Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Ministerial Statement on Support Measures for Phase 2 (Heightened alert)
Mdm, I thank the Government for this Budget, a recognition of the unprecedented challenges facing our economy.
That said, I hope the Government can also recognise that the problems sparked by this crisis are not just about money. They are also about time.
And on that note, I’m glad that our second Minister for Finance, Minister Indranee is now also the Minister in charge of the National Population and Talent Division. She can give both money and time.
Today, I will offer three suggestions related to time.
Introduce Childcare sick leave
My first suggestion is about childcare sick leave.
Today, students are still being sent home from schools and childcare centers because they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. This practice started in 2020 and it continues today, more than 15 months later.
It is a good policy and I support it. Schools and childcare centers are places with high levels of personal interaction. Keeping symptomatic students at home protects other students and, in turn, protects their families.
But it is also a policy that creates huge challenges for parents. Parents with children under seven years old only have six days of childcare leave a year. Even before the pandemic, parents had told me that it was not enough. It was just enough to cover them for the six days when childcare centers close.
Now they have to take leave even when their young child has only a mild cough or sore throat. They are at their wit’s end.
Worst still for parents whose youngest child is between seven to 12 years old. They only have two days of childcare leave.
Work-from-home arrangements are not enough. Childcare leave is not enough. Annual leave is not enough. This is not new to the government – that is why it offers childcare sick leave to public servants, And that is why 50% of public servants do take up the option of childcare sick leave, even though they might have access to annual leave, childcare leave and work-from-home already.
What about the other Singaporeans? What about those whose jobs do not allow them to work from home? What about our frontline workers and essential workers, who put their lives at risk for all of us?
I’ve spoken to teachers at childcare centers. They describe how some parents plead and beg them to simply keep the kids at the sick bay. The parents say, “I cannot take another day off work, I really cannot.” The answer from the childcare center is of course a no. But parents are desperate.
What hasn’t been emphasised enough is the public health role that parents play. By taking time off to care for their symptomatic children, they keep all of us safe. Just as we should not take our essential workers for granted, we should not take parents for granted as well.
15 months. 15 months of sending symptomatic students home, of intermittent school closures, of on-and-off home-based learning. Parents need childcare sick leave to fulfill their moral and public health responsibilities. The Government needs to legislate for this urgently.
Let me stress that this is not leave to run errands or go to a break. I am calling for childcare leave which is backed by an MC, which is issued by a doctor.
Introduce Parent-care leave
My second suggestion is about parent-care leave. We must legislate to provide our people with parent-care leave.
It’s not just the young ones who need our care. It’s also the old folks, those confronting the harsh tides of ill health, unfamiliar technologies and lonely spaces.
These folks – having lived through racial riots, the oil crisis, the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS – now face COVID, possibly the greatest challenge our nation has faced yet.
For many, it is the straw that has broken the camel’s back. Last year, suicides rose to its highest level in 10 years. The highest spike was seen among the elderly, with 154 elderly suicides, the highest in 30 years.
Mdm, I remember bringing my late father for his medical appointments and I know first hand how confusing it can be at times when we were navigating the hospital, going from department to department. This was the pre-COVID days.
Things have gotten much harder for lonesome elderly folks. To attend a medical appointment, they have to fumble with TraceTogether and with SafeEntry, processes that may make no intuitive sense to them. The buildings they have to pass through may have half its entrances and exits mysteriously locked. The friendly faces on the streets whom they once asked for help are now covered by masks. It’s an alien world for many of our elderly.
How we help our oldest citizens is not a straightforward question to answer. But we know with certainty that they need care and support. For those lucky enough to have family members who love them, we must unblock this channel of care. We must offer working adults parent-care leave.
The Government already knows parent-care leave is important. That’s why we offer it to our public servants. That is why our public servants do take up such leave. But we need to extend this to the rest of working adults.
Not all of us choose to bear children, but all of us were born from parents. For those lucky enough to still have their parents around, we need to give them the opportunity to care for them, particularly in this time of medical and social emergency. We need to legislate for parent-care leave urgently.
Freedom of movement for our migrant friends
My third and final point today is about our migrant workers.
In the Resilience Budget, the Fortitude Budget and the various other supplementary budgets, we have done a great deal to support our Singaporeans. And I thank the Government for that.
Out of sight and out of mind for many of us are our migrant workers.
For much of the past 15 months, migrant workers in our dorms have been confined within their dorms. For many workers, the only places they have been are literally just two places: their dorm and their work site. Some can apply to leave their dorm but I understand it is not for everyone and it is only for 3 hours. 3 hours out of 168 hours a week, out of their dorms or worksite.
We Singaporeans complain about the restrictions on dining in, about how we can’t squeeze our friends into a table of five or a table of two. These are fair complaints.
But the problem we face is for many migrant workers a distant fantasy. They have not gotten to go shopping. They have not had the chance to meet their friends. They have not had the chance to walk free like human beings. Their basic human needs of socialisation, of entertainment, of physical freedom have not been met. And remember they too are worried about their loves back home during this pandemic, loved ones they have not seen for many years.
I have heard heartening stories of volunteer groups that organise small group outings for migrant workers on Hippo buses with strict safe management measures in place. These ad hoc outings provide this small group of workers brief respite.
Such volunteer efforts, important as they are, are only temporary relief for a very small group of migrant workers.
What is the Government’s plan to let our migrant workers out of their dorms? Some migrant workers even live in dorms without recreation centre, In the short term, can we open up spaces such as old schools and open fields to let small batches of migrant workers hang out?
In the long term, can we have a concrete timeline and plan to lift movement restrictions on our migrant workers? In particular, what is the plan for fully vaccinated workers when we reopen in Phase 3? These are workers who are also tested for COVID regularly and live and work under strict safe management measures.
As with everything we do, there are risks involved. But we can mitigate the risks of these plans. We can do things in batches, in phases. It is not all-or-nothing.
I remember at the start of our COVID circuit breaker, many members of this House, as well as the Government, spoke with heartfelt appreciation for the sacrifices of our migrant workers. But as our voices have wound down, our migrant workers’ restrictions have not. They continue to suffer and especially suffer mentally.
We need to take concrete action in the short term and make concrete plans for the long term to ensure our migrant friends can meet their human needs of socialisation and physical freedom.
It is the right thing to do.
Mdm, in conclusion, I stand in support of the new Budget measures today.
At the same time, I hope we will support those suffering by offering them something other than money. We need to give childcare sick leave and parent-care leave to our working adults. We need to offer safe, calibrated ways for our fully vaccinated migrant workers to meet, socialise and unwind under strict safe management measures.
Time and physical freedom are things the Government has the power to offer, and I hope we will take urgent, concrete steps to offer them. Thank you.
Watch the speech here.