Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah on Population at the Committee of Supply Debate 2021
Theme: Building a Cohesive and Resilient Population in Singapore
Mr Chairman, I thank Members for their views and suggestions on population matters.
We want to build a population that:
Fosters a strong and cohesive society;
Sustains a strong sense of shared national identity; and
Generates a strong, vibrant economy where all can progress, and the fruits of growth can be distributed for a fair and just society.
Singaporeans will remain front and centre of all we do. Let me share four key population strategies that will help us to emerge stronger in a post-COVID world.
Population strategies in light of COVID-19
I) A Society That Is Made For Families
First, supporting marriage and parenthood (M&P) remains a national priority. Helping Singaporeans start and raise their families allows individuals to fulfil their aspirations to be a parent, and also addresses an existential issue for us, which is maintaining a core of citizens born and bred here.
Ms Cheng Li Hui asked about the pandemic’s impact on our marriage and fertility outcomes. COVID-19 has caused some Singaporeans to postpone their marriage, resulting in about 10% fewer marriages in 2020 compared to 2019. Others have delayed their parenthood plans.
Because we recognised the importance of Marriage & Parenthood (M&P) as a life-goal for Singaporeans, we prioritised these even as we tackled the health and economic consequences of COVID-19:
We increased the attendance capacity for wedding receptions and solemnisations to 100, so couples can celebrate with more loved ones.
We introduced the $3,000 Baby Support Grant (BSG) in October for Singaporean couples who have a child in these two years. This is over and above the Baby Bonus Cash Gift. Almost 10,000 families have benefited1. We hope this gives some reassurance to couples to proceed with their parenthood plans.
The pandemic has also brought about opportunities. COVID-19 showed that flexible work arrangements (FWAs) are feasible, and help parents to manage their responsibilities at work and at home. Mr Louis Ng asked if we could introduce additional leave for parents to care for sick children.
Any leave enhancement, even if unpaid or temporary, could affect employers’ operations and parents’ employability, and must be reviewed with other requests for leave enhancements. It is more difficult to introduce such changes in the current challenging economic climate. FWAs on the other hand, are a pragmatic approach to meeting the needs of employers and workers, so that is something we can look at.
I agree that we need to lock in the gains of FWAs, since the vast majority of employers now offer it. We are studying the effects of increased use of FWAs, and how to keep such practices. Meanwhile, we urge employers to continue to offer FWAs to achieve better work-life harmony while at the same time meeting business needs.
Ms Denise Phua suggested many ways to improve our Total Fertility Rate (TFR). Our TFR has been below replacement levels for years. In 2020, our TFR was 1.10, which is a historic low. We are in a similar predicament as East Asian societies like South Korea and Taiwan, and Scandinavian countries known for achieving good fertility outcomes, like Finland and Norway. They also experienced a drop in TFR, and some are at historic lows too. Raising fertility is an uphill task for advanced societies, but we must continue to support those who wish to marry and have children.
Most young Singaporeans still desire to marry and have children. The recent World Values Survey2 showed that families are important to Singaporeans and most want to have children – preferably two! This is consistent with findings from the latest National Population and Talent Division’s Marriage and Parenthood Survey, where over 80% of single respondents aged 21 to 35 said they wanted to get married, and 92% of married respondents in the same age group wanted at least two children. In the last five years (2016-2020), the average number of citizen births also increased compared to the previous five-year period (2011-2015). We hope that notwithstanding the pandemic, Singaporeans will continue to pursue their family goals, and we will galvanise a whole-of-nation effort to support them.
Responding to Ms Denise Phua’s suggestions, we are committed to building a Singapore that is Made For Families.
In the past two years, we have significantly enhanced access to affordable housing and preschool3.
We raised the qualifying income ceiling for subsidised housing from $12,000 to $14,000 in September 2019 so that more couples could have affordable housing options. Those buying resale flats, can now receive up to $160,000 in housing grants, up from $90,000 5 years ago.
We also increased the Additional Subsidy for preschools, and raised the qualifying household income ceiling to $12,000 a month. We aim to further lower fee caps at Government-supported preschools, so that working families with a child in full-day childcare pay around the equivalent of fees for primary school plus after-school student care. With means-tested preschool subsidies, low- and middle-income households will pay even less.
Ms Cheng Li Hui in her Budget Speech yesterday, and Ms Denise Phua and Ms Ng Ling Ling in their speeches today, have suggested increasing support for Singaporeans who undergo Assisted Conception Procedures (ACPs). We agree that adequate financial and socio-emotional support is important. While we encourage married couples to have children when they are younger and their chances are better, we have also enhanced ACP support over the years.
The age cap on ACP co-funding is based on clinical evidence that success rates decrease with age. In deciding the maximum number of co-funded cycles, we also considered the emotional strain couples face when undergoing ACPs.
With MediSave and existing co-funding support, 8 in 10 eligible Singaporean couples have no out-of-pocket expenses for their first cycle, while 9 in 10 would not pay more than $500 for their first cycle.
Just last year, we removed the age limit for women undergoing Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) treatments. We also enhanced the co-funding scheme for couples to tap on up to two of the six co-funded ART cycles when the wife is aged 40 and above, if she had attempted an ACP before 40. We will continue to review the MediSave withdrawal limits to balance between supporting couples with their cost of treatment today, and ensuring they have sufficient savings for healthcare in old age.
While public Assisted Reproduction centres currently provide couples undergoing ACP with emotional support and social counselling, we will do more with community partners to provide holistic support and remove stigma for those seeking fertility checks or treatment.
Ms Hany Soh, who has asked for information to be disseminated to first-time parents, will be glad to know that MSF’s Baby Bonus Parenting Resources (BBPR) pregnancy keepsake journal, provides tips on pregnancy and parenthood. This will be piloted at maternity hospitals and selected private obstetrics clinics, complementing MSF’s BBPR website, and HPB’s e-toolkits for expectant mothers and new parents.
But we can always do better. With your permission, Mr Chairman, may I ask the Clerks to distribute an infographic showing the key enhancements this year. Members may also access these materials through the SG PARL MP mobile app.
While most married Singaporeans wish to have two or more children, and the majority still do, a growing number have only one child. Some Singaporean couples have shared their worries about the costs of having a second child, even though they very much want to. Currently, the support from Government to parents for their second child is the same as their first. We reviewed this, and will provide more support for couples having their second child. We will double the maximum dollar-for-dollar Government co-matching of parents’ savings in the Child Development Account (CDA) for the second child, from $3,000 to $6,000. This is in addition to the $3,000 CDA First Step Grant that parents receive upon opening the CDA.
With this enhancement, the maximum total Government contributions for the second child’s CDA will increase from $6,000 to $9,000. All Singapore Citizen (SC) children who are the second child, and whose date of birth or estimated date of delivery is on or after 1 January 2021, will be eligible. About 12,000 children will benefit annually.
The one-time $200 CDA top-up, announced by DPM Heng on Budget Day, as part of the Household Support Package, will provide additional support.
Ms Carrie Tan has championed greater gender equality in caring for children and asked to set aside two months from the current four months of maternity leave, as paternity leave. She also asked for tax incentives to nudge fathers to use them. We agree that the active involvement of fathers is critical to the wellbeing of children and their partners. Today, fathers can already share up to one month of their wives’ maternity leave under the Shared Parental Leave Scheme, on top of two weeks of paternity leave. However, only about 5% of fathers use this flexibility. Some couples also prefer to reserve all 16 weeks of maternity leave for mothers to recuperate and bond with their child. Hence, we are cautious about requiring fathers to take more of mothers’ existing maternity leave. We would first urge fathers to take their paternity leave. Since the introduction of Paternity Leave, take-up rates have increased from 25% in 2013 to 53% in 2018. It is encouraging that more fathers have been taking time off to care for their newborns, and we hope this signals a stronger shift towards greater shared parental responsibility.
Some working fathers and adoptive mothers may not qualify for paternity or adoption leave due to their employment arrangements. For example, they may be on multiple short-term employment contracts, or their employment contracts may have expired before the birth or adoption of their child. To better support this group of parents, we will introduce the Government-Paid Paternity Benefit (GPPB) and the Government-Paid Adoption Benefit (GPAB). This is similar to the current Government-Paid Maternity Benefit for working mothers, where a cash benefit is given in lieu of the Government-paid share of leave if their employment circumstances do not qualify them for leave. This will apply to parents whose children’s date of birth, estimated date of delivery, or formal intent to adopt, is on or after 1 January 2021. About 500 working fathers and adoptive mothers would benefit from GPPB and GPAB annually. More details on the eligibility criteria and the application process will be shared later.
II) A Workforce with a Strong Singaporean Core
I will move on now to “A Workforce with a Strong Singaporean Core”. The pandemic has also given us an opportunity to transform our workforce and reduce our reliance on lower-skilled foreign workers.
From June 2019 to June 2020, our total population declined slightly by 0.3% due to a decrease in foreign employment in the Services sector, and Work Permit Holders. S Pass and Employment Pass holders have also decreased amid the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the economic downturn. The Government continues to maintain a tight stance on our foreign worker manpower policy.
COVID-19 has accelerated efforts for businesses to transform business models and improve productivity. At the same time, we will continue to partner businesses to train and retain local workers, and strengthen the Singaporean core of our workforce.
III) An Economy that is Open to Global Skills
We must also remain open to global talent who can complement our local workforce, and attract high-value activities that create quality jobs for locals. This is why we have tightened the EP criteria and sharpened our tools, such as Tech@SG and the Tech.Pass. We set a high bar for these schemes and are very selective. The talent base will help us emerge stronger, by anchoring and expanding new growth sectors.
For example, Mr. Timo Recker and Mr. Andre Menezes, from Germany and Brazil, co-founded agri-food tech start-up Next Gen Foods in Singapore in early 2020. They bring with them experience in alternative protein and food distribution. The team is developing plant-based foods, including an alternative chicken product. Next Gen Food Technologist Ms. Claudia Lee, who majored in Food Science at NUS, said it was a dream come true to work directly with leading global experts in plant-based foods. By working with global talent, more Singaporeans like Claudia can deepen their expertise in growth areas.
IV) A Community that is Inclusive and United
Finally, we will continue to carefully calibrate the pace of immigration.
In 2020, we granted about 21,100 new citizens4, and 27,500 new Permanent Residents (PRs). These figures are lower than previous years due to travel restrictions and operational issues arising from COVID-19. For example, safe management measures resulted in limited slots to complete the final steps for PR and citizenship registration, which must be done in-person.
Hence, a few thousand applicants, who were approved in-principle, had not completed all the required processes to be granted their PR or citizenship respectively by end-2020. Depending on how the COVID-19 situation evolves, these applicants could be granted PR or citizenship in the coming months, and may add to the numbers normally granted this year.
We continue to carefully select new PRs and citizens, and welcome those who have committed to making Singapore their home. We take in immigrants not just based on their ability to contribute to Singapore, but also their ability to integrate. As Ms Denise Phua has acknowledged, foreign spouses have family ties to Singapore and our policies are already facilitative for those in genuine and stable marriages. Widowed or divorced foreign spouses, with custody of minor Singaporean children, will generally be allowed to stay here on a Long-Term Visit Pass until the child becomes an adult. They can also qualify for a Letter of Consent from MOM which will allow them to work and care for their Singaporean children here. While it is not possible to guarantee PR or citizenship to any foreigner, foreign spouses are generally considered more favourably, especially when they have Singaporean children.
We must continue to build a community that is inclusive and united. In the past year, we saw many uplifting positive examples of Singaporeans and foreigners rallying together to help battle the COVID-19 crisis.
For example, Ms. Chong Pek Lian from Malaysia contributed to the COVID-19 battle as a contact tracer at Sengkang General Hospital. Despite the long hours and heavy workload, she was glad to help reduce the spread of the virus.
Singaporeans also gave help, support, and appreciation for our foreign workers who have contributed to our society, such as those in healthcare and construction. Many have continued to carry out their duties here, and have not been able to see their families throughout this period.
Our society will be stronger if all who call Singapore home and believe in our vision are empowered to make Singapore a better place.
Emerging stronger in a post-COVID future together
The Government will continue to work with a range of stakeholders to build our future together, and emerge stronger post-COVID.
We have consulted Singaporeans widely on population-related issues. For instance, in 2019, we convened a Citizens’ Panel to tackle the tricky issue of improving work-life harmony, which affects marriage and parenthood.
In 2020, we also worked with a Citizens’ Workgroup to co-develop new curriculum and programmes for the Singapore Citizenship Journey. This initiative explored what it means to be Singaporean, including our shared values and duty to contribute to society.
We agree with Ms Cheng Li Hui that the Government’s strategies for encouraging M&P need to account for shifts in life priorities and societal norms.
As part of the Emerging Stronger Conversations, Minister of State Sun Xueling and I will lead a series of conversations on “Building A Singapore Made For Families”, from April to September this year. We want to better understand how the thinking and aspirations of Singaporeans, at different stages of their M&P journey, may have changed due to the pandemic. Ms Denise Phua will be glad to know that the engagements will include transnational families, who may face unique challenges after deciding to make Singapore home. We will work together with the rest of society to better support all families in Singapore, and shape an environment in which we can make time for things that matter.
Our post-COVID world will require population strategies that keep us resilient and cohesive. Together, let us continue to build a Singapore that is home for all Singaporeans, and emerge stronger as a nation.
- Press Release: Parents who have a Second Child can now get More Financial Support; Cash benefit for those not eligible for paternity or adoption leave
1 As at end-Jan 2021.
2 Conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies.
3 The most recent housing and preschool enhancements were implemented in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
4 The number of new SCs includes around 1,300 children born overseas to Singaporean parents.