Speech by Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Motion on Singapore Women’s Development
I thank the Government for its work on the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development.
The White Paper is a firm commitment to the women of Singapore. I am especially heartened by its support for key issues like equal workplace opportunities, caregiver support and protection against violence, which have been championed by activists and women for many years.
Let me start by talking briefly about men. This White Paper is indeed about women’s development.
But I hope we can all agree that the action plans in the White Paper are good not only for women, but also for men and indeed all of Singapore. They steer our society towards a healthier, fairer set of norms, cultures and practices. And that’s something we should all be able to celebrate.
Today, I will raise three proposals. First, we should equalise paternity and maternity leave entitlements. Second, we should legislate the right to request for work from home. Third, we should end the stigma against single unwed parents by extending to them the Parenthood Tax Rebate, the Working Mothers’ Child Relief, and the cash component of the Baby Bonus.
Equalise paternity and maternity leave
My first proposal is that we equalise paternity and maternity leave entitlements.
Members of this House will be no stranger to my daughters Ella, Katie and Poppy. Some Members tell me that they feel like they know my daughters quite well, just from the stories I tell about them through my speeches in Parliament. They are a huge part of my life and I’ve learnt so much from them.
Of the memories I’ve shared, the ones that stick most in my mind are from when Ella, Katie and Poppy were borned, when they were babies.
Paternity leave was a special time, and my regret is only that it wasn’t long enough. My factory has closed so I will never enjoy paternity leave again – as Ms. Joan Pereira has said, when you have twins, you will never have more kids.
But even as paternity leave becomes a thing of the past for me, I want to make sure fathers of our future get to spend more time with their babies.
As I have said many times in this House, “Spend time with those you love. One of these days, you will either say I wish I had or I am glad I did.”
Study after study show that paternity leave is vital. Researchers at NUS looked into this and published their findings just a few months ago. Their paper “documents the positive relationship between paternity leave provision and family dynamics and children’s well-being in Singapore”.
Taking paternity leave not only gives fathers the “immediate benefit” of sharing joy and responsibility of caring for the newborn, but ends up having a “mid-to-long-term impact on children’s and family’s well-being”.
Longer leaves are significantly related to lower family conflict, lower maternal depression, higher marital satisfaction, and fewer behavioural problems for the child.
In other words, paternity leave is good for fathers, mothers and children. It is win-win for everyone.
Some have said that mothers need more leave than fathers because mothers need to physically recover from childbirth. But this is more reason why paternity leave needs to be equal with maternity leave. The father needs to be there as well, otherwise mothers will spend their 16 weeks of leave single handedly caring for the newborn – and that is no rest at all.
A young father recently reminded me how insufficient two weeks of paternity leave really is. Let me share his story.
“When my firstborn arrived two years ago, I went back to work after two weeks. My wife was still recovering from labour and was bleeding and had stitches and still needed bed rest. Except she couldn’t. Once I resumed work, she had to care for the baby, all while learning the ropes to be a new mom. It broke my heart to return from work every day to see her collapsed in break.
Two weeks, even if taken flexibly, is not enough. It’s not just about the baby, it is also about the mother. Our wives have gone through enough to bring life into the world. Please let us stay home, to take care of the big and little things, so that they can focus on recovery and all the other things we can’t do, like create milk”.
It broke my heart to read this, and I hope the Government can rethink whether paternity leave should really be less than maternity leave.
Let me say one more thing about our low level paternity leave: it entrenches gender stereotypes
A 2019 IPS research paper stated that “family policies in Singapore continue to signal that childcare is a woman’s responsibility and reinforces gender stereotypes”.
It is hard to argue against this. We give mothers 16 weeks of maternity leave and fathers two weeks of paternity leave. Mommy stays at home, daddy goes to work. That’s the message we send.
The worst part of the problem is that it is self-reinforcing. Because we give fathers less leave, they don’t get to develop the skills and confidence needed to care for their kids. This, the IPS study finds, causes them to leave childcare to mothers.
The IPS study proposes that we increase the amount of paternity leave. I wholeheartedly support this call and hope that we can set a target year, perhaps 2030, by which we will have an equal amount of paternity leave and maternity leave entitlements.
We can increase paternity leave in phases, giving our employers time to plan ahead, while also providing a clear signal of our intentions to reduce gendered perceptions of parenthood.
I hope Minister will look into this proposal in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, including the tripartite partners and NGOs, such as Families for Life and Centre for Fathering.
Legislate right to Work From Home
My second proposal today is that we legislate to give employees the right to request work from home, which employers can turn down only on the basis of valid business-related reasons.
Legislate and not just have guidelines. Having these guidelines does not show that we place a strong importance on this.
Survey after survey shows that Singaporeans want this and some would rather continue working remotely than receive bigger bonuses.
We have also known for a long time that work from home narrows the gender pay gap.
The pandemic has also highlighted that work from home can reshape gendered stereotypes of “Daddy goes to work, mommy stays at home.”
An economics research paper titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality” found the pandemic, by forcing people to stay at home, has likely led to an increase in fathers taking on childcare responsibilities.
The paper concluded that this increase may sustain only if the fathers continue to have increased flexibility to work from home.
The media has also reported stories of how COVID-19 has given fathers a chance to bond with their kids.
Imran, a marketing manager, talked about how his wife and him are so glad that he now has more time to play and eat together with his two toddler children. Imran shared that after this increased time together, his kids now miss him even when he steps out of his house briefly.
Sir, the pandemic has brought about a momentum for greater gender equality in childcare. We will lose this momentum unless fathers continue to get access to work from home.
It is clear: We need to legislate the right to work from home.
To be clear, fathers taking on more childcare responsibilities is a positive step for women’s development. It spreads out the burden of childcare between the parents. It frees women from the stereotype that they will stay home to care for their children.
Giving everyone the right to work from home will reshape the attitudes of employers towards women. It would also likely increase the female labor force participation rate, which, as Minister See Leng has shared, is extremely low among women – only 80% of women aged 25 to 64 are in the labour force.
Legislating the right to work from home would send a strong signal like how we are legislating the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices to send a stronger signal that unfair employment practices of all forms, including against women, are not tolerated.
We can carefully scope this new law together with tripartite partners. There is no reason why we cannot design a balanced, effective law that is a win-win for everyone.
End the stigma single unweds face
My third and final proposal is that we end the continued discrimination against single unwed parents.
For decades, Members of this House have been speaking up for single unwed parents.
In 1997, Minister Shanmugam questioned how it could be “morally justifiable to deny an unwed mother and her child public housing”.
In 2006, Minister Indranee said that to build an inclusive society, policies affecting certain segments, such as single parents, had to change.
In 2011, SMS Janil called for Singaporeans to be compassionate, to treat single parents with dignity, and not to punish single parents and their children.
Thankfully, we have made progress. Single unwed mothers now receive the same 16 weeks of maternity leave as married mothers. Their children now benefit from Child Development Accounts. Most recently, we have allowed single unwed parents to apply for rental housing and buy subsidized HDB flat from HDB.
I thank the government for listening to their concerns and responding positively. As MND has acknowledged: “Single unwed parents are valued citizens, and like all parents, are respected for the love and care they provide for their children. They are no less a mother or a father, just because their child was born outside of marriage”.
I am glad that the White Paper recognises the need to help single parents. It recommends increased support for single parents as one of the six focal areas in the Alliance For Action to strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships.
While I am confident the Alliance will help reduce the stigma against single parents, we cannot run away from the elephant in the room. The Government has a whole suite of parenthood policies that expressly exclude single unwed parents.
These policies are the Parenthood Tax Rebate, the Working Mothers’ Child Relief, and the cash component of the Baby Bonus.
Are single unwed parents any less a parent? Are unwed working mothers any less of a working mother? And are babies of single unwed parents any less a baby?
We may answer no, but these policies signal the opposite thing. Even if it is not the Government’s intention, these policies suggest that single unwed parents are less worthy set of parents. Less worthy of support.
This discrimination is a painful one because it is especially hard to be a single unwed parent. As MOS Sun acknowledged during this year’s COS debates: “It is not easy to bring up children, even more so, singlehandedly”.
The numbers speak for themselves: young single unwed parents have a median monthly income of just $600 a month, among the lowest in Singapore. Inflation is hurting everyone, but they are the ones who will most have to scrimp and save.
Yet we deny them the support all other parents get.
We already agree on so many things. We agree that healthy intact families are ideal, but staying together is not always possible or even good. We agree that single unwed parents and their children face stigma and have to overcome exceptional challenges.
Many of us felt this stigma firsthand at a recent dialogue session where single unwed parents spoke courageously about the stigma they faced. Many were in tears as they spoke.
As MOS Sun shared after the dialogue “They shared the pain and hurt felt when faced with the stigma that can come with being a single unwed parent”.
We can help end this stigma. What we need to do is end the discrimination in our parenthood support policies.
Sir, to conclude, we need to do three things.
First, we need to equalise maternity and paternity leave entitlements.
Second, we need to legislate the right to request work from home, which employers can reject only for valid business reasons.
Third, we need to stop excluding single unwed parents from the Parenthood Tax Rebate, the Working Mothers’ Child Relief, and the cash component of the Baby Bonus.
The White Paper is our commitment to a fairer and more inclusive Singapore.
I am thankful for many of the action plans sketched out in it. Indeed, they promise a brighter tomorrow for the women, men and children of Singapore.
I started this speech by talking about how the development of women is something that all men and indeed all of us in Singapore can celebrate. Let me end by sharing a quote from Ban Ki-Moon, “Achieving gender equality requires the engagement of women and men, girls and boys. It is everybody’s responsibility”.
We can and need to go further in order for Singapore’s march towards gender equality to make true progress. Sir, I support the motion. Thank you.
Watch the speech here.