Single mothers need more support from society

I believe it is important that as a society, we continue to uphold the centrality of a two-parent household within the institution of marriage. This norm should continue to be promoted by the Government, for example through schools. However, breaking with this norm should not result in a mother and her child being denied the Baby Bonus and equal maternity leave. After all, we don’t encourage divorce but we still give divorcees the same Baby Bonus and maternity leave as married mothers. Do we as a society believe in second chances? Do we believe that all children are born equal, and that every child is “legitimate”, no matter how he or she was conceived? If we do, then I urge the Government to accord to single unwed mothers the same parenthood benefits as all other Singaporean mothers.

I made this speech in Parliament on 8 April 2013 during the debate on the Child Development Co-Savings (Amendment) Bill.

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This Bill seeks to amend the existing Child Development Co-Savings Act to implement some of the measures in the Marriage and Parenthood Package that were announced earlier this year.

I welcome the amendments and I am glad to see the introduction of paternity leave. This was something I appealed for during last year’s Committee of Supply (COS) debate. I urge all new fathers to fully utilise the one week of paternity leave to bond with their newborn babies and help their wives during their confinement period. I’m glad I was able to take paternity leave when my two babies were born a few years ago and I’m grateful to my company for providing it even before the Government mandated it.

I think the Government is moving in the right direction by extending paid childcare leave to all single mothers. However, the Baby Bonus and equal maternity leave, which are two of the biggest and most helpful parenthood benefits, are still being denied to single unwed mothers. My colleague, Ms Lee Li Lian, advocated on behalf of single mothers and for the equalisation of maternity leave during the COS debate for MSF and I would like to add to her calls.

Currently, unwed mothers get eight weeks of employer-paid maternity leave and their companies are required to give them an additional four weeks’ of unpaid leave. Essentially, the Government bears no cost for the maternity leave of unwed mothers. This is unlike married, widowed or divorced mothers, who enjoy eight weeks of employer-paid leave followed by eight weeks of Government-paid leave.

Unwed mothers also do not receive the Baby Bonus cash gift of $6,000 and the Government co-matching contribution of up to $6,000 in the baby’s Child Development Account (CDA). There are also several tax benefits are not available to mothers of what IRAS calls an “illegitimate child”, including the Parenthood Tax Rebate, Qualifying Child Relief, Handicapped Child Relief, Working Mother Child Relief and Grandparent Caregiver Relief. Unwed mothers also do not qualify for public rental flats from the HDB, a point raised by Mr Png Eng Huat’s during the COS debate for MND.

Madam, I would like to ask for unwed mothers to receive the same 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, including the last eight weeks paid for by the Government. The Baby Bonus cash gift and the Government co-matching contribution in the CDA account should also be extended to them. The Baby Bonus scheme, as stated on the MSF website, is to (quote) “support parents’ decision to have more children by helping to lighten the financial costs of raising children” (unquote). It is therefore not a reward for having children, but a financial assistance scheme.

I note that for the other new measures in the Marriage and Parenthood Package, like extended childcare leave, the Medisave Grant for Newborns and MediShield coverage for congenital and neonatal conditions, the same benefits are extended to unwed mothers or their children. Why not take the next logical step of equalising the remaining parenthood benefits?

Equalising benefits for unwed mothers helps not just the mother, but her child as well. The Ministry should take a child-centric view of the family, and not make the child pay the price for the past actions of his or her parents. Unwed mothers have made the choice to keep and raise their child, despite their difficult circumstances and the options of abortion or adoption. We should give them the due recognition for making this difficult choice.

I note that a single unwed mother can become eligible for the Baby Bonus if she marries the biological father of her child before her child turns 12. However some single mothers may not end up marrying the man for various reasons, and this should not prevent them from receiving the same benefits.

Providing these benefits will help reduce their financial burden, which for some unmarried women expecting a child, could tip the scales in favour of keeping the child instead of choosing to undergo an abortion. It is certainly not a silver bullet to reduce our high abortion rates, but if just one more life is saved, I think it is worth providing the benefits.

During the COS debate on 14 March, I pointed out that the issue out-of-wedlock births is a complex moral and social one, that needs to be tackled in ways other than through selective social benefits. In response, the Acting Minister assured me that the Government does not judge people by their status. I was glad to hear this, because I took it to mean that the Government is not trying to shape moral behaviour using parenthood benefits.

The Acting Minister also told me that there will always be some help that we give to married couples and there will be another package of help that we give to singles. That being the case, what alternative package of help is the Government giving to unwed mothers? I don’t think there is any universal package available, apart from means-tested social assistance.

I believe it is important that as a society, we continue to uphold the centrality of a two-parent household within the institution of marriage. This norm should continue to be promoted by the Government, for example through schools. However, breaking with this norm should not result in a mother and her child being denied the Baby Bonus and equal maternity leave. After all, we don’t encourage divorce but we still give divorcees the same Baby Bonus and maternity leave as married mothers.

While some may fear that providing equal benefits to unwed mothers may encourage the emergence of “welfare moms”, where single women get pregnant just so they can collect welfare cheques, I think this fear is unfounded in Singapore’s context. First, the quantum of benefits is hardly enough to make up for the high cost of raising children in Singapore. No rational woman will choose to conceive a child just to collect the Baby Bonus. Second, I am not asking the Government to provide additional benefits to single mothers as they do in some countries, just equal benefits.

Madam, unwed mothers face huge challenges raising their child on their own. I can only imagine how tough it must be, whenever I have to look after my kids on my own when my wife is away. Unwed mothers have to single-handedly care for their child, take on the role of both mother and father, and hold down a job to pay the bills. They also have to face the social stigma of being single and unmarried. On top of all that, they are denied many of the parenthood benefits that married, divorced and widowed mothers receive. This could add to their feeling of marginalisation from society.

Single unwed mothers need more of society’s support. As the Acting Minister said, many of them are from vulnerable families. They are mothers first and singles second, not the other way around. The welfare of their children should be our top priority.

Do we as a society believe in second chances? Do we believe that all children are born equal, and that every child is “legitimate”, no matter how he or she was conceived? If we do, then I urge the Government to accord to single unwed mothers the same parenthood benefits as all other Singaporean mothers.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

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