LONGER maternity leave might not necessarily benefit working mothers or result in more babies, experts told The Straits Times yesterday.

Their responses came in the wake of a National Trades Union Congress proposal released last week, which set out ideas on encouraging Singaporeans to procreate amid a declining national fertility rate.

The proposal included a suggestion to extend paid maternity leave to six months instead of the current four, with an option for a further six months' unpaid leave.

Employers, human resources experts and women's organisations said such a measure would at best be a short-term fix for working mothers.

Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, said: 'What people really need is a longer-term solution where they can have flexi-work hours, and more childcare leave days for both parents.

'This will give them more flexibility to take care of their children in the long run.'

Sociologist Paulin Straughan, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, noted that maternity leave was a time for the mother to recuperate and recover from childbirth, and to let the body heal. 'It should not be seen as solely for child care, which is a longer-term issue,' she said.

She added: 'The extension might mean a lot to those who have already decided to have children, but it's not going to be the tipping point in the decisions of most.'

Mrs Laura Hwang, president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, said: 'It may still be daunting to have more children, as the commitment goes well beyond the first six months. Many women will not find it acceptable to take time away for six months and risk their career opportunities.'

The fertility rate issue is a very complex one, said Singapore Human Resources Institute executive director David Ang. It is also very personal, he said, noting: 'Given that the existing provisions have not been working, I would question whether extending maternity leave really is the way to go.'

He added that possible concerns for both pregnant women and their employers include additional costs incurred by employers, potential discrimination against female employees, and problems in making the transition back to working life.

Ms Lim said the suggested extension would have minimal impact on the decision to have children and women might end up with the shorter end of the stick. 'All other things being equal, the employer might be tempted to choose the man over the woman when hiring,' she said.

Mr Josh Goh, assistant director of human resources consultancy The GMP Group, agreed the problem of workplace discrimination might worsen.

'For example, employers might ask for information about whether the employee is going to start a family soon,' he said.

Mr Chan Chong Beng, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, said adapting to such a policy might initially be challenging for smaller firms, which are less structured than large corporations and might have problems hiring temporary staff.

'SMEs that penalise women for this will have problems in the long run with retaining employees, and their reputations will also suffer,' he said.

Assistant manager Koh Mui Leng, 30, who is three months pregnant with her first child, said extending maternity leave might threaten a woman's career prospects.

'More comprehensive support for working mothers from society in general is still necessary - for example, more childcare support, flexible work arrangements as well as paternity leave,' she said.

'I'm still trying to work out a long-term childcare solution - I enjoy my job very much and I don't want to be forced to make the decision to stop working or extend my leave because of childcare issues,' she added.