Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah at the Debate on the Ministerial Statement on Overview of Government's Strategy to Emerge Stronger from the COVID-19 Pandemic
I announced the Baby Support Grant (BSG) last Friday – a one-time cash payment for all Singaporean children born from 1 October onwards, for two years.
Parents of babies born in October and expectant parents are happy, and we are happy for them.
At the same time, however, since the announcement we have received feedback and appeals asking why 1 October and whether the commencement date can be brought forward to cover children born prior to 1 October 2020. Members too have asked about it in this debate – Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Dennis Tan, and Mr Saktiandi Supaat yesterday, and Ms He Ting Ru today. Ms Tin Pei Ling and Ms Cheng Li Hui have also filed Parliamentary Questions.
I fully understand that parents who were not eligible to receive the Baby Support Grant are disappointed, especially since this has been a challenging year for everybody. The questions asked are fair ones and it is only right that I should address them, and explain our considerations when designing this scheme and also our approach to the appeals that have come in.
Delaying marriage & parenthood plans due to COVID-19
In an NPTD and MSF survey in June, 3 in 10 Singaporean couples said that they were planning to delay having a child due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They expressed worries about the global COVID-19 health situation, as well as job and income insecurity. This is understandable as having a child is a major decision and a long-term commitment.
We know couples consider many factors when deciding on when to have a child – whether caregiving support is available, the impact on their career plans, and most fundamentally whether they are prepared mentally and financially. The pandemic has affected our lives and livelihoods in a major way. Employment and financial stability have therefore become even bigger considerations for many couples, and made them rethink if they should have a child in the next one to two years.
The fact that couples are delaying having children is a cause for concern. We are also concerned as we recognise that fertility declines with age, and chances of conception are much higher when couples start earlier.
Hence, we developed the idea of the Baby Support Grant to augment the existing Baby Bonus Cash Gift, to provide extra support for parents who wish to have a child, so that they will not postpone their parenthood plans.
When designing this scheme, we explored several options for the start date.
Given the policy intent to encourage more couples to proceed with their parenthood plans, we could have taken a very strict approach, which would mean that the start date should be 9 months after the date of announcement which would be around July 2021. Indeed, one of the residents in my constituency wrote in saying that “if the grant was meant to encourage couples to have children, then children born in October 2020 should not qualify, as the child is already conceived prior to the grant announcement”. But this would mean that all babies born between now and July 2021 would be left out.
We then considered providing this additional support only next year with effect from January 1, and then drawing on next year’s budget. However, we felt it was important to get the support out as quickly as we can, to help more Singaporeans with their parenthood aspirations. Announcing the plans next year could mean that couples may delay attempts to have a child in the meantime. So, we tried hard to see how we could do this earlier.
While the Government’s fiscal position is tight, due to the support given to Singaporeans and businesses throughout the year, we were able to set aside some budget this year, to provide additional support to more Singaporean parents starting as soon as we could. Hence, we decided to make it effective from the month of announcement, that is 1 October 2020.
Challenges of having a baby during COVID-19
Now, I know parents of babies who are not eligible to receive the Baby Support Grant are disappointed and I can fully understand why. They would have experienced inconveniences and challenges in caring for newborns this year, especially during the Circuit Breaker. From coping with new visitation guidelines and restrictions at healthcare facilities, to making quick adaptations when they could not get sufficient help to care for newborns, to juggling caregiving duties while working from home when infant and child care centres were closed.
However, we would like to seek the public’s understanding that specific start dates are required for any new measure or enhancement. And regardless of the effective start date, there will always be some babies who are born before it. The appeals we have received to change the start date of the Baby Support Grant have come with a wide range of suggestions for the start date. And to give you a sense of this, just let me run through some of them:
- Some have suggested the BSG should cover babies born in September on the basis that it is “so close to October”. But this would mean that babies born in August and earlier would not get it.
Others have suggested April 2020 as that was the start of Circuit Breaker, when the hardships kicked in. But this would mean babies born in March and earlier would not get it.
Ms Cheng Li Hui has suggested 7 February, as that was when DORSCON Orange was declared, but this would mean that babies born in Jan onwards will get left out.
Many have suggested that it should be with effect from 1 January 2020 as that was when the pandemic started and indeed there is a petition supporting this date.
On the other hand, there is another petition asking for the grant to cover all children who are 1 year and below on 1 October this year. In other words, that the effective date should be 1 October 2019.
- We have also received an appeal for the Grant to be given to children under the age of 7 years.
So you can see, it is not straightforward and each group has reasons for the dates proposed, and looking at it from their perspective they are all valid. But we can only choose one date, and whichever date we choose, there will be groups who are not covered. We chose October as the commencement date for the reasons mentioned earlier, and seek your understanding why we are maintaining this date.
But, we will however accede to appeals for the Baby Support Grant from a specific group of parents – those whose babies were born before 1 October 2020, but whose certified Estimated Delivery Date was on or after 1 October 2020. The National Population and Talent Division will provide more information to parents on how they can do so.
Comprehensive suite of support under Marriage & Parenthood Package
That said, it is important to understand where parents who have asked for an earlier date are coming from. They too would appreciate support. So I would like to reassure them and Members that even without the BSG, there is still substantial Government support for these parents.
And some of these new measures commenced in 2019/2020, which young children born since 2014, including the babies born from January 2020, would benefit from.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I ask the Clerk to distribute handouts with information on the Marriage and Parenthood Package available to parents?
While the extra Baby Support Grant is for babies born from 1 October 2020, parents whose babies were born before 1 October 2020 will receive (and in some cases have already received) cash and cash-like benefits, which were last enhanced in 2015 and 2016. So, they would have received, for example:
between $8,000 to $10,000 in the Baby Bonus Cash Gift;
$3,000 First Step Grant deposited into the Child Development Account (CDA) without the parents first having to save into the CDA;
between $3,000 to $15,000 in Government co-savings for the Child Development Account; and
$4,000 grant which is deposited into the Medisave account that is open for every newborn, that is the Medisave Grant for Newborns.
So the total cash and cash-like support that parents can receive ranges from $18,000 for their first child to $32,000 for their fifth and subsequent children, even without the Baby Support Grant. And, this is over and above the other support in the Marriage & Parenthood Package, some of which we also enhanced this year.
Let me highlight some of these:
More subsidies for infant and child care. There have been suggestions from the public that more help with affordable childcare will go further than a one-off cash grant. Since 1 January 2020, the household income ceiling for the Additional Subsidy has been raised from $7,500 per month to $12,000 per month. This means that many more households can receive this support. The amount of subsidies provided has also been increased. Today, after the enhanced subsidies, families can receive up to $1,310 each month in infant care subsidies, or up to $767 each month in child care subsidies. A working couple who earns a combined income of $8,000 a month, pays $524 per month per child for full-day infant care at an Anchor Operator preschool. This is about one third less than what they would have paid previously. When their child turns 18 months, the amount that the couple needs to pay for child care at an Anchor Operator will further reduce to $280 per month.
Free National Childhood Immunisation Schedule (NCIS) vaccinations and developmental screenings. From 1 November 2020, that means next month, all Singaporean children – and this applies to all Singaporean children today regardless of when they were born – can also receive free childhood vaccinations on the national schedule, and developmental screenings, at all polyclinics and Community Health Assist Scheme General Practitioners (CHAS GPs). This extension of fully subsidised services at our CHAS GPs will improve affordability and accessibility for parents, who can now enjoy these services islandwide.
Support for households, jobs and salary amidst COVID-19
The other source of concern on the part of many parents, like other Singaporeans, are employment-related challenges and anxieties at this time. Raising children during the COVID-19 pandemic can be more challenging, especially if a member of the family has lost his or her job. We recognised this earlier in the year and provided more support for households, as well as jobs and salary support.
To provide more assurance and support to Singaporeans with their household expenses during this period of economic uncertainty:
- The Government provided the Solidarity Payment and Care and Support – Cash payout in April and June to every Singaporean aged 21 years and above. This amounted to $600 - $1,200 per Singaporean, depending on income;
- On top of this, we gave each parent with at least one citizen child aged 20 years and below as of 31 December 2020, an additional Care and Support – Cash payout of $300, that is an additional $600 per couple.
- Hence, a Singaporean couple with a child, including those with babies born before 1 October, could already receive up to $3,000 in additional cash support this year.
- In addition to these, all households with at least one Singaporean citizen member would have received the Solidarity Utilities Credit of $100. Eligible HDB households can also receive up to 2.5 times their regular GST Voucher – U-Save and up to 3.5 months of Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) Rebate. Such a household living in a 4-room flat with 5 or more can receive $800 in U-Save and 2.5 months of S&CC Rebate this financial year.
On the support for jobs and salary, the Government has also provided significant support to ease concerns about employment. This includes employment and salary support through the SG United Jobs and Skills Package, and the Jobs Support Scheme.
I have listed the financial support but we all do know of course that it’s not just about the money or the finances, because there are other things that factor in for couples. And in this regard, we have taken many steps to make sure that we provide additional support from increasing the number of preschool spaces, and also working on flexible work arrangements. Ms He Ting Ru earlier spoke about a holistic approach, and I am so glad that she agrees with us because these were exactly the recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on Work-Life Harmony. Those included recommendations to further encourage and enable companies to provide flexible work arrangements, such as through recognition schemes as well as the nomination of Work-Life Ambassadors. The Panel also called for the shift of societal norms over time, to one where family time and other life priorities are placed above work, and for workplace practices to become more progressive and family-friendly. So, you can see that the idea here is that it’s not just about the money, but how to make Singapore a place that is conducive for families as a whole.
Ms He had a specific question on singles and whether the BSG – the Baby Support Grant – will be applicable or whether they are eligible for it. The answer is that they will not be eligible for it. The Baby Support Grant is a one-off grant to help reassure couples and minimise delays in their marriage and parenthood plans. The BSG is an add-on to the Baby Bonus Cash Gift, which in itself was designed to encourage marriage and parenthood. So it’s not quite consistent to extend it to singles in this context.
However, I would like to assure all that Government benefits that support the growth and development of children are given to all Singaporean children, regardless of the marital status of their parents. So, benefits that are available to all parents to support them in their caregiving responsibilities would include:
- Childcare and infant care subsidies
- MediSave Grant for Newborns
- MediShield Life coverage from birth
- Infant Care and Child Care Leave
- Foreign Domestic Worker Levy Concession
And in addition to the above, every Singaporean child will benefit from education and healthcare subsidies, and has access to social assistance, regardless of their parents’ marital status.
In 2016 and 2017, we further extended support to unwed parents, including the Government-Paid Maternity Leave and the Child Development Account, which includes the CDA First Step – that’s the $3,000 I mentioned earlier – and the matched co-savings from Government. These benefits aim to support the child’s developmental needs and caregiving needs, as well as the parent’s efforts to provide for the child.
As society continues to evolve, our policies would be updated to keep pace with societal realities.
Mr Speaker, in conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a difficult year for everyone. Many groups of fellow Singaporeans need our support. Parents who have children, or are planning to have children, are one such group. Hence, I am heartened by the efforts of many corporates and community partners which have joined the Government’s efforts in further supporting Singaporeans on their parenthood journey, and I hope that many more will come on board.
We do understand the difficulties that families, especially those with babies and young children, face during this period, and have implemented measures like those I described earlier. We will continue to support families during these extraordinary times, and I seek Members’ and fellow Singaporeans’ understanding about the start date for the Baby Support Grant, which is one additional measure among many. This Government remains committed to supporting marriage and parenthood aspirations of Singaporeans, and we will continue to review and enhance the strong suite of measures already in place to help Singaporeans form and grow families. Thank you.