The Law in Singapore on Single Mothers – Is there more to be done?

single motherIf you are a single mother, what category of single mother do you belong to?

  • Widowed
  • Divorced
  • Unmarried
  • Single woman who adopts a child by choice

Why does it matter what category you belong to?

The category to which you belong will affect your rights in law. Generally speaking, if you were married when the child was born, or got married after the child was born, your rights in law are mostly the same.

However, if your child was born out of marriage and you chose to remain unmarried, or if you are unmarried and you have adopted a child, your rights will differ slightly from married or once married mothers.

What are the rights that will be discussed in this article?

  • Access to Public Housing
  • Employment
  • Government Benefits (Welfare, Baby Bonus Cash Gift)
  • Inheritance Law

Access to Public Housing

Depending on what sort of housing you’re looking for, the criteria for eligibility varies. But in general, in terms of public housing, the schemes applicable to single mothers include: public / family scheme, and joint singles scheme.

For the purposes of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) Public Scheme, a family nucleus is defined as a family unit that includes:

  • Married couple with or without children,
  • Divorced or widowed persons with legal custody, care and control of their children.

If you are divorced or widowed.

If you are widowed or divorced with legal custody, care and control of your children, you will be eligible for several housing options under the public scheme as you and your child will be viewed as a qualifying family nucleus.

You will also be eligible for a priority scheme[1] if you have at least 1 child aged below 16 years and provided that your child is a natural offspring from the lawful marriage or legally adopted.

However, if you are widowed or divorced without full legal custody, care and control of your children, you will not be eligible under the public family scheme and will instead have to wait until you turn 35 years of age to purchase under the “Joint Singles Scheme”.

If you are unmarried with biological children, or adopted children.

There is no scheme available to single mothers who are unmarried. You will have to wait until you turn 35 years of age and must purchase your flat under the ‘singles scheme’.

What’s the problem with these schemes?

To address the issue of unmarried single mothers receiving few benefits or help in securing accommodation, the government claims that HDB will go on a case by case basis with single parents to help them out. However, Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) published a report[2] in 2016 December detailing how interviews with single mothers revealed how much they still struggle to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

An obvious issue, and a recurring theme within this article, is the often arbitrary distinction between unmarried single mothers and single mothers who were once married. The policy basis for making this distinction is the promotion of marriage as the basis for starting a family. It could certainly be argued that, given that most pregnancies that occur outside of marriage in Singapore are unplanned, putting in place a policy that essentially punishes those who do not conform to the government’s value system is ineffective as a deterrent, as most unmarried mothers did not make a conscious decision at the time of conception to become unmarried mothers. While the obvious answer to that is that this policy ensures that unmarried couples in Singapore do not begin making lifestyle choices to start a family without getting married, the reply to that is that perhaps the government should take a step back as Singaporean society evolves and allow couples to arrange for themselves the most fundamental and intimate aspects of their private and family lives.

However, this is Singapore, and we are all accustomed to the government sometimes interposing itself in our family lives. There is nothing new or surprising about the government’s imposition of its value system on members of society in a way that may have the effect of disadvantaging those of whom it disapproves, in this case, unmarried mothers. As the spectrum of family arrangements in Singapore diversify, it is hoped that government policies would not deprive any single parent, regardless of how they became single parents, of any support to which they would otherwise be entitled and that they need to embark on the difficult task of raising a child alone. However, this is not the present state of affairs and certainly not if you are an unmarried mother who requires suitable public housing in which to raise a family. With this in mind, we turn now to an examination of mothers’ rights in the workplace.

Employment

If you are a single mother and your child is a Singapore citizen

You are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave[3], this is on par with mothers who are married.

Are you eligible for the 16 weeks of paid maternity leave?

To be eligible:

  • You must have served your employer for a continuous period of at least 3 months immediately before the birth of your child.
  • If you are self-employed, you must have engaged in your work for at least 3 continuous months and have lost income during the maternity leave period.

What do you have to do before you can go on leave?

  • You have to give your employer at least 1 week’s notice before going on maternity leave, and have informed them as soon as possible of your delivery.
  • This is important, otherwise you will only be entitled to half the payment during maternity leave, unless you have a good reason for not giving the notice.

What are you entitled to?

Your employer will be paying you your usual monthly salary during the leave period.

Unmarried mothers with children who are Singapore citizens were only given the same 16 week long maternity leave as their married counterparts pursuant to a 2017 amendment to the Child Development Co-Savings Bill recommended by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (‘MSF’). They were previously only given 8 weeks of maternity leave.

This change came about partially due to a recognition that single mothers, regardless of their marital status, require more support to care for their children. MSF also recognised that these benefits given to single mothers, ‘are useful in the child’s developmental or caregiving needs.

Perhaps it can also be said that implicit in this move is the recognition that the distinction made between married or once-married, and unmarried single mothers can be rather arbitrary. The government has time and time again explained that these distinctions exist to promote parenthood within marriage. However, the situation of single mothers can be infinitely complex and challenging, and can involve cases where a pregnant woman was perhaps expecting to get married but ended up an unmarried single parent instead. Given that the situations single parents are in can often be complicated, the law can arguably shift towards better protection of, and support for these single mothers and their children, instead of punishing both for being in the difficult situation they are in.

If you are a single mother and your child is not a Singapore citizen

You will be entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, subject to these requirements:

  • You are an employee covered by the Employment Act. (Check your eligibility here)
  • You have served your employer for a continuous period of at least 3 months immediately before the birth of your child.

How will you be paid?

For the first 8 weeks of leave, the employer will pay your usual monthly salary subject to the earlier requirements, and also that:

  • You have less than 2 living children of your own at the time of delivery.
  • If you have more than 2 living children because your first pregnancy included multiple births (g. triplets), the employer still has to pay for the first 8 weeks of your maternity leave.
  • You have to give your employer at least 1 week’s notice before going on maternity leave, and have informed them as soon as possible of your delivery. This is important, otherwise you will only be entitled to half the payment during maternity leave, unless you have a good reason for not giving the notice

For the last 4 weeks of leave, it will be unpaid. Whether the employer decides to pay you during the last 4 weeks of maternity leave depends on your employment contract.

Again, there is no longer any distinction here between married or unmarried mothers. The distinction is between mothers of Singaporean children (at the time of the child’s birth) and mothers of foreign children (at the time of the child’s birth). For practical purposes, this effectively means the distinction is usually between Singaporean mothers (as their children, if born in Singapore, will automatically be Singaporean) and foreign mothers (as their children, unless born in Singapore to a Singaporean father who is married to the mother, will not automatically be Singaporean).

The rationale for this presumably is that the government wants to encourage Singaporeans to have Singaporean children by offering them incentives such as 16 weeks of paid maternity leave but has no reason to incentivise foreigners to have foreign children, much less more than two children, and so only gives them the right to half that amount of paid maternity leave.

Government Benefits and Tax incentives

Widows and divorcees are entitled to government benefits like the Baby Bonus Cash Payment, access to public housing as discussed above, and tax benefits.

Unmarried single mothers do not enjoy any of the above-mentioned benefits.

The definition of a legitimate child and Inheritance Law

Another thing unmarried mothers must take note of is the definition of a legitimate child in law.

If you are an unmarried mother, your biological children will not be considered your ‘legitimate children’ in law. This means that if the unmarried mother dies without a will, none of her assets will be distributed to her ‘illegitimate’ child. However, unmarried mothers can consider adopting their children in order to ‘legitimise’ their child. This would ensure that if the unmarried mother dies intestate her now ‘legitimate’ child would inherit her assets. (Alternatively, the mother could simply write a will to ensure that her assets are distributed in accordance with her wishes.) Other than that, practically speaking, converting the child’s legitimacy status will not bring the unmarried mother any other tangible legal benefits. The unmarried mother will still not have any of the rights discussed above, that married mothers have.

The filing fees for an adoption are $1,000 and mothers can either attempt to file the papers themselves or engage a lawyer to carry out the adoption process, which would naturally incur legal fees.

These considerations do not apply to widows or divorcees.

Conclusion

Clearly, raising a child alone is practically challenging enough as it is. It is unfortunate that the law in Singapore discriminates against single mothers who have not been married to make it even more difficult. It is hoped that this policy will eventually change and that the government will choose to treat all single parents equally.

Given how difficult it is to raise a child alone, it is not a lifestyle choice that many would willingly make. It is usually simply a situation in which someone finds themselves and they try to make the best of it.

Any concern that hordes of single people would choose to have children alone if this government policy ended is unlikely to manifest itself. However, ultimately, if some single people make the decision to have a child outside of marriage, it is submitted that, as adults, this is their choice to make. Accordingly, paternalistic government intervention to make that choice more difficult, particularly in denying access to public housing in a country where other accommodation is unattainable for many, is undesirable and should be ended.

[1] Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (Divorced/Widowed Parents) (ASSIST)

[2] http://www.aware.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/Single-Parents-Access-to-Public-Housing.-Final-version.pdf

[3] Child Development Co-Savings Bill

This is a reproduction of an article written by Nadia Moynihan and first published by Asia Law Network. The original article can be found here.
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