Is the playing field level for men and women in Singapore yet? Sadly, no. And while we have centuries worth of oppression to thank, a quick look at the law, as well as new policies and guidelines, gives us an indication of where we’re really at with supporting women. Or setting them back.
The United Nation’s theme for International Women’s Day 2023 (8 Mar) is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. It aims to show how innovation, technological change, and education in the digital age can help achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.
We’re zooming in to the word “education”. With Budget 2023 talks just rolling off our backs, we figured there’s no better time than now to discuss new policies and guidelines that impact women in Singapore. With this, we’re hoping that women in Singapore will be better equipped to make decisions about their finances, body, and work.
1) New guidelines to combat the rising incidence of maternal depression in Singapore
According to a report by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), the main women’s hospital in Singapore, there was a 47% increase in patients screened positive for postnatal depression between April 2021 and March 2022, compared to the period between April 2020 and March 2021. Not surprising, given Singapore’s draconian COVID-19 measures in the first two years of the pandemic.
Postnatal depression can leave mothers feeling constantly low, sad, agitated, irritable, guilty, or anxious, and suck the joy out of spending time with the baby. In some cases, it can also leave the mother unable to function properly and care for/bond with the child. The condition can have adverse effects not just on the life of the mother but also the child.
And from the government’s point of view, unhappy mothers are not going to make themselves unhappier by having more kids.
The healthcare system has thus launched its first set of clinical guidelines on perinatal health, which will be made available to healthcare professionals through the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Singapore. They include:
Increasing awareness and availability of advice on preconception mental health
Optimising preconception mental health with a holistic approach, with lifestyle changes and medication use
Increasing accessibility to mental health support for women who have experienced severe medical trauma, and those with mental health needs during their pregnancy
Tailoring mental healthcare needs for adolescents and women with special needs
Promoting higher caregiver quality for perinatal and infant mental health needs
While these are just guidelines, they could result in healthcare professionals being more aware about the possibility of postnatal depression and push them to implement new best practices that would identify and treat the condition more effectively.
And to women and mothers out there, it is a message that there is help and support available for those going through maternal depression.
2) From 2025, the Working Mother’s Child Relief will change from a percentage of earned income to a fixed sum
Working Mother’s Child Relief (WMCR) is a form of tax relief designed to encourage married women to work after having kids and, in the case of couples with a foreign spouse, to have their children become Singapore citizens.
Previously, WMCR was calculated as a percentage of earned income. A first child would net mothers 15% off their earned income, a second child 20%, and a third and subsequent child 25%. In practical terms, this means that higher earning mothers would get a higher amount of tax relief. It essentially sends the message: if you can afford it, have more kids.
From 2025, WMCR will be a fixed sum, regardless of income. A first child gets all mothers $8,000 worth of tax relief, a second child $10,000, and a third child $12,000.
Off the bat, the changes will make WMCR more advantageous for lower earning mothers, since the tax relief will cover a higher proportion of their taxable income. In that sense, WMCR is somewhat like wealth taxes—where the rich are taxed more than the poor—and it may seem that the new WCMR is more progressive.
Example time, a working mother who earns S$40,000 per year with one child born before 2024 can claim S$6,000 in WCMR per year, bringing her chargeable income will be S$34,000. However, a working woman who earns the same and has her firstborn after 2024 can claim S$8,000 in tax relief per year. This will bring her chargeable income to S$32,000.
1 child before 2024
1 child from 2024
But let’s say the lower income now enjoy better tax relief, while the high income has the means to still raise more children despite less tax relief, where does this leave middle income mothers?
The median gross monthly income from work (including employer cpf contributions) of full-time employed residents in 2022 was $5,070, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Let’s round it down to $5,000, to make this example easier.
1 child before 2024
1 child from 2024
You can already see how the new WMCR might not be the best thing to happen for mums earning a salary around the national median, and above.
3) More baby bonus and paternity leave to help with caregiving
From 14 Feb 2023, the baby bonus has been raised by $3,000 for every child, regardless of birth order.
Government-paid paternity leave, which was previously 2 weeks, has also been raised to 4 weeks.
This doesn’t affect only mothers but families with kids in general. The goal of these changes is simple—to offer more support to parents and make it look more attractive to have kids.
It’s nice that paternity leave has been increased, but 4 weeks of paternity leave is still a paltry amount compared to the maximum of 16 weeks of government-paid maternity leave mothers currently receive.
This forces us to ask important questions: What message does this send about the responsibilities of childrearing and household duties? Are we moving in the right direction towards shared responsibilities? What about single dads—do they receive enough support?
4) Enhanced tripartite guidelines on exercising sensitivity for a harmonious workplace
The Singapore government must have been trawling TikTok and Reddit, as they seem to be realising that a lack of work-life balance is the key reason many people don’t want to have kids nowadays.
As such, they have “enhanced” the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices. Note that, while employers are in theory required to follow the guidelines, it can be very difficult to convince MOM to take action when you think they’ve been transgressed.
The changes to the guidelines encourage employers and employees to exercise sensitivity at the workplace with regard to non-work related activities.
They go on to say that employees should not be pressured or required to participate in events, programmes and policies that are not related-to work. Not supporting or not participating such things should not affect employment outcomes.
Women in Singapore face all sorts of unnecessary stress at work, such as the pressure to socialise outside of working hours. Will denying this cocktail affect my performance review next week? This is made even more difficult if one is pregnant or have kids waiting to be picked up from childcare.
However, before you start cheering about never again having to attend a lame company D&D, hold your horses. First of all, these are just guidelines, and second, in practice it’s very hard to prove that skipping such events is directly linked to your boss hating your guts and refusing to promote you. After all, planting new seeds in rotten soil won’t bear fruits.
While the effects of these guidelines might not be apparent, being aware that they exist is key to helping women be cognisant of boundaries in the workplace. How many times have you heard a female friend complain about questionable after-work bonding activities, like being pressured to down some alcohol all in the name of a “team celebration”?
A female friend of mine once ended up at a shady KTV with her boss and colleagues after work. True story. And while the situation was off-putting, she found it difficult to weasel her way out of it.
Drawing lines and saying “no” are difficult skills to teach. But what we can do is empower women to make those decisions when the time calls for it.
5) Upcoming in 2024: the Tripartite Guidelines on flexible work arrangements
The Singapore government is trying to entice more companies to offer flexible work arrangements to more employees in hopes that this will persuade people to have kids.
Come 2024, Singapore will be rolling out a new set of guidelines encouraging companies to make flexible work arrangements a permanent feature even after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, conversations on flexi-work arrangements have centred around enabling women, especially those with caregiving responsibilities, to work. For instance, in Oct 2022, UOB announced that it would offer 200 flexi jobs for women with caregiving duties, with the jobs “specially catered” to their needs.
The effort is commendable. But in reality, will this help women? Concerns have been raised over whether this could impact job prospects for women, enforce gender stereotypes and overall disadvantage women.
There is no question that flexi-work can have some advantages when it comes to child-rearing. Not having to commute to work and the possibility of keeping the kid at home as you work are definite pluses.
But they do little to subvert the stereotype of women as the ones who do most of the child and household related chores, and may instead exacerbate it. Instead of encouraging men to be more involved in caregiving, flexi-work could pigeonhole women into certain roles at the workplace, thus anchoring their position as primary caregiver.
The fact is, both men and women want flexi work arrangement. It sucks having to take the MRT to work during rush hour only to spend more than 8 hours in the frigid office completing work that could have easily been done at home.
Flexi-work arrangements can benefit everyone—families, couples without kids, singles, men, and women. The issue is whether the Tripartite Guidelines will have any influence on what employers do, and whether it will move us all in the right direction.
The government has taken some baby steps to offer women more support, but the gap is still wide. Women in Singapore still take on the bulk of caregiving and household responsibilities, even though the number of dual income households continues to rise
There are real, concrete steps that can be taken to offer women more support through their various life stages, which may include navigating careers, going through pregnancy, raising children and/or retirement.
But offering support that actually makes a difference will also require a mindset shift, from the way employers treat their employees to the ways we de-stigmatise mental health issues. The question is not whether society is willing to pay that price, but when?
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