From The Straits Times    |

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In March 2022, the Government released the White Paper on Singapore’s Women’s Development that contained proposals for 25 action plans, one of which is to enhance support for single parents.

However, the support that single parents are entitled to depends on the category they fall under – specifically, if they are unwed, widowed or divorced. For example, the Baby Bonus Scheme that helps defray child-raising costs includes a cash gift, Child Development Account (CDA) First Step grant, and government matching to savings in the child’s CDA, but single unwed parents are not eligible for the cash gift. So the question is: Will the incoming additional support be equal regardless of one’s marital history?

There are a few other areas that single unwed parents do not have equal entitlements to. We take a look at what they are in terms of housing, employment opportunities and childcare support, and why there is a distinction between single parents.

Fewer housing schemes

First things first: The Government has provided a lot more support to single parents regardless of their marital history in recent years compared to a decade ago. For one, those above the age of 21 can now apply to buy a resale flat or a BTO flat in non-mature estates with up to three rooms.

But while divorced or widowed single parents waiting for their BTO flats can get interim housing under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS), which allows them to pay a subsidised rental fee for a two-, three- or four-room flat, single unwed parents are not eligible for the scheme. Should they need a place to stay, they can only rent a flat under the Public Rental Scheme, which also subsidises rental fees, but only offers one- or two-room flats.

And while divorced or widowed parents can tap on a total of three grants for resale flats if eligible – the Enhanced Housing Grant, Proximity Housing Grant and Family Grant – an eligible unwed parent qualifies for the same grant amount as a single person. This means they only receive half the grant amount compared to divorced and widowed parents.

There are also other issues that they have to deal with, explains Elizabeth Quek, project manager of Advocacy, Research and Communications at Aware. “Unwed single parents also often face challenges such as long waiting times for housing and the need to appeal rejections, which causes them stress and anxiety. Plus, many of them experience abuse or conflict within their families. Some also have to put
up with crowded spaces without a conducive environment for themselves and their children, or have to move frequently.”

Charlotte Beck, senior director at Family Development Group, Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), explains that the Government has set in place Social Service Offices (SSOs) to work directly with vulnerable individuals and to understand their needs. “Financial and social assistance are extended to all families in need, including single unwed parents.”

She adds that apart from helping them with basic living expenses, as well as assistance with household and medical bills, the SSOs can also “refer the family to other agencies for further support”. This includes
referrals to HDB, who will assist them with their housing needs, according to their circumstances.

“Those who cannot afford to buy a flat and have no other housing options may be considered for public rental flats, if it is in their child’s best interests. Inputs from social workers are taken into account, where relevant.”

That said, a growing number of MPs have been calling for better support for single parents.

“What I’ve been pushing for is for single parents to get their housing earlier. I’ve also been suggesting that single mothers-to-be in the third trimester of their pregnancy be allocated housing, so that they have a place to stay when the child is born,” says Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency.

Mr Ng has been actively campaigning for more support for single unwed parents for the past couple of years and, before the pandemic, hosted a party for them so that they could get together and lend each other support. He adds that in addition to equalling housing policies, it is also crucial that careful language is used when lending support.

“I can’t remember the exact words used, but a woman I was helping was told something along the lines of how she was only allowed to get a rental flat because it was a ‘special circumstance’ or on an ‘exceptional basis’. Why make someone feel so bad? Can’t single unwed parents be like the rest of us? The language for these applications should be standardised so that they can feel like the rest of us,” he shares.

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Fewer benefits

For many single parent households, being the sole breadwinner may mean bigger financial struggles. It does not help that some of the part-time jobs they take on that offer the flexibility they need to juggle their caregiving responsibilities may not offer high remuneration. In fact, according to Mr Ng, the median monthly income for single unwed parents under 35 years old is $600 to $700.

“They are one of the lowest income groups in Singapore. This is why they should be given the cash gift from the Baby Bonus Scheme. For some parents, the gift is a luxury, but for them, it is really a lifeline.”

They also tend to have few employment opportunities.

“Childcare and infant care services are subject to vacancies, and a lot of the time, a lack of spaces at these centres either causes them to delay their plans to seek employment or affects their ability to maintain stable employment. The type of jobs they can take up are typically limited by the childcare centres’ operating hours, and shift work, for instance, is not compatible with the usual hours,” says Elizabeth.

On top of juggling childcare responsibilities alone, single unwed parents only get half the childcare leave that married parents do. “Instead of 12 days, they get six days, and the six days are automatically used up because childcare centres are allowed to close for six days a year,” explains Mr Ng. Earlier this year, he proposed the establishment of a pilot programme providing low-cost ad hoc nanny services for these parents.

Single unwed parents are also not entitled to the Parenthood Tax Rebate and Working Mother’s Child Relief. At present, married, divorced or widowed parents may claim tax rebates of up to $20,000 a child, and the Working Mother’s Child Relief is given to encourage married women to remain in the workforce after having children. The tax relief package can go up to 20 per cent for a second child.

Regardless, Charlotte of MSF reiterates that ultimately, “the Government supports the care, growth and development of every Singaporean child, because we want every Singaporean child to have a good start in life, to have the opportunities to pursue their dreams and potential”.

For example, all children are eligible for “over $180,000 of education subsidies. This includes about $50,000 in Government funding over five years, if the child enrols in a full-day childcare programme with one of the Anchor Operators”.

Moreover, she adds that Singaporean children also benefit from “healthcare subsidies, Medisave Grant for Newborns, Medishield Life coverage from birth, and the Child Development Account (CDA), which includes the CDA First Step and matched co-savings from the Government. These are broad-based supports that are equally extended to all Singaporean children, regardless of their parents’ marital status”.

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Pro-family policies

So why is there a distinction in single parents and the type of benefits they are entitled to?

Charlotte explains that the Government’s stance rests on the following principles: “We will retain pro-family incentives to promote marriage and parenthood within marriage in line with societal values. Second, we will continue to strengthen social support for all families in need, including unwed parents and their children, to help them overcome their challenges.”

Ivan Cheong, a Family Law specialist and a partner at Withers KhattarWong LLP, believes that the current policies align with the Government’s pro-family policies. He adds: “Where children are conceived during a lawful marriage, but the parents subsequently get divorced [or are widowed], it is still recognised that the parent who has legal custody, care and control over the children forms a family nucleus. As such, divorced [or widowed] single parents are eligible for more schemes.”

Elizabeth adds that while some have argued that excluding single parents from certain policies and benefits may deter single parenthood in Singapore, there is “insufficient evidence that such methods are actually effective”.

Similarly, during a debate in Parliament in February 2020, Mr Ng pointed to contradictions in the Government’s policy towards single unwed parents during the debate.“We have the Ministry of National Development saying that every mother and every father is equal, it doesn’t really matter whether the child is born out of marriage,” he said.

“But here, we’re now saying that they’re not equal, that because the child was born outside of marriage, they would not qualify for the Parenthood Tax Rebate and the Working Mother’s Child Relief.”

So how can we as a society lend single unwed parents more support? By advocating for equal benefits for them, and not letting our judgement affect the children involved.

“Once these policies are equalised, we’d be levelling the playing field for them. We’re not asking for them to be given more, just that they not be given less,” says Mr Ng.

“Some people feel that these parents did something wrong by having children out of wedlock and should pay the price. We can argue about whether or not the parents did something wrong, but we must remember the children did nothing wrong and shouldn’t suffer for it. Denying them housing support and other benefits have an impact. Studies have shown that if you give them support equal to what other kids get, they have an equal chance in society.”

Charlotte also mentions that strides have been made in this area – in November 2021, a focus group was held under the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships (AFAM)’s dedicated Focal Area (FA4) on “Support for Single Parents”. Through this, she says, “the FA4 was able to understand their concerns, both from the practical and socio-emotional lenses. The FA4 is also working with community partners on ground-up initiatives to support single parents, especially in the areas of employment, caregiving, and growth and development of their children”.

Do companies give equal benefits across the board?

The good news is, most companies give equal benefits to employees who are parents, regardless of their marital history.

“Medical coverage for our employees’ eligible dependants and other family-related benefits such as maternity, paternity or childcare leave are available to all our employees regardless of marital status,” says Sarab Preet Singh, head of Human Resources for Singapore & Asean for Citibank.

Catherine Li-Yunxia, an executive coach who helps clients advance and develop their careers, also has a couple of examples to share.

“One of the biggest social media companies has suspended its performance review process and promotion cycles to allow its employees to be able to cater to childcare needs [without stress], while a technology company told employees that they can work from home during school holidays,” she says.

She adds that some organisations have also started thinking about how to provide more sustained support to working parents by way of subsidies or an Invest in Parents pledge.

Resources for single parents

A couple of resources in Singapore for single parents include:

  1. #asinglelove: Launched by Aware, the initiative specifically caters to single unwed mums. The website has a compilation of all the relevant information on government parenting support schemes, HDB policies and important legal issues. It also helps mothers figure out the schemes they are eligible for, how to go about applying for them and where to turn to for additional help.
  2. HCSA Dayspring Spin: An initiative in collaboration with the National Council of Social Service, Spin provides single parents with access to resources through a network of volunteers and an interactive website that helps them to make informed decisions.