January brought its share of fodder for water-cooler convos and online discussions, among them the opening of American Sniper at local cinemas and Miss Canada’s see-it-to-believe-it national costume at the Miss Universe pageant. But one topic that really caught my attention was the differential treatment of Singapore mothers based on their marital status.
In a Straits Times article, former Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing spelt it out clearly. A single mother is only entitled to half of the customary 16-week paid maternity leave. She cannot claim child relief, which ranges from 15 per cent of a married couple’s income for the first child to up to 25 per cent for the third child and beyond. She also doesn’t enjoy other benefits such as Baby Bonus cash gifts, Handicapped Child Relief, and Working Mother’s Child Relief, among others.
Shortly after, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam explained that these exclusions are in line with the Government’s stance to “reflect the prevailing societal norm where marriage is the first step towards family formation”.
What’s wrong here?
Face the facts
In Singapore, the term “single mother” is defined as one who’s widowed, divorced, unwed or who adopts by choice. While there is no single figure to account for all single mums across the four groups, this number is not to be disregarded in view of social changes.
According to statistics, in 2011, 26 per cent of households with children under the age of 18 were headed by single mothers. In 2013, 488 babies were registered without their father’s name. Out of these, 121 were born to teenagers aged 19 and below. The number of marriages continues to fall, while the rate of divorces and annulments is on the rise.
Single mums are out there — some as a result of naiveté or poor lifestyle decisions. But no one starts off intending to be a single mum (though there are a few), and there are many reasons behind their social pariah-like status: Abusive or cheating husbands, irresponsible partners, or worst of all, toxic marriages with long-term repercussions on the children.
Raising a child is a vocation that’s difficult even under the most ideal situation — when parents enjoy financial stability, have a naturally nurturing personality and most of all, a tag-team partner. Such a utopia is instantly unavailable to a single parent, and dual roles have to be juggled.
It’s safe to assume no one wishes to be in the trying position of a single parent. But life doesn’t always turn out as planned. Since the Government’s long-held stance of promoting the two-parent family will not allow it to see all family units as equal, single mums are saddled with not only dealing with policies that suggest judgemental condemnation, but also stigma and a lack of support. How ironic, given they have so much more on than plates than their wedded counterparts.
Make a stand
It’s gratifying to know that there are Singaporeans who empathise. Says married mum of two, Prisca Hoo, “It’s important that all mothers, married or not, be extended the same resources from maternity leave to baby bonuses to concessions on the foreign domestic helper levy. It really takes a village to raise a child.
“I take my hat off to my friends who are flying solo. Having a hands-on partner is so important because having a baby depend on you 24/7 for everything will completely derail your life. Not only are you exhausted beyond belief, you also deal with many worries and insecurities — financially and emotionally.”
Carolyn Teo, a 42-year-old married, working mum, agrees. The co-founder of a local design house raised virtual cheers when she sent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a Facebook post to take a stand for single mums. So far, her post has over 2,005 likes and more than 960 shares.
It also led to a range of reactions. Some mistook her to be a complaining single mum, and told her she shouldn’t make the Government pay for “her mistake”. Others criticised her “for making my daughter think it’s okay to have sex before marriage”.
But she also received many heartfelt messages from single mums for giving them hope, love and gratitude that “someone who isn’t in their situation actually cares”.
“I’m not fighting for funds for single mums,” Teo reiterates. “I’m fighting for their right to have the same basic benefits like the rest of us married mums.” Teo is currently working with other women to “build a network community of single mums, and empower them through training and job placements.”
One of these is SK*, 48, a divorcee with a daughter, now 16. She says that when she went through her divorce, the Women’s Charter hardly protected her since she was earning more than her ex. She lost all faith in government policies thereon. And her reaction to the latest ones has been outrage and disgust. “[The policies] seem to say that a single mum is a ‘lesser’ mum than a married one. We pay taxes like everyone else, so why should there be a discrepancy in benefits?”
Adds widowed single mum, LK Tan, 41, who has a 11-year old child, “The Government makes policies taking society’s norms into consideration, but a lot of single mothers do not choose their paths. If the Government’s message is that every Singaporean kid counts, then their policies are sending a conflicting message.”
Another divorcee with two children, Vivien Tan, had her letter published in Today newspaper on 12 March. She writes, “I am aware that Singapore does not wish to be a welfare state like other countries, but assistance would be a big help for single mothers to cope.”
Waiting for change
Not surprisingly, other single mums ELLE spoke to also expressed disappointment about the policies. They felt marginalised, judged, and treated like a different class of citizens.
While the Government has every right to push for child-raising to be within a family created through marriage, its penalisation of single mums in no way serves this purpose. On the contrary, this attaches labels to single mums and immediately devalues future members of society — even while they are in the womb, or too young to understand the implications of their birth.
Surely there are better ways to support this particular segment? Public policy should be created for the good of all citizens, not just those who make the socially acceptable cut. To foster an inclusive society based on equality, the Government should strengthen it from within, starting with policies that protect and help every Singaporean, regardless of marital status, social standing or otherwise.