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IN keeping with ongoing efforts to make it easier for parents to have babies, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday announced four ways in which the government will increase its support for Singaporean families.
These comprise a new housing grant to help couples live closer to their parents; an enhanced Baby Bonus scheme; an increase in the Medisave Grant for Newborns; and longer paternity leave.
"More support for parents . . . reflects our attitude that every child is valued in Singapore," said Mr Lee.
To help extended families live closer together, the new Proximity Housing Grant will be given when a resale flat is bought with or near one's parents, or near one's married children.
Every Singaporean household will be eligible, whether as first-time buyers or otherwise. The Ministry of National Development (MND) will announce the details on this later.
Housing aside, Mr Lee unveiled several initiatives aimed at alleviating some of the financial pressures of having a baby.
For one, the Baby Bonus amount will be increased by an as-yet unspecified amount, and will be given to every child. This is an improvement from the current scheme - which is extended only to the first four children - and will provide greater support for parents with larger families.
In addition, the government will also raise the Medisave Grant for Newborns - although the exact sum was not announced either. The increased amount, Mr Lee said, will be enough to cover the child's MediShield Life premiums until age 21. It will also help with other healthcare-related expenses, such as recommended vaccinations.
Beyond these practical aspects of financial support, the PM also announced longer paternity leave. "I think fathers can do more," he said, emphasising the vital role fathers play in bringing up children.
So another week of paternity leave will be added to the one week currently available, and the government will pay for this extra week of leave.
"Don't go and play golf - please use it to take care of your kid," said Mr Lee to laughter.
He added that the longer paternity leave will be implemented on a voluntary basis for now. This means that private-sector companies will have to agree to give the additional week of paternity leave to their employees.
"We will not force the companies for a start. We will implement this on a voluntary basis, to give companies (and) employers time to adjust. After a few years, we will look at the position again," said Mr Lee.
The public service, however, will adopt the additional week of paternity leave immediately.
The Baby Bonus, Medisave Grant, and paternity leave changes will be backdated to apply with effect from Jan 1, 2015. More details on these will be given soon.
In the lead-up to this year's National Day Rally, observers had expected Mr Lee to unveil pro-family initiatives, given his track record of championing more babies to raise Singapore's dismal birth rates.
Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan told The Business Times: "The family bonuses will be warmly welcomed."
Some 33,000 babies were born to Singaporeans last year, up from 31,000 the year before. The births nudged Singapore's total fertility rate (TFR) up to 1.25 in 2014, from 1.19 in 2013.