Commentary: Singapore is trying to make things better for families, but employers and employees too need to walk the talk
At the heart of the Valentine’s Day goodies at Budget 2023 are policies that remind us of what is important – time with our families and strengthening our relationships, says June Yong.
SINGAPORE: Watching Budget 2023 was a bit like unboxing what Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong described as a “Valentine’s Day present to all”.
Especially when it came to parental perks, the Government seems to have pulled out all the stops. Baby bonuses will be boosted to S$11,000 for eligible first- and second-born children, and S$13,000 for the brave who have a third or more children.
This cash sum will be disbursed over a longer period, stretching till the time the child enters primary school: Up to S$9,000 in the first 18 months, then S$400 every six months from two till six-and-a-half years old.
Newborns will automatically get a larger Child Development Account (CDA) First Step Grant of S$5,000, while the Government’s co-matching cap for children who are the first or second child will increase to S$4,000 and S$7,000, respectively.
Each child will also receive a one-time injection of either S$300 in their Edusave or Post-Secondary Education account or S$400 in their Child Development Account, depending on their age.
For working mothers with children born from 2024, their tax relief under the Working Mother’s Child Relief will be changed from a percentage of their earned income to a fixed sum of S$8,000 for their first child, S$10,000 for their second child, and S$12,000 each for their third and subsequent children. This means that higher-income mothers will receive a lower amount of tax relief than before, but lower-income mothers will benefit.
Government-paid paternity leave will be doubled from two to four weeks for parents with children born from 2024. Unpaid infant care leave, which can be taken in the child’s first two years, will also be doubled to 12 days per year.
All in all, the Government seems intent on shaping a better Singapore for families.
But does this mean we can sit back, enjoy the spoils and expect our families to be well taken care of?
WHAT PROMOTES PARENTAL WELL-BEING
To answer this question, we may need to take a step back to consider what really influences the quality of a parent’s life.
Having safe spaces to bring our children up in, a stable job, healthy finances and a good social network are all necessary for us and our loved ones to flourish.
This year’s Budget is aimed at alleviating some of the challenges that have set in in the past year: Rising inflation, higher home prices and rising costs of child-rearing, to name a few, but money only addresses half our problems, and we cannot expect the Government to continue throwing out lifelines in the longer term.
Ask any member of the sandwich generation, and they will tell you that stresses creep in in all forms, and not all arise from bread-and-butter issues. From over-digitalised and hard-to-control youths to recurring tensions within the marriage, these challenges often go unseen and may not be easily dealt with even when things on the financial front are fine.
Familial relationships get harder to manage when these problems are left to fester over time. And when communication in a home breaks down, all living under its roof experience the toll on their mental and emotional health - including the most vulnerable among us, our children and seniors.
IS MORE TIME WITH FAMILY THE SOLUTION?
As part of ongoing efforts to support work-life harmony, Mr Wong also said that the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements will be implemented next year. This will require employers to consider staff requests for such arrangements fairly and properly.
Recently, a friend whose elderly mother had just died commented that she was so grateful her employers allowed her to telecommute during the last few months her mother needed extra care.
In my office, it is not uncommon to witness a new father or mother caring for a young tot or rocking an infant to sleep in a carrier, while deep in a work discussion or hammering away at a document.
Such a compassionate workplace culture cannot be fully legislated into being. While policies can and should be set in place by the Government, the on-ground implementation often depends on everyone else along the chain of command.
Put bluntly, just one unwieldy superior could overturn the entire process and culture of care that has the potential to permeate through the workplace into homes, families, relationships and real lives.
Thus, the onus is not just on employers but also on each of us to do our part too, to learn to draw healthy boundaries between our work and home lives.
This is no mean feat to achieve in today’s “always-on” culture, but awareness is usually the first step toward meaningful change.
Taking measures to intentionally disconnect from work emails or messages after a certain hour or instituting a weekly walk at the neighbourhood park are ways that everyday Singaporeans can reinforce a sense of balance in their hurried lives.
AN ALL-SYSTEMS APPROACH IS NEEDED
Thinking back to two years ago when I was caring for my elderly godmother with dementia, what enabled me to withstand the stresses of the day-to-day was the support I received from my husband and close friends, as well as from staff at the day-care centre she attended.
As a member of the sandwich generation, it is heartening to know the Government is caring for the very young by increasing the number of childcare centres, doubling paternal leave, and boosting baby bonuses, but also looking at the healthcare needs of the elderly.
Seniors can look forward to bigger minimum monthly payouts under the CPF Retirement Sum Scheme and a S$500 million boost to the ElderCare Fund to support means-tested subsidies for seniors who need home-based, centre-based or institutional care, along with a S$1.5 billion top-up to MediFund.
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While these go some way in ensuring Singapore remains a family-friendly nation, there remains some gaps that Government policies cannot fill.
If you examine the heart of these policies, you may begin to appreciate that they are not just geared towards bearing some of the burdens that weigh Singaporean families down, but also reminding us of what is important - time with our families and strengthening our relationships.
So, one kind of response is to take the payouts and say “thank you”. The money gets spent on essentials, helps buffer the blunt of inflation, but largely life goes on.
Another is to focus on the last mile - to recognise that while the money goes a long way to alleviate our short-term worries, we all can do our part in ensuring our families and loved ones flourish in these uncertain times.
In our darkest and most trying moments, it is our closest relationships that will help us ride the storms of life, and thriving families make a resilient society.
June Yong is the Lead of Insights at Focus on the Family Singapore.