Discriminatory parental benefits – stop giving excuses

There’s nothing to call it but discrimination. The only takeaways from Minister Tharman’s latest justification of our discriminatory laws against parents and children from single-parent families is the usual “support married women who remain in the workforce and raise their children within the context of marriage”. Marriage is laudable and it is to be encouraged, but discriminatory laws and benefits are not the way to do it.

While we acknowledge and appreciate the benefits already dished out to both married and unmarried parents, the visible gap in benefits is a blow to many of Singapore’s children. This bare-faced prejudice will only perpetuate the hate when the children of single parents realise that they have been given second-class citizenship. The rationalised argument of “children still receive equal benefits” is hogwash. My earlier post details the discriminatory gap:

Unmarried mothers (parents) do not receive: Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, 8 weeks of Maternity leave, Paternity leave, Shared parental leave, Parenthood tax rebate, qualifying child relief, handicapped child relief, working mother’s child relief, and grandparent caregiver relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, Housing grant for families and Housing priority schemes.

Is the minister trying to tell us that children receive no benefit from these things? That these are only enjoyed by their parents? The children of these parents are not discriminated against at all?

The bogeyman of moral hazard is clearly false – it has been shown time and again that giving better protection to divorcees has not in fact impacted the divorce rate, that giving incentives like the Baby Bonus has not been able to make a dent in the birth rate, that these days, Singaporeans don’t give much thought to government policies when making major family/life choices. But it seems that the G would rather take the moral low ground.

The G clearly has no idea how to win hearts in this context. There are better ways to encourage marriage and to encourage the raising of children. We should not need to scrape the bottom of the policy barrel to punish those who sometimes have little choice in their life circumstances.

If the G wants to appease and support specific (or maybe most) religious sensitivities, then do so within those spheres. Encourage members of those faiths to actively support raising children within the context of marriage and organise resources for them to use. If there are specific secular groups that also support raising children within the context of marriage, they too can enjoy G support for that agenda.

By law, however, we cannot afford to make discrimination official. This will tear at the very fabric of our society that the G claims to be trying to preserve.

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Solutions for our TFR

This post isn’t going to be about the White Paper per se. I guess enough has been said about the Population White paper. Criticism can be good and is always valid, although solutions are better. To that end, let’s not shirk responsibility by saying, “don’t criticise unless you have a solution/know what you’re talking about”. If I get served bad food at a restaurant, I don’t have to be Gordon Ramsey to send it back. I don’t have to tell the chef how to cook it the second time around.

Still, having solutions is better than not having solutions. And the gaping hole in the population paper is how we seem to think we should (or shouldn’t) work on TFR. It is astounding that there is no clear path forward for what has been identified as the primary contributor to our population shortfall. True, babies born today will not have entered the workforce by 2030, but TFR is critical for a long-term solution. Failing to raise it starting today will result in Singapore facing an even worse TFR situation when 2030, and the next stage of population planning, rolls around.

What causes low TFR and how can we diminish the effects? Let’s tackle them one by one. Many of the issues listed here are already known to the government and can be found at the population.sg website. I’ll make a list here and leave it to another time to try to come up with more detailed policy implementations and budgeting for the ideas that may need it (others are welcome to develop these ideas as well).

Anti-family culture

In Singapore, material pursuits have obscured many of our other values, including family. A clear signal is how the Population White Paper has placed GDP growth at the heart of a “better life”. What this “better life” is has not even been agreed on. Population, TFR and just about everything else is then placed in orbit around this growth target. The message is clear – in Singapore, everything else serves our economics.

How to address it? Culture change demands a massive amount of work. There needs to be significant willpower from the top as well as the bottom. Cultural influencers in mass media, social media, government, grassroots and business need to take, or be given, the lead to push a message that moderates our anti-family, pro-materialist culture into one that finds more joy in family.

Our government needs to significantly improve its tone, method and planning of communication. Some of the shackles have to be taken off media so that even if materialists still control government, pro-family messages can still get through to the ground.

Anti-child-raising policies

You know it’s bad when many of our “pro-family” measures are in fact anti-family. Encouraging parents to use maids, teachers and grandparents to do the lion’s share of the full-time care of our children is not the path to healthy parent-child relationships. Paying mothers of infants generous subsidies should they choose to stay at work only helps to diminish the drive to raise a family. I don’t blame parents who have to keep two jobs to make ends meet, so in that light the subsidies should remain for low-income households. I believe, however, that resources should have been spent supporting stay-at-home mums instead of giving them one more reason to head out of the house to work.

Alex Au showed that more than 85% of our child-raising population is engaged in the workforce, contributing to a dearth of parenting efforts. He proposes a target of 80%, and to push back the retirement age to make up for the shortfall.

What do I propose? Cut working mother childcare and FDW subsidies for higher-income families and replace it with stay-at-home mother subsidies for all incomes. Working mother subsidies for half-day childcare should scale equally with full-day childcare. Give financial incentives for parents to work from home. Yes, these and many other suggestions will have some small impact on the money system and our economy, but if we can calculate the tradeoff, we can decide what materialist policies we can ditch in favour of family-friendly ones. Stop treating the issue like a game of dollars and cents and start seeing the values we are trying to build.

While our national Maternity Leave schemes may be generally sound, we also need an option for Unpaid Maternity Leave, at least until a child turns 18 months old. The mother is guaranteed a job to return to at the end of 18 months. While the current maternity scheme is fairly generous, there needs to be an option where a mother can choose to do full-time parenting for the first 18 months of her child’s life. Alternatively, maternity leave can be given at 60% or 75% of the mother’s last wage, but with the duration of the leave lasting 25-40% longer (ie. family sacrifices income for time without having to juggle a part-time work/care schedule). These schemes can be bolstered by a “living wage” per child, say, a $100/mth credit (pre-matching) into a child’s CDA that will help pay for preschool and other daily expenses. NTUC or some enterprising private company can set up a “kids store” that is CDA-approved and carries only children’s medicines, strollers, diapers, baby food, and a pre-approved list of food necessities. Maybe even CDA-approved health insurance.

Lack of family-friendly infrastructure/physical environment

I’d say that this is one area that is improving somewhat, and that I can foresee that we’ll get to a point where we are happy enough with the results. Pushing for disabled-friendly facilities benefits parents with young children/strollers. Childcare and early childhood education facility supply is growing. Our parks situation is improving, and the playground/public recreation supply in HDB estates is also quite good. Now if we could only convince parents to let their children play more…

What’s there to do? Mindsets are more critical here – we’d love to make it so that disabled-friendly public buses are obliged to allow strollers to roll-on as well during off-peak hours. Currently, bus captains are obliged to assist any passenger with boarding, but a mother with 2 young children (or even 3) is still going to rely on having at least one strapped in the stroller. Taxi companies should also make it obligatory for drivers to assist passengers with young children/strollers with boarding and alighting. Taking the stress off education would help significantly (see my section further down).

I would also like to propose subsidies/rebates (or allow CDA spend on such items) for infant-related expenditure like diapers, baby food, etc. Legislated “express” service for children under 12/18 months, even at private GPs. Family parking lots in all new residential/mall carparks. These may be small gestures, but they point clearly to a society that caters to children and families.

Costs of raising children

There is much to be said here – it does seem to cost an awful lot to raise a child, and the bulk of that cost comes from education more than anything else. Spending more to subsidise tertiary education is a must (might cost up to $100mln/year). Spend more to make sure that students who pay for tuition gain a minimal edge. MOE could even hire in-house “tutors” and provide free tuition in each school that doesn’t further tax the teachers and is integrated into the education system.

Most of all, stop discriminating against families with low disposable income and low income. This includes low-income families and middle-income families with more children. CDA matching contributions are hard to match if you are supporting a family and they are extremely illiquid. This cuts benefits to the low disposable income families, especially large families – exactly the kind of families you want to encourage. This brings me to:

Fewer benefits for low-income families

As if we didn’t know, it sucks to be poor. It especially sucks to be poor in materialistic Singapore, where carrots are dangled for the rich and welfare is limited for the poor. I’m not going to rant about the lack of a social safety net here, but if we want to raise TFR, giving tax deductions and rebates, FDW levies and CDA co-savings is going to mean next to nothing to low-income families. If we want an inclusive Singapore and we believe that we are MERITOCRATIC, and that any child can succeed, regardless of his or her family background, we need to ditch the old eugenics policies that favour the “elite” or the rich. This isn’t happening fast enough.

Citizenship as a commodity

A growing number of Singaporeans and naturalised Singaporeans view their Pink IC as a commodity. When an opportunity to migrate to a “better life” presents itself, they leave (for various reasons). Our citizenship has become commodified because our government treats it that way as well. The approach to citizenship is cold and calculated, elitist and masked in layers of mystery.

With 40% of Singaporeans marrying foreign spouses, here is a large, loyal, committed source of citizens we need to tap. The Worker’s Party has seen this potential. To weed out sham marriages, we can guarantee citizenship to spouses with a Singaporean child. Alternatively, spouses can be guaranteed LTVP+ upon marriage, PR after 2 years and citizenship after 4, as long as they remain resident in Singapore. As a fun element, we can throw in a Singlish language proficiency test as a mandatory as well. We should also grant automatic citizenship to children of Singaporeans when it is applied for. We may even want to extend this to grandchildren of Singaporeans who still have family ties in this country.

We need to stop being snooty about ex-Singaporeans (especially those who have served NS) wanting to reclaim citizenship. Suitable penalties can be imposed on NS defaulters (including long-term community service). The same goes for PRs who have given up their residency but wish to apply for citizenship in the end. Singapore is a hub city with deep international links. Citizenship rules that favour those with real ties to our nation will allow us to welcome people who are much more likely to be loyal and committed, not just those who are “the best”, but who may only be serving themselves.

Housing

Who doesn’t know that we have a housing problem? A lack of affordable housing delays marriage, eats up funds that could be spent on child-rearing and generally puts potential parents in a mood where they don’t want to have children.

We can’t even go by the standards of other major cities on what qualifies as cramped. Most of those cities have a hinterland where population can boom in the small towns and farms to make up for the psychological squeeze in the city. We need to do much better than that.

Having sex with your spouse while his/her parents/neighbours are within earshot is generally a turn-off (but exciting to some). Squeezing an extended family into a 60sqm flat isn’t going to make anyone have more children. If couples have to book hotels just to make babies, then look forward to a lifetime of cramped-ness, where your baby’s midnight crying can be heard by approximately 46 sleeping neighbours, who will silently curse your family from their beds, then we are in a lot of trouble.

What to do? Some action has been taken already – cooling measures, ramped up production that is about 10 years late, the implementation of some of SDP’s housing policy ideas such as the couples’ rental scheme, priority for young families, etc. What’s most important is that we don’t go and ruin it all by cramming 7 million people into the houses that we are already building. That, my friend, is shooting yourself in the foot, or the crotch, when it comes to fertility.

Negative outlook: education

A stressful education environment has been cited as a significant reason why people don’t have kids. Grades-driven, streamed, elitist measures, coupled with nasty life consequences for those who end up with anything less than a Diploma (ie. bottom 40% of students), sometimes no matter how hard they try. It’s the bell curve of life. We need a system that both rewards effort and yet gives dignity to those who try and fail, or those who fail, then grow up and decide to try. Right now the price of failure at any one point is probably too high.

Education is good, but we are probably oversold on the value of a piece of paper. The move for change has already begun, but the machine is so massive and interconnected that change is depressingly slow. What can be done to oil the cogs? There needs to be a determination on the ground to not buy in to elitist systems and rhetoric. As much as we love our kids, and hope for the best for them, we need to know that they will, statistically, probably NOT be great leaders of government or industry or society. Don’t hang that expectation on them. Love them for who they are, and for whoever they become. Take ownership of our children’s development and education – our teachers teach, but we raise our children. If a child does poorly in school, we look inward first and deal with what’s wrong with ourselves.

Negative outlook: general

Life will not be kind to our children. Singapore, we think, will be even less kind. What’s contributing to an overall sense that things are getting worse? Why don’t we see a rosy future ahead of us, and ahead of our children? Our politicians promise exactly this “better life”, but the sense on the ground is that, should we continue on this planned path, things will only get worse. Nevermind that none of the policies today, or in the last 10 years, have given Singaporeans much confidence in a brighter future, and that the White Paper is especially nebulous on how growth=better life, politicians from one party have spent the best part of a parliamentary debate blaming the opposition for not having a concrete plan. The truth – NOBODY has a concrete plan for a better future. The opposition is just less culpable for not having one.

Given all the uncertainty ahead, a general pessimism for a population of 6.9mln, the promise of a foreigner deluge, and a whimsical repetition of “the future is bright for Singaporeans”, it’s no wonder that couples are hesitating to bring another human into the world. We simply don’t believe in the plan anymore.

We need a sustainable plan for the long term. We need to bolster our national psyche and our national identity. We need to muster our fortitude, give people more to believe in, if not more to look forward to. It is high time to invest in culture and identity, psychology and unity, community and camaraderie.

Our home needs to be more heart and less numbers – numbers are reliable in some ways, but when the heart shrivels up, we lose hope in the meaning of life, and in our children’s futures.