change. Fathers play an important role in a child’s life, especially in the early years, with substantial downstream social and cognitive benefits.

The proposed provisions are also in line with an evolving change in gender-based family stereotypes and redefinition of traditional roles at home. While I am glad for these provisions, I am cautious for the eventual consumption of additional week of paternity leave or shared parental leave. Only 40% of our fathers used their one week of paid paternity leave last year. This shows that our families might face structural problems. Common anecdotally-evidenced gaps include the lack of support from employers, especially smaller companies which might genuinely face operational constraints. Fathers with reservist duties are also hesitant to take leave. In fact, some employers have commented it is difficult to support two types of national service. Both employers and employees need help for this to be effective.

I still maintain that it is only right that we send a strong signal of support through legislation. But we will need to study its implementation. I would like to urge the Ministry to study in-depth the constraints faced by companies and fathers, and establish ways to improve the leave consumption rate. Mdm Speaker, let me continue in Chinese.

(In Mandarin): [Please refer to Vernacular Speeches.] : Mdm Speaker, I fully agree that we should legislate to give fathers an additional week of paternity leave. Nowadays, more and more young Singaporeans believe that both parents should be involved in taking care of the children. The traditional concept of mothers being the primary childcare giver is also changing gradually.

However, during the first year of a newborn, the mother still plays the primary role. Hence, we need to help mothers ease the dual responsibilities of caring for her child as well as managing her career. This additional week of paternity leave will help fathers to play a more active role in taking care of the children and help reduce the burdens on the mothers.

For first-time fathers, this is indeed timely by giving them the opportunity to lay a solid foundation for an ideal family. This measure also reflects Singaporeans’ changing mindset with regard to what a good marriage and family should be like.

However, we cannot just legislate without considering the effectiveness. The take-up rate of paternity leave is still very low. I urge the Government to encourage more businesses to support their staff utilising paternity leave. If the Government wants to help our young families more comprehensively, can we also legislate that mothers can enjoy statutory right to ask for flexible working arrangements during the first year of childbirth?

(In English): Mdm Speaker, let me continue in English. I am also very encouraged by the move to extend greater support for unwed mothers by extending full government-paid maternity leave to all qualifying mothers, regardless of their marital status. We do acknowledge the value of a traditional family structure of a married couple with children. Yet, in reality not all families come in the same form or structure. The child has no control in this. And he or she deserves every chance at a full life and fulfilling his or her potential.

Therefore, I support the extension of the Child Development Account (CDA) to children born to unwed mothers. This is a big move towards greater inclusiveness. It will promote savings and help their mothers defray the cost of childcare or other needs.

Madam, while these measures have narrowed the gap between the entitlements of what a married woman with a child would get and that of an unwed mother, there are still areas where unwed mothers are not extended the same treatment.

First, as my fellow Member of Parliament, Mr Seah Kian Peng, has mentioned, the Baby Bonus scheme is still not extended to children of unwed mothers. Could the Government consider extending this to them, in full or in part, as this will go a long way in helping unwed mothers cope with the costs of raising a child, especially when they have to do so without the support of a spouse.

Next is on tax relief. I also urge the Government to extend the following tax reliefs to unwed mothers: Working Mother’s Child Relief, Grandparent Care-giver Relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, and Parenthood Tax Rebate.

This is because the money saved could go towards the needs of the child, and if we are to fully embrace the mantra "Every Child Matters", then we should treat them equally by not denying their parents access to these reliefs.

Unwed mothers and their child are still not regarded as a complete "family nucleus" and they are thus excluded from many of HDB’s public schemes. They can only buy their HDB flats if they are 35 years old and above under the Singles Scheme. This means they have to rent a place if they are not able to live with their family or relatives. Rental units can be costly. Sometimes, family members are not able to accommodate them due to space constraints. Could the Government reconsider this fundamental need for lodging as these unwed mothers are often younger, and allow concession in consideration of their plight and circumstances to purchase a HDB flat even before the mother turns 35?

We can always and certainly should do more but today this Bill is an important marker and milestone of progress in supporting our families. With this, I support the Bill.

3.39 pm

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, I thank all Members for supporting the Bill. To recap, the key amendments are based on enhancements which were announced earlier at my Ministry’s and NPTD’s Committee of Supply in April this year.

I am glad that Members such as Mr Alex Yam, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Seah Kian Peng, Ms Cheryl Chan, Mr Desmond Choo, Assoc Prof Daniel Goh and Ms Thanaletchimi, support the extension of Maternity Leave benefits to unwed mothers. These will improve the outcomes of their children.

Assoc Prof Goh shared his concern about housing security for children of unwed parents and divorcees. I share that concern. He asked if the Government could include unwed parents in its definition of family nucleus, in assessing applications for HDB flats. Mr Seah, Mr Alex Yam and Mr Choo asked if housing options can be improved for this group, such as allowing unwed mothers to purchase a HDB flat before turning 35.

Our public housing policy recognises the traditional family unit. That said, single unwed parents are not without housing options. Those aged 35 and above may apply for a new 2-room flexi flat in a non-mature estate or a resale flat, and also enjoy housing grants. Those below 35 years old may apply for new HDB flats or resale flats jointly with their parents. As for divorced parents with young children, they are given priority under HDB’s assistance scheme for second-timers when they apply for a new 2- or 3-room BTO flat in non-mature estates. Additionally, on a case-by-case basis, HDB also exercises flexibility to help divorced parents and single unwed parents buy a flat within their means, or to provide rental housing to those with no other housing options or family support.

Mr Patrick Tay asked whether unwed fathers could be granted paternity leave. It is generally the case that unwed mothers would be the main care-givers of their children. However, we will consider appeals by unwed fathers on a case-by-case basis. All working parents, regardless of marital status, can avail themselves to infant care and childcare leave to meet their care-giving needs.

Mr Louis Ng, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Seah Kian Peng and Mr Desmond Choo asked if more could be done for unwed parents. Some suggestions include the extension of Baby Bonus Cash Gift and tax benefits. It is good to take stock of the support we have given to all Singapore children to enhance child outcomes, regardless of whether their parents are married. I have said this a couple of times in this House and I think it is important for me to repeat it here again. These are education and healthcare benefits and it includes the Medisave grant for newborns, and infant and childcare subsidies. All working parents, regardless of marital status, also get infant care leave, childcare leave and extended childcare leave, and the Foreign Domestic Worker levy concession to support care-giving to enhance child outcomes.

I think many of Members' concerns centre around children who come from more vulnerable backgrounds. If you compound that with unwed parents, it makes it even more difficult for them. We know that children of unwed parents from low-income and vulnerable families need even more support, which is why we are introducing KidSTART. It is a very important programme. It may be in its pilot stage but we do hope and we do want this to work, so that we can extend this much more extensively amongst the vulnerable families, even starting from Year Zero when women can be identified at the pregnancy stage. Financial and social support is also available at Social Service Offices and Family Service Centres.

I do urge Members to take note that even for unwed mothers, there is a range of support available. With the recent changes and the changes we are putting in place, it extends it further.

However, it is also important to understand that we continue to believe in the importance of the family institution. We encourage married couples to have children. Hence, specific measures, for example, the Baby Bonus Cash Gift, tax benefits and Government co-funding for Assisted Reproduction Technology treatment and priority for housing, are targeted at married families. However, as mentioned earlier, for unwed parents, there are also various ways in which we can support them through various schemes.

Let me now turn to the topic of adoption leave. Mr Louis Ng asked why the length of maternity leave and adoption leave differs. We are increasing adoption leave from four weeks to 12 weeks from July 2017. This is to strengthen the support to adoptive parents. Natural mothers currently have 16 weeks of leave. Maternity leave is longer by a month, largely because natural mothers need time to recover from childbirth.

Mr Ng also asked whether adoption leave could be extended to adoptive mothers of children older than 12 months. Similar to maternity and paternity leave, adoption leave is intended to support parents of infants in the first year of delivery. Beyond the child’s infancy, all working parents – including adoptive parents – can take six days each of paid childcare leave when the child is below age seven, and six more days of unpaid infant care leave when the child is below age two, to spend more time to bond with their children.

Mr Henry Kwek touched on the need for our society to support adoption. He suggested a grant to offset foreign adoption costs for couples who have failed repeatedly to conceive. As the focus of adoption is to find a suitable family for a child, subsidising the fees charged by commercial adoption agencies is not the right solution, we think, in terms of protecting the best interests of the child. Mr Kwek also suggested allowing single parents who were previously married and adopted a related child to benefit from the Parenthood Tax Rebate. We thank him for the suggestion, which we will study further. That said, all things being equal and in the child’s best interest, we encourage parenthood within marriage. That is still something that we would like to see and we would like to encourage.

Members, including Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Kwek, also raised suggestions to support foster parents, through various measures such as leave benefits. I agree with Mr Kwek that we should make it easier for foster parents to discharge their parenting responsibilities. We have about 400 foster parents caring for over 400 children today. Mr Kwek mentioned about the Bao Lady. In fact, I visited her and spoke to her and her family. They are really quite amazing. I visited various foster families as well. It is really quite encouraging to see families with such capacity to love, not just for their children but for many children over many years. It really makes a difference for these children whose families may not be ready to take them in and look after them for a period. Foster parents play a very significant role. We are heartened to see that Singaporeans are willing to go that extra mile to care for vulnerable children. We certainly want to encourage more Singaporeans to come on board to be foster parents. We will certainly keep the suggestions in mind as we continue to develop foster care.

I will now move on to the topic of stay-at-home mothers. Mr Patrick Tay asked if the Government would consider putting in place Returnship Programmes to help match women jobseekers and employers. He also suggested providing an Income Supplement to stay-at-home mothers and for Workfare Scheme benefits to be extended to a select group of such young mothers. I think this is an idea that we can consider, though we should take a hard look at all the current job-matching services and to minimise duplication of efforts. But I think this is something that we should work at.

I want to assure Members that we recognise and value the contributions of stay-at-home mothers in caring for their children. Today, eligible stay-at-home mothers already enjoy all the measures under the Marriage and Parenthood package except understandably, those related to employment such as leave benefits. They will get the Baby Bonus cash gift, Child Development Account benefits, Medisave Grant for newborns, Foreign Domestic Worker levy concession, and basic child and infant care subsidies. We appreciate the suggestions from Members, and will take them into consideration as we continue to study ways to enhance the family-friendly environment in Singapore, to support both working and non-working parents.

Mr Patrick Tay is right that there are other care-givers, such as those of the elderly and other dependents. He suggested allowing flexing of medical leave under Employment Act with them, as they may not qualify for the current leave benefits. We will study these suggestions as well. While we want to support such care-givers, we also need to consider the impact on businesses and the overall leave support already in place for employees.

Now, let me touch on protection for workers and employment-related concerns raised by Mr Tay. Mr Tay asked to extend protection beyond pregnancy and maternity leave for female employees. We will work with tripartite partners in the next round of review to study this, while being mindful not to change the laws so drastically that it results in unintended consequences such as resentment against mothers and impact on gender bias; because this could impact on their employability. This is something that we have to be careful about. Nonetheless, it is an important area to look at. In the meantime, we will continue to encourage employers to adopt flexible work arrangements to support families.

Assoc Prof Goh highlighted the need to protect contract workers as this group is fast becoming a substantial group in the gig economy. I agree. In fact, when I was in the Ministry of Manpower, this was an area that we flagged out for close attention. But we also realise that this whole space is quite complex because there are many, many different types of contract work. The Ministry of Manpower will work with tripartite partners to study this suggestion further, taking into consideration the overall leave provisions already in place by employers and the care-giving needs of workers.

Ms Thanaletchimi raised four technical areas for clarification under this amendment Bill. Firstly, she asked what measures will be taken to ensure that workers who are terminated without just cause know their leave entitlements upon termination of employment. MOM encourages to implement fair and non-discriminatory employment practices. The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) takes an active role in looking into complaints of unfair employment practices, and will refer cases to MOM for enforcement if found to be true. Any employee who feels discriminated against can approach TAFEP for assistance.

Secondly, Ms Thanaletchimi asked about the process of calculating benefits for a woman returning from overseas to deliver her child, especially if it seems to be an "inflated claim". We will determine the amount of Government-Paid Maternity Benefit for such a woman based on documents such as her payslip. Where there is reason to doubt the documents or the claims, we will ask further questions and we may not always approve the claim.

Thirdly, she asked how the weekly index works for a person who works seven days a week. The weekly index simplifies the provisions of the Act, and does not change entitlement. A self-employed person who works seven days a week, and takes the full maternity leave continuously, will be paid based on seven days a week. Where maternity leave is taken flexibly, it will be based on the number of days she works in a week, or 48 days, whichever is lower. This mirrors the computation of entitlement for employees on continuous and non-continuous leave.

Fourthly, she asked about the circumstances and mechanism under which the Government will recover over-payment of Government-Paid Maternity Leave and Government-Paid Maternity Benefit. As with other civil debts, the Government has the option to commence legal proceedings to recover over-payment of Government-Paid Maternity Leave and Government-Paid Maternity Benefit. In practice, we will seek to recover through calls, letters or physical visits if necessary.

Finally, let me make a technical clarification. Ms Thanaletchimi said that employees whose services are terminated with just cause cease to be entitled to Adoptive Leave, Government-Paid Maternity Leave and Government-Paid Paternity Leave. I would like to clarify that a woman only forfeits Government-Paid Maternity Benefit, and even then, only for the relevant employment period where she is dismissed with sufficient cause. If she had worked satisfactorily in other jobs in the 12 months preceding delivery, she can still receive a Government-Paid Maternity Benefit amount based on income earned from those jobs.

Miss Cheryl Chan suggested some enhancements relating to Child Development Accounts (CDAs). Miss Chan would be pleased to hear CDA monies can be used to purchase the child’s premiums for Medishield Life or Medisave-approved plans. At the end of 12 years, unused CDA monies are also automatically transferred to the child’s Post-Secondary Education Account which can be used for post-Secondary education fees.

She also suggested that the Government facilitate donors or payments of cash assistance into the CDAs of children from low-income families, so that they can benefit more from the CDA scheme. We are mindful that low-income families face more challenges in saving into the CDA. This is why we have introduced the CDA First Step of $3,000 earlier this year. This is directly provided into newly-opened CDAs, without parents having to save first. We also reach out to lower income families through touch-points such as the Social Service Offices and Family Service Centres, to increase awareness about the CDA.

We also welcome initiatives by society to help families defray the cost of child-raising. One such example is the OCBC Starter Scheme, which was introduced in 2012 and will end in December 2016. Under this scheme, if lower income parents saved $50 in the CDA, OCBC would contribute $100 into the account. As Government provides matching contribution of $150, the children will effectively receive co-savings of $250 in return for the $50 saved.

Let me now move to leave for fathers. The Government is mandating the second week of Paternity Leave from 1 January 2017 and extending Shared Parental Leave from one week to four weeks from 1 July 2017. On Mr Louis Ng’s request for the updated take-up rates for Paternity Leave, this was 38% in 2014 and 42% in 2015; an improvement of 4%. It is not bad, but we hope this will increase further. Really, fathers should just take it up. The 2015 figure is still increasing, and will only be finalised at the end of March 2017, when the deadline for the submission of claims is over. On Ms Thanaletchimi’s request for statistics, about 4,000 fathers have taken shared parental leave as at the end of August 2016.

Mr Seah Kian Peng asked if independent leave can be considered. We are now increasing paternity leave and shared parental leave. For any further leave enhancements, we need to balance the needs and concerns of both employees and employers. We will also look into Mr Desmond Choo’s suggestion for an in-depth study of constraints faced by companies and fathers in consuming these two leave schemes.

The enhancements to paternity leave and shared parental leave signals the Government’s strong support to encourage fathers to spend more time caring for their children. Shared parental leave also provides parents the flexibility to decide and to choose their leave arrangements to care for their newborns, based on their respective family’s circumstances. We really hope that more fathers will make use of the enhanced leave to be involved in child-raising. That being said, it ultimately, it is for the father to decide whether to take the leave or not. Maybe, we should persuade mothers to convince fathers to take the leave.

I thank Mr Louis Ng for sharing his good news. Congratulations! And I encourage Mr Desmond Choo to work harder. And I also thank Mr Louis Ng for his interesting parenting experiences. I am sure many of us who are parents here will have our own respective interesting stories as well. Indeed, those of us who can look back and honestly say, "I am glad I did", we do remember the lessons we learnt as parents.

Children enrich our lives in the most unexpected ways, just as we fathers play an important role in the family. We are not just breadwinners, but we are role models for our children. We really do need to be active and present in our children’s lives, especially during our child’s formative years.

In MSF, when we look at the various social issues, there are two common denominators that we pick up, as we connect the dots and trace it back. A lot has got to do with a stable family environment and especially the presence of the father. The other point is about making an impact in the formative years, where the greatest development is experienced by our child. Are we there shaping those formative years? Mothers are usually there, but fathers need to be there as well. This is something that we can encourage and support but ultimately, the individual parents must make those choices.

Fathers can shape a child’s confidence immensely in their development. I fully agree with Mr Seah Kian Peng’s point that, as parents, we should be focusing on the child’s health, growth and well-being. Parents sometimes do not know what impact their comparisons have on their children. In some situations, the child loses confidence in his ability and he starts to wonder if he will be unloved by his parents the moment he fails to meet their expectations. Fathers have the means to demonstrate unconditional love and support to the children. I do urge all of us to do so.

I also agree with Mr Alex Yam on the importance of recreating a pro-family and pro-children environment. The physical environment is important. There are 35 Ministries and Government agencies with childcare facilities within their buildings. While this will certainly help working parents, more and more young fathers are willing to make use these facilities and not just expect the mothers to do so. That is encouraging.

Families for Life as well as Government agencies provide parenting and family events and workshops at the workplaces. I encourage more fathers to avail themselves of these and to be more engaged in pro-family workplace programmes.

When the two weeks of mandatory paternity leave kick in next year, we hope that more fathers will take the opportunity to actively bond with their children from the time they are born. Like Mr Patrick Tay, I also hope more fathers will use the shared parental leave so that they can further bond with their children.

These leave enhancements are focused on the critical infant period. But fatherhood continues beyond infancy. One important tagline says, we are "Dads for Life". I hope that we, as fathers, will continue to be involved and always present in our children’s lives. It may be different for everyone, and we all need to find our own way to connect and bond with our children. It need not be something elaborate. It could be through simple everyday activities like reading a bedtime story, kicking a soccer ball around, going out to cycle or just going out for a meal. It may surprise some of us, but to our children it is not what we do, but that we are doing it together with them.

Active fatherhood also strengthens marriages. Fathers show that they care and are committed to their wives and their families, when they share the parenthood journey. The journey may be a bumpy ride with ups and downs, but we learn along the way to be better parents ‒ together with our spouses. It is also these ups and downs that result in the creation of special moments and memories, memories unique to our families, memories which we will always hold dear to ourselves and memories which will last us a lifetime. Mdm Speaker, I beg to move.

4.01 pm

Mdm Speaker: Yes, Mr Seah Kian Peng.

Mr Seah Kian Peng: I have just one clarification for the Minister. I note the increase in the number of fathers who have taken up paternity leave – it is a 10% increase, from 38% to 42%. I urge the Minister to look into the underlying reasons for the low take-up to get to the source. Indeed, we all want to make sure that the two-week mandated paternity leave will be fully taken up. But I think if we do not address the source, we are not going to get there. So, I urge the Minister to look seriously into this.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: I fully agree with the point. We do want them to consume it. I think we would conduct further studies and review what exactly are the impediments, and what we could do to help make sure that these schemes that we are putting in place actually get used, and to achieve the desired outcomes that we want.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

The House immediately resolved itself into a Committee on the Bill. - [Mr Tan Chuan-Jin].

Bill considered in Committee; reported without amendment; read a Third time and passed.