SINGAPORE: While more leave could be useful for parents with multiple births or premature babies, it is important to be mindful that “we do not inadvertently affect their employability” if they are absent from work for an extended period of time, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo on Tuesday (Aug 1).
She was responding to an adjournment motion filed by Member of Parliament Louis Ng who called for parental leave to be extended for fathers and mothers with multiple or premature babies.
Mrs Teo, who oversees the National Population and Talent Division, noted that employers have provided feedback that increasing leave provisions could have an impact on manpower and administrative costs, especially in a time of business uncertainties.
“For practical reasons, we will always need to balance between providing support for employees with caregiving needs and employers’ concerns,” she told the House.
Nonetheless, she said the Government will “seriously consider” Mr Ng’s suggestions.
BIRTH OF PRETERM BABIES AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER: LOUIS NG
In an emotional speech during which he broke down several times, Mr Ng recounted his experience when his wife gave birth to twin girls, Katie and Poppy, 10 weeks early in February.
Mr Ng said the time the twins spent at the Singapore General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and at the High Dependency Unit was “an absolute roller coaster” and physically draining.
“It was painful watching them stop breathing, their heart rates plummet(ing) in front of my very eyes and at times their lips turning blue,” he said.
“Nothing can properly describe the feeling of watching your babies go through that repeatedly. It is an experience I wish no parent has to go through.”
Mr Ng also shared the experience of other parents with premature babies, saying it was “near impossible” to juggle work and family.
For fathers, Mr Ng said two weeks of paternity leave is insufficient if their babies are in the NICU the entire time. For mothers of preterm babies, 16 weeks of maternity leave reduces the time needed to bond with their babies. In some instances, mothers have had to go back to work while their babies are still in hospital, he added.
Mr Ng said that while some employers understand the challenges and accommodate requests for additional time off, he urged the Government to extend parental leave for parents with preterm babies.
“My recommendation is that we extend the parental leave for both fathers and mothers to at least cover the time the babies spends in NICU, if not the entire time the babies spend in both NICU and the High Dependency Unit or Special Care Nursery,” he said.
He pointed out that countries such as New Zealand, India and Germany provide extended leave for parents of preterm babies. In the case of New Zealand, it extends paid parental leave between the actual and expected delivery for up to 13 weeks.
Mr Ng felt that any policy changes, while significant for parents of preterm babies, would not result in a significant change for employers who might be concerned about manpower issues, or for the Government in terms of providing additional financial resources.
That is because in 2015, only 0.3 per cent or 127 births happened before 28 weeks.
In addition, Mr Ng proposed extending parental leave in situations of multiple births. These parents, like those with preterm babies, face more challenges such as a higher risk of post-natal depression for mothers.
He cited the example of France which extends maternity leave by 18 weeks for twins, while Myanmar extends maternity leave by four weeks.
“I sincerely hope that the Government will consider my recommendations, study the positive examples in other countries, do public consultations and ultimately help provide parents of preterm babies and/or births of multiples with a greater peace of mind and more precious time to bond with their babies,” Mr Ng said.
SCOPE TO CONSIDER HOW TO BETTER SUPPORT THESE PARENTS: JOSEPHINE TEO
Mrs Teo, who is a mother of twins herself, said she has "a lot of sympathy" for the challenges that parents like Mr Ng go through.
She agreed that the number of multiple and preterm births is "relatively low," and has remained stable over the past decade.
Multiple births make up about 3 per cent of all children born in Singapore, she said, and the number of preterm babies born before 35 weeks is about 4.5 per cent of all births.
Nonetheless, Mrs Teo noted that the impact on each family is significant. "I agree fully with Mr Ng that there is scope to consider how we can better support parents with preterm babies or who have to manage multiple births," she said.
But the minister also pointed out that support measures for parents in general have been “progressively enhanced” over the years. For instance, maternity leave has been increased twice - from eight to 12 weeks in 2004, then from 12 to 16 weeks in 2008. Paternity Leave and Shared Parental Leave were introduced in 2013, and were also enhanced earlier this year.
She added that Singapore’s parental leave provisions are also fully-paid. “In comparison, while some other countries provide longer periods of leave, much of the leave provisions are paid partially or not at all,” she said.
She added that the public sector is testing the viability of longer parental leave for parents of infants through a three year pilot, as announced in this year’s Committee of Supply debate. As part of the pilot, public sector officers can get an additional four weeks of unpaid leave when their children are below the age of one, which will give parents the option to take more leave if they need to.
Mrs Teo said that in total, couples with at least one spouse in the public service can have up to six months of leave between them.
“Depending on the outcome of the pilot when it ends in 2020, we will assess the possibility of a nationwide rollout in future,” she said.
“In the meantime, given the significant enhancements made to the parental leave provisions recently, we will need to give employers some time to adjust before considering further legislative changes.”
Mrs Teo lauded Nr Ng's candid speech, which "won us over with not just with the strength of his arguments but also the intensity of his conviction."
“We hear you, we appreciate the extraordinary trials and tribulations that you go through, and you have my personal assurance that we will study ways to better support your families,” she concluded.