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Single parents disappointed with inaction on parliamentary petition and lack of consultation

Single parents who signed a parliamentary petition urging reform of public housing policies have expressed disappointment with the lack of action by policy-makers.

On Wednesday evening, the Public Petitions Committee published a report in response to the parliamentary petition presented in September by Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who had worked on it closely with gender equality group AWARE. Attached to the Committee’s report are a public petition from AWARE, with 8,024 signatures in support of reform, and a report from Ministry of National Development (MND).

The parliamentary petition had proposed that all parents with any care and control of their children should no longer be subject to Housing Development Board (HDB)’s debarment rule, and those with legal custody of a child are not discriminated against on the ground of their marital status. It also proposed that Parliament form a Select Committee to further deliberate on public housing access for single-parent families, with particular reference to Singapore’s United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) obligations.

However, MND dismissed the petition by issuing the below responses to the Committee’s queries:

(a) On the proposed amendments to sections 47 and 65 of the Housing and Development Act (HDA), MND assured the Committee that the Government was committed to housing the nation, and ensuring the well-being of children, and that achieving these goals do not require special legislative amendments. MND explained that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) already exercised flexibility in appropriate cases and changes could be effected at a policy level, for example, the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (ASSIST).

(b) On referring the issue of access to public housing for single parents, and Singapore’s conformity with its obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) to a Select Committee of Parliament, MND informed the Committee that since Singapore’s accession to the CRC in 1995, Singapore had progressively made improvements and would continue to make improvements to enhance the protection, care and holistic development of children. As there is a well-established mechanism for periodic review of Singapore’s conformity to obligations under the CRC, MND was of the view that there was no need to refer the matter to a Select Committee of Parliament. MND further informed the Committee that a range of Government agencies 3 are working together to ensure that no child would be without adequate housing, regardless of whether his or her parents were married or not.

(c) On suggestions by AWARE to reform housing policy for single parents, MND informed the Committee that the Ministry would continue to consider greater flexibility to meet the needs of specific groups. MND reiterated that the housing policies aim to address the needs of Singapore Citizen households, without undermining self-reliance and family support. When MND is extending help to unmarried parents, MND is mindful not to undermine the prevailing social norm of parenthood within marriage. Together with relevant agencies such as the Ministry of Family and Social Development (MSF), MND would consider AWARE’s suggestions as part of the regular reviews to improve policy and service delivery. (d) On the Government’s engagement with civil society groups, MND informed the Committee that the Ministry welcomed dialogue with organisations who could provide constructive suggestions and be part of a collective effort to support families in need.

Four of the single parents who signed the petition responded to the report.

Said Jamie*, "I've been trying all the channels and have still not experienced the so-called 'flexibility' HDB claims to exercise. I am truly disappointed in the way they have handled this. The Committee did not even speak to single parents directly, and only relied on the MND report. The policies punish us in a society with a high cost of living and the authorities are not listening."

Said Eve, “I am disappointed that this petition is rejected without our real voices being heard. Nobody from Parliament contacted us to hear our perspectives. Many appeals still fail under this case-by-case approach, affecting children’s well-being. I hope the Government will take a more cohesive approach to support single-parent families. Let Singapore be a better place where we are one family, without walls differentiating parents who are all trying to build a home for their children.”

Said Jackie*, “I’m impressed by how single parents have bravely come together to urge for equal treatment. It’s heartening to see overwhelming support from society on this issue, but sadly policy-makers seem out of touch with how ordinary people treat single parents with kindness and respect.”

“A house for many people is a roof over their heads or an investment. But to single parents, it is their safe haven. Only by taking care of their basic needs can single parents work towards a better future for their kids,” said Jane*.

Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy and Research at AWARE, said, “Single parents have made it clear that, despite MND’s promises, housing policies aren’t meeting their needs. When the petitioners approached Parliament, the Committee had the power to investigate - by holding open hearings and reaching out directly to single parents, their children, academic experts and NGOs, not only MND. The Committee has missed an opportunity to respond to the needs and concerns of Singapore’s vulnerable families.”

“It is also baffling to see the statement that existing mechanisms for review of Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are sufficient to scrutinise and address this issue. The government has just published its latest CRC report to the United Nations and there is no discussion of the impact on housing policy on the children of single parents. We were not consulted on this subject in the preparation of the report. Nevertheless we hope to continue dialogue with MND to better serve the needs of single parents.”

Recently, AWARE published its observations based on experience with the housing situation of 20 single parents, which shows how even with HDB’s case-by-case approach, needs are going unmet.

AWARE has been consistently urging for several key changes to HDB’s existing housing policy, including increasing the income cap for public rental housing, waiving the debarment rule for divorced parents with care and control of their children, and allowing unmarried mothers to form a family nucleus with their children.

AWARE’s public petition was built on the findings of their in-depth study (with accompanying annexes ) involving interviews with 55 single mothers, which found that 95% of respondents who sought public housing faced problems like the unrealistic income ceiling, long debarment periods and lack of transparency and clarity in policies.

* Not their real names