Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah on Population at the Committee of Supply Debate 2022
Theme: Building a More Resilient Population
Mr Chairman, I thank members for their cuts.
Family is a key source of strength and support, especially in tough times. The pandemic has underscored this. As such, supporting Singaporeans who want to start and raise families remains the government’s top priority.
I will speak about three Government strategies to build a more resilient population in Singapore.
• First, building a Singapore that is Made For Families;
• Second, moderating the impact of low birth rates and ageing through selective immigration; and
• Third, strengthening our local workforce and complementing it with a foreign workforce, to grow opportunities for Singaporeans.
Our Population Strategies
(I) Building a Singapore that is Made For Families
First, we continue to support Singaporeans who wish to start and expand their families. Mr Gan Thiam Poh had filed a cut about our strategies to encourage Singaporeans to get married and have children, given our low TFR.
The preliminary number of resident births in 2021 remained similar to 2020, at around 34,200. While this was 3% lower than in 2019 before COVID struck, the fall was less than we had feared. Our TFR was 1.12 last year, a slight recovery from the historic low of 1.10 in 2020. But it remains lower than the pre-COVID period. TFR is a measure of births per female of childbearing age. While the number of births remained similar, the number of such females decreased over the same period, hence, TFR increased.
Raising birth rates is key to tackling Singapore’s long-term demographic challenges. At the same time, getting married and having children are personal decisions.
We know that aspirations for Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) remain high. We will re-double our efforts to support Singaporeans who choose to get married and have children. From our 2021 M&P survey, 8 in 10 young singles aspire to get married and have children, and over 9 in 10 married Singaporeans want at least 2 children.
Strong and stable families are the bedrock of our society. We are committed to fostering a supportive environment for them. We held the Emerging Stronger Conversations last year. Over 300 participants gave suggestions on how to better support families.
In the Conversations, which Miss Cheng Li Hui had asked about in her cut, some young couples shared their concerns about having children during a pandemic.
To reassure couples to proceed with their parenthood plans, we introduced the one-off Baby Support Grant. Parents of over 44,000 babies have received the grant.
One such couple is Danial and Syaqilah, who got engaged, married, and had their first child all within two years. They initially planned to have their first child only after moving into their Built-to-Order (BTO) flat. However, they decided to go ahead as there was no perfect time to have a baby. Baby Isa was born in August 2021 and they were glad that the Baby Support Grant helped with their transition into parenthood. Danial and Syaqilah showed us that COVID-19 need not discourage us from making important life plans.
Other couples highlighted concerns about housing and the BTO pipeline, as many aspire to have their own home before they start families. Miss Cheng Li Hui filed a cut about how the Government can support such couples to access affordable housing, amidst disruptions due to COVID-19.
We are pushing hard to complete our BTO projects as planned. For ongoing BTO projects, most flat buyers will be able to move into their new homes within 4 to 5 years after booking their flats, barring further unforeseen circumstances.
We will also launch up to 23,000 new BTO flats per year in 2022 and 2023 as MND has indicated. Couples waiting for their BTO flats to be completed can rent a flat at highly subsidised rates under HDB’s Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS). To better meet demand, HDB is ramping up the supply of PPHS flats with 800 additional units.
With more people marrying later, fertility health will become more of an issue and must be taken seriously. In the Conversations, couples with fertility issues spoke about their challenges. We must continue to support and encourage them. This includes encouraging couples to understand and address potential fertility issues earlier, and workplaces to be more supportive.
We will also introduce new funding support for certain types of Pre-implantation Genetic Testing for Singaporean couples to address the concerns that some couples have over genetically transmitted diseases. We will share more details at a later time.
To give every child a good start in life, we will continue to invest heavily in promoting good health and education from the early years. We will further support the physical, mental, and cognitive well-being of children and their families. The Child and Maternal Health and Well-Being Taskforce is developing a 5-year national strategy to address this. Minister Masagos will provide more details during MOH’s COS.
We are continuing to make quality preschools more affordable and accessible. Today, a working couple earning $8,000 per month pays $280 per month when they send their child for full-day childcare at an Anchor Operator preschool. This is 40% lower than the $470 per month they had to pay before preschool subsidies were enhanced in 2020. Lower-income working families pay as low as $3 a month at such preschools. By around 2025, 8 in 10 pre-schoolers can have a place in a quality, affordable government-supported preschool.
The Government is currently reviewing our measures to improve the M&P journey.
Mr Louis Ng suggested incentivising employers to increase usage of paternity leave, particularly among lower-income workers, and providing childcare sick leave for all working parents.
I fully agree that parents need more flexibility and time away from work to care for their children. Our research on the experiences of fathers’ use of paternity leave shows that across different types of jobs and companies, a key factor affecting the level of utilisation is workplace support. This includes whether supervisors are supportive of fathers taking leave, and whether colleagues are willing to cover their duties. In some labour-intensive jobs, employers may be less willing to let fathers go on extended leave due to the challenge of finding covering arrangements. In such situations, employers could exercise more flexibility in fathers’ utilisation of paternity leave, such as taking the leave in more than one period within their child’s first year, to minimise disruptions to business operations.
We will consider Mr Ng’s feedback, continue to review the scope for more parental leave provisions, and work with employers to encourage their utilisation.
However, supporting the caregiving needs of parents must be balanced with the manpower and operational needs of employers, particularly our Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs), some of whom may still be grappling with the effects of the pandemic. Instead of legislating more childcare leave, the Government aims to lead by example, and encourage employers to follow suit by exercising more flexibility and extending childcare leave where possible.
This brings me to my broader point. To address the pressure of managing work and parenting commitments, we have to go beyond government policies. We need to come together as a whole of society to build a more family-friendly Singapore for a more sustainable approach. As Ms Ng Ling Ling pointed out, a pro-family workplace culture is important.
Around the world, the pandemic has prompted many to rethink where, how and why we work.
The US has experienced the “Great Resignation” – a phenomenon in which scores of employees have quit their jobs as they rethink priorities and search for better working conditions or more fulfilling careers.
While we have not had a “Great Resignation”, there are clear indications that Singaporeans are paying more attention to whether employers support work-life balance.
Recent surveys suggest that workers in Singapore value employers who enable them to manage both their career and family commitments.
Ms Ng Ling Ling said that mindsets must change. I agree. Professor Hoon Hian Teck also filed a cut about Work From Home arrangements to bolster family life. Adopting flexible work arrangements and prioritising employee well-being is not only good for workers and consequently for families; in the post-pandemic world this is going to be the key to firms’ competitiveness, productivity, and their ability to recruit and retain talent.
Let me say something about flexible work arrangements (FWAs).
I want to emphasise that there is a distinction between FWAs and Work From Home (WFH). People often use these terms interchangeably but they are not the same.
Work From Home is only one type of FWA. Not all job types are suitable for Work From Home, but all job types can accommodate some form of FWA, depending on the nature of the job. Other forms of FWAs include flexi-time and flexi-load arrangements. Every organisation, big or small, can consider adopting the FWAs that best suit their employees’ needs and their business operations.
An example is Singtel. Pre-pandemic, Singtel already provided their employees flexi-work arrangement options such as telecommuting, flexi-time and part-time work. Singtel also offers “Flexi Family Leave” – five days of leave for birthdays, childcare, adoption and family emergencies.
With new work practices thrust upon us by the pandemic, we now have a window of opportunity to make FWAs a norm.
We will be working with employers to do so, and more will be shared in the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development which will be tabled in Parliament later this year.
We ultimately require the partnership of the wider community to build a Singapore that is Made For Families.
We launched the Made For Families brand mark in June 2020 to assure families of support from the government and community. To date, more than 90 businesses, organisations and community groups have adopted it, and we hope more will take action and join us.
Together, we will support and celebrate all families at every stage of their journey. Minister Masagos will share more details on our plans for the year ahead.
(II) Moderating the impact of low birth rates and ageing through selective immigration
Next, I will touch on moderating the impact of low birth rates and ageing through selective immigration. I spoke about our low birth rates. At the same time, our population continues to age, which has implications for our workforce and society.
This brings me to the second strategy.
To moderate the impact of low birth rates and ageing, we take in a carefully controlled number of new citizens and Permanent Residents each year.
We are selective about who we grant Permanent Residency (PR) and subsequently, citizenship to. Many of our new immigrants share family ties with Singaporeans while others have studied, worked, or lived here for some time.
In 2021, we granted about 21,500 new citizenships, including about 1,200 citizenships to children born overseas to Singaporean parents. We also granted about 33,400 new PRs.
These numbers are similar to pre-COVID levels, and higher when compared to 2020, due to the easing of travel restrictions and safe management measures, which previously slowed down in-person processes for the grant of citizenship or PR.
During last year’s COS, I said that a few thousand applicants who were approved in-principle in 2020, had not completed all the required processes to be granted PR or citizenship. These applicants were subsequently granted PR or citizenship, adding to the numbers granted in 2021.
Nonetheless, the total number of SCs granted in 2021 remains slightly lower than pre-COVID levels, as those granted SC must first renounce their foreign citizenship. In some cases, this continues to take longer than usual due to COVID-19 related measures.
We will continue to ensure that our immigration policy remains relevant to our needs, and keep the pace of immigration measured and stable.
(III) Strengthening our local workforce and complementing it with a foreign workforce
Our third strategy is to remain fully committed to supporting Singaporeans to seize new opportunities at various stages of their careers.
At the same time, we do not have sufficient local manpower to meet the needs of businesses. To generate the quality and range of jobs to meet Singaporeans’ aspirations, we need a diverse pool of foreign manpower to complement our local workforce.
We must remain open towards complementary talent from overseas who bring valuable skills, networks and expertise. They can contribute to the development of emerging sectors where we need more time to grow local capabilities.
As our economic needs evolve, we must ensure the right balance and complementarity between local and foreign manpower. Minister Tan See Leng will be providing more details during MOM’s COS.
We have people from all over the world joining us. Many of them contribute to Singapore and some have come to regard Singapore as their home, adding to our diversity.
We are proud of our diversity in Singapore, which is bound by a strong sense of community. In many other societies, COVID-19 has further widened social and economic divides. We have also seen greater occurrences of xenophobic sentiments and behaviours around the world. As Ms Foo Mee Har has emphasised, we must guard against such sentiments, and continue to strengthen our ties with one another. This is especially important for Singapore as a multi-cultural society.
Let me touch on how we are strengthening social integration and cohesion in Singapore. Fostering social integration and cohesion requires a whole-of-society effort. As individuals, each of us has a part to play. Let us be inclusive, patient, and help newcomers to adapt to local norms. Similarly, foreigners here should make the effort to adapt and integrate over time.
We have also worked with partners on initiatives to help foreigners settle in and understand local norms and culture.
For example, MOM’s OneWorkplace.sg initiative provides employers with tools and resources to identify workplace integration gaps, and implement team bonding programmes and Corporate Social Responsibility activities.
Another example is how we worked with Singaporeans as part of the Citizen’s Workgroup for the Singapore Citizenship Journey (SC Journey) to explore, discuss and create content to update the SC Journey for our new citizens. The SC Journey will include the co-created content for newcomers to better learn and appreciate aspects of life in Singapore.
Ultimately, we recognise that integration may take some time. We must cherish the unity in diversity that Singapore has, which helped everyone to rally together.
We will press on to build a more inclusive and brighter future for Singaporeans. With many Singaporeans still aspiring to start and raise families, we will continue to build a Singapore that is Made For Families.
We will also continue to review our population strategies to ensure that they remain relevant to our needs. Together we will build a more resilient population, and keep Singaporeans at the heart of our population strategies.