Speech by DPM Lawrence Wong at The Forward Singapore Conversation with Social Sector Practitioners on 10 October 2022, at Lifelong Learning Institute Lecture Theatre
My Parliamentary Colleagues Ms Indranee Rajah, Ms Sun Xueling and Mdm Rahayu,
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. I am very happy to join you for this Forward Singapore conversation this afternoon.
2. Like societies everywhere, our social compact is coming under more strains and stresses. It is due to economic forces stretching out incomes and wealth in Singapore, slowing social mobility, and a rapidly ageing population amongst many different factors.
a. We must find new ways to tackle these challenges.
b. And that is why it is important to take stock of where we are today, to reflect on what changes we need to make, as we chart our new way forward together as a nation.
3. Since we launched the Forward Singapore exercise three months ago, my 4G colleagues and I have had conversations with many Singaporeans, who have shared with us their aspirations, and concerns.
a. Today I specifically wanted to take the time to engage all of you – our social service practitioners
b. Because you play crucial roles on the ground in resolving social issues and helping those in need.
4. Your input in shaping social policies and programmes matter. That is why we would like to hear from you too on how we can do better. But let me start by sharing some preliminary thoughts on how we can build a fairer and more inclusive society – a society with stronger safety nets and collective support, that will strengthen assurance for Singaporeans, especially for the lower-income, seniors, and those starting and raising families.
Uplifting the Lower-Income
5. First, let me talk about uplifting the lower-income and sustaining social mobility in Singapore.
6. The Singapore story has always been about enabling every citizen to develop their potential to the fullest, and ensuring everyone can see progress in their lives.
a. We have worked very hard to keep this going.
b. The situation in Singapore is not perfect
c. But when you look across a wide range of indicators – whether it is education attainment, home ownership or jobs and salaries – we are doing better than most OECD countries.
7. Nevertheless, this is an endless journey. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, the more we lift people out of poverty and hardship, the more challenges we will face with relative inequalities in our society.
8. So we can and must do more in several areas.
9. One key priority for me is to further reduce income inequality in Singapore.
a. Here, we have already made improvements over the past decade.
b. And we have just made significant moves through a combination of measures – raising the Local Qualifying Salary, expanding Progressive Wages, and enhancing Workfare.
c. Through these moves, I am confident that our lower-wage workers will see faster income growth, and we will be able to narrow the gap with those at the median.
10. A related priority is to sustain social mobility.
a. Here too, we have done well because if you look at children born in the 1980s, around 14% of those born to parents earning the bottom one-fifth of incomes reached the top fifth of their cohort by their 30s. This means that there is considerable mobility in society. This sort of mobility is higher than many advanced economies, and almost twice as high as in the US.
b. But any society which has been stable for a long time tends to stratify and become less socially mobile.
c. In particular, we know that lower-income families today face more challenges. They want to give their children the best, but they face complex and multi-faceted issues, such as:
i. Difficulty with securing and remaining in stable employment;
ii. Unstable financial situation;
iii. Strained family relationships;
iv. Lack of bandwidth to plan for their future etc.
d. This is why, even with financial support, some families struggle to improve their circumstances. And as those with means do better and better, there are those at the bottom who continue to find it harder and harder to catch up.
11. We must deal with this challenge, or we risk becoming more stratified and unequal as a society, with a permanent underclass unable to progress.
a. Already, there are some early signs that social stratification is becoming more entrenched.
b. For example, in the past we mostly had older folks staying in rental flats; nowadays we see more families with young children staying in these flats, and many stay for several years or more.
12. What can we do about this challenge? To be honest that there are no easy solutions. If you look around the world, there have been many ideas have been proposed and tried, but there are no magic bullets.
13. For a start, I believe that we have to refresh and update our overall approach to providing social support in Singapore.
14. Today, we have many passionate community organisations offering support to vulnerable groups. The Government too has many different schemes and services.
15. But what we have learned is that to help lower-income families sustain progress, our social services need to be delivered in a more holistic manner. We need to provide more integrated, wraparound support, tailored to the family’s unique circumstances and needs.
a. This is often easier said than done.
b. Social service practitioners like yourselves understand the challenges on the ground, coordinating and integrating these different programmes.
c. In fact, it takes more effort to bring in different community partners to work in tandem, to address the problems which are often complex and cut across different areas of need.
16. We have had some early success with initiatives like KidSTART and ComLink.
a. For example, through KidSTART, we are bringing together early childhood practitioners, healthcare professionals, and educators to improve outcomes for lower-income families with young children.
b. With ComLink, we are taking the same family-centric approach with families in rental housing – engaging them, providing close befriending support and working with social service agencies to provide customised programmes.
17. But there is still scope to better integrate our various services and interventions across the whole of Government.
a. We now have many different programmes – KidSTART, ComLink, UPLIFT in schools, rental support in HDB, just to name a few.
b. We must bring together these social services in a more coordinated suite of interventions tailored to the family’s needs, with befrienders serving as consistent touchpoints across programmes.
c. We also need to scale up the coverage of our efforts. For example, KidSTART has supported about 4,300 children since it started in 2016. That is about one-fifth of lower-income families with children. We need to urgently expand the coverage to support more lower-income families.
d. And a key feature of all our interventions must be to get lower-income families to enrol their children into pre-schools earlier, preferably from around age three, ensure consistent attendance, and to provide these children with meaningful and quality programmes. This remains the best way to give them the head-start they will need to succeed later in life.
18. We are also open to new ideas to encourage lower-income families towards better life outcomes, empowering them to achieve success on their own terms.
a. All of you would know some years back, we introduced the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, which was intended to help second-timer families with young children living in rental flats purchase a home.
b. The basic idea is to give them a generous grant – essentially another bite of the housing cherry – so that they can buy a new 2-room or 3-room flat. As part of the scheme, parents must maintain continuous employment and the children must attend school regularly, so that we can help stabilise their family and home environments, and enable them to have a new start in their lives.
c. We could extend a similar concept to how we provide other forms of social support just as we did with Fresh Start – more help, but families also need to do their part. For example, we could provide more incentives to further empower lower-income families, and work with them very closely to achieve clear milestones and stay on track in their journey of progress.
19. This new approach is a manpower intensive one. It requires all of us to work hand in hand with each and every family in need, and journey with them towards better employment, as well as better social and health outcomes. But I am confident we can succeed with the help of all our partners and social service practitioners.
20. I have touched on income inequality and how we can reduce it. But the most important, and hardest, gap to narrow is not defined in terms of income or wealth, but in respect and status. That is very hard to close. How do we shift attitudes and mindsets:
a. So that the contributions of every individual and every worker across all professions are valued and appreciated.
b. How do we ensure that no one feels pigeon-holed because of the school they went to, their family background, or the job and positions they hold; and how do we ensure that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds and incomes, will be treated as equals, and accorded the dignity and respect that we all deserve.
c. This is a huge topic in its own right that deserves a fuller treatment; so I will speak more about this at a separate occasion. Suffice to say, we will have a lot to do just to deal with the issue of uplifting the lower-income and reducing income equality as well as sustaining social mobility. That is a broad area of emphasis.
21. Second, supporting our growing number of seniors.
22. We all know that Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing nations in the world – by 2030, we will have around 1 million citizens who will be aged 65 and above. That is about 1 in 4 of us.
a. As we get older, our healthcare needs will increase. Already, chronic diseases have become more prevalent in Singapore. Frailty and ageing-related diseases like dementia are also a real concern, not just to many of us with aged parents, but to all of us who will grow old in future.
23. We must take better care of our seniors – to help them:
a. Live independently for as long as possible; and
b. Live active and meaningful lives, contributing to society – at work, or in the community.
24. To achieve this, we have been making several moves over the recent years.
a. Together with our tripartite partners, we have put in place guidelines, incentives and support schemes to help our seniors remain in the workplace for longer, if they choose to do so.
b. We have been expanding the capacity of our healthcare system, and making it more affordable through the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages, as well as through MediShield Life and CareShield Life.
c. We have also worked hard to help seniors remain socially active in the community, expanding avenues for them to volunteer their time, and to contribute their energy and experience to the community.
25. Now we are moving on Healthier SG to keep Singaporeans, especially our seniors, healthy for as long as possible too.
a. This represents a paradigm shift in our healthcare system – one which we are investing heavily in.
b. The basic idea is to help Singaporeans to live healthier, and more active lives.
c. Family doctors will build a stronger long-term relationship with each senior, and advise them to keep healthy, not just take care of their ailments.
d. And they will work with a whole host of partners, such as hospitals, eldercare centres, and the People’s Association and Health Promotion Board, to guide and support seniors.
e. In return, as part of this compact, seniors must do their part too to improve their own health. Start by making healthy lifestyle choices, watch their diets – take less sugar and less salt - and go for regular screening, so as to delay the onset of chronic disease, or even prevent it entirely.
26. Of course, despite our best efforts to remain healthy, we will all inevitably need some care as we get older.
a. We are building many more nursing homes to care for frail seniors who cannot live independently. But this cannot be the mainstream solution for our seniors. We would not have enough space if everyone wants a nursing home down the road.
b. In fact, not all seniors are frail and require round the clock care. If given some assistance from time to time, many are perfectly capable of living independently and would like to do so.
c. Moreover, many of our families prefer to care for their seniors at home if possible, as an expression of their filial piety and duty.
d. But at the same time, we also know that many families feel sandwiched – they have to care for their own children, and look after their elderly parents at the same time.
e. For many in the broad middle-income, they will try to get some help from migrant domestic workers.
f. But there are still considerable strains on the caregivers at home, who are not always able to provide the best care arrangements for seniors.
27. So there is an urgent need to revamp and strengthen our elder care sector, and to transform the care and living options for our seniors.
28. One strategy is to develop better senior living options in our housing estates, and scale them up nationwide.
a. We have already made some preliminary moves on this, with the launch of Community Care Apartments, but much more still needs to be done.
b. The design of such apartments must meet our seniors’ diverse needs and preferences, while remaining affordable.
c. Several ministries, including MOH, MND and MSF will be working closely to bring this about.
29. Besides the hardware, we must also complement the living arrangements with an extensive network of community and elder-care services within easy reach across all neighbourhoods. Because for many seniors, social care is as important as healthcare. We need to prevent them from becoming socially isolated, because that is when the health and spirit of the person deteriorates quickly.
a. There is much we can do here. The elder care sector today is highly fragmented, with many providers and centres offering different types of services.
b. Providers also come in different shapes and sizes. The smaller ones tend to have less ability to develop cost-effective systems of care to serve a broader group of seniors, and they are also not integrated and linked up with our healthcare system.
c. We will need to strengthen and coordinate the providers in the sector, especially the smaller ones, so that we can provide a more seamless continuum of care, and integrate services for our seniors in an accessible and senior-centric manner.
30. Separately, financial assistance in old age is always top-of-mind for all of us.
a. We have a strong foundation in the CPF system to help us build our retirement nest egg. Workers, employers, and the Government collectively contribute to this system.
b. The Government has also enhanced the system over the years to provide additional support to those who need more help.
c. Our system has worked well thus far, but it also faces challenges because the nature of work is changing. More have taken up gig work, which provides opportunities, but also less stable employment, and less security for the longer-term.
31. So we must continue to evolve and update our CPF system. Our promise to all Singaporeans is this: as long as you work and contribute consistently throughout life, you can be assured of meeting your basic retirement needs.
a. We will study how to achieve this.
i. We know that Singaporeans have a strong work ethic and strong sense of personal responsibility. We must preserve this strength.
ii. We must also preserve the key role of employers in this effort. So it will require not just moves on the CPF front, but also on wages. And that’s something we will study and discuss further with our tripartite partners
b. Meanwhile, our current seniors have not had the runway to benefit as much from enhancements to the CPF system, such as Workfare and the Extra Interest Rates. We will see how to further strengthen retirement support for them, including those with low or less stable incomes.
c. So that’s our second priority – to support our seniors both in terms of their care and living arrangements as well as their retirement adequacy.
32. Third, we must also redouble our efforts to strengthen and provide more assurance to our families. This is crucial because families remain the preferred source of support and care for many.
33. Unfortunately, Singaporeans are getting married later and having fewer children. This is an issue that we have been grappling with for a long time, but we must continue to do whatever we can to encourage Singaporeans to settle down and have children.
34. We already have generous schemes to provide financial support to parents during the early years of raising a child. We will consider how these schemes can be enhanced, and will also review how we can reprioritise resources and adjust existing marriage and parenthood measures that may no longer be as relevant today.
35. In fact, we know that starting a family is not just about the direct incentives. In our conversations with many young couples, their considerations for having children are not just about the Baby Bonus. It is not as though you double the baby bonus, you would have twice as many children. Many of them are more concerned about issues like housing, workplace arrangements, and education for their children.
36. So we should focus our efforts and resources on creating a more conducive environment for families to thrive and flourish. This is not just a whole-of-government effort; it is a whole-of-society effort. We must make Singapore the best place for families – a society where young couples feel well-supported to start and raise a family, and can give their children the best possible start in life.
37. In particular, I know that long wait times for new flats and rising resale home prices are key concerns for many young Singaporeans today. This is partly due to the disruptions in the building programme brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two and a half years. But HDB has been ramping up the supply of new flats, and will be able to launch more flats to meet the demand soon. In addition, we will also review our housing policies to see how we can help first-time homebuyers secure a flat quickly and affordably.
38. We also want to enable parents to better balance their work and family commitments. Our experience during the pandemic has shown that Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) do enable employees to contribute effectively to their work while also providing flexibility to attend to caregiving needs when needed.
a. When FWAs are implemented well, employees see improved work-life harmony and morale, and employers benefit from being able to attract and retain talent.
b. This is why we are developing a set of Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs. We want to work with tripartite partners to establish more family-friendly workplaces where FWAs become the norm.
39. We will also review our leave measures to better support parents in managing work and family commitments, while taking into account the needs of employers in the current tight labour market. This is under review; it does not mean that we will do everything – because we have to take into consideration all the constraints and needs of different stakeholders. And I should also add that it is not just about more leave, but the importance of getting fathers to be more involved in parenting and in the care of their children. Because we all know that in most families today, mothers still bear the larger share of the caregiving burden. We should aim for a more equal sharing of parental responsibilities. This is not something that we can change through policies alone. Ultimately, it is about how we can engender a broader mindset shift in individual attitudes as well as societal norms.
40. The other major area is support for children in their early years. The first few years of a child’s life are critical for their development. We want to support parents and assure them that their children will be well-equipped to have a good start in life.
41. This is where preschool education can make a big difference. That is why we have stepped up investments in the preschool sector over the years, and we plan to do more in the coming years. Improving preschool quality will come at a cost. But parents do not have to worry. Because the Government will increase its funding support and cover most of the costs.
42. In fact, we will go further to reduce the fee caps at government-funded preschools in the coming year. We want to make full-day childcare more affordable for working families. Eventually, what families have to pay to send their child to a full-day childcare should be similar to what they pay today for primary school and after-school student care. We will take some time to get there; the move that we will make soon to reduce our fee caps in the coming year will move us closer in that direction, and eventually we will get there. But this is what we are working towards.
Journeying Together Towards a Fairer, More Inclusive Singapore
43. I have sketched out some of the key issues we hope to discuss and review in the effort to renew and update our social compact in Singapore. For now, these are the issues that we have started to think about, based on the conversations we’ve had and the feedback that we’ve received from Singaporeans.
44. So the three issues I have highlighted around the lower-income, seniors and families are not meant to be comprehensive. In fact, there are many other areas that we will continue to work on, like providing more help for people with mental illnesses, enhancing mental wellbeing, supporting Persons with Disabilities through the Enabling Masterplan 2030, as well as the ongoing review to strengthen protection for platform or gig workers. These are other areas that I’ve not dwelt on, but certainly they are issues which are also work in progress.
45. The conversations will continue today and in the coming months – on what else is needed, how some of the policies and programmes we are rolling out can be further improved, and how we can work together to ensure they achieve the desired outcomes.
46. But if we take a step back, it is worth remembering that our current social compact is forged based on a few core values that have been with us since Singapore’s independence:
a. Personal and collective responsibility, mutually reinforcing each other, so that everyone contributes to take care of ourselves and one another;
b. Fairness and inclusivity, where all Singaporeans contribute to and have a stake in our nation’s progress;
c. As well as fiscal sustainability, so that we spend within our means and we do not just pass the buck down to the next generation.
47. These values will continue to guide us as we navigate the road ahead.
48. We must avoid the individualistic ethos of an unfettered market economy – where advantage gained is transmitted from one generation to the next, people are left to fend for themselves, and the vulnerable are left behind.
49. At the same time, we must avoid the pitfalls of social welfare models we have seen elsewhere – where everything is left to the state to resolve, the sense of responsibility and work ethic are eroded; and future generations are left to bear a growing mountain of public debts.
50. We know the two extremes to avoid; we must find a middle path that works for us in Singapore. Navigating this will require all of us to listen to, partner and engage each other on the way ahead. Some of the conversations will not be easy, but they are necessary. For example:
a. What trade-offs are we prepared to accept, given our fiscal and resource constraints?
b. Where are we willing to do more, pay more, or bear with some inconveniences?
c. In what areas can civic organisations and community stakeholders do more, so that it’s not just relying on government solutions but we can grow a more resilient society?
51. Ultimately, to build a society with stronger safety nets and collective support, we need everyone to play a role:
a. Employers to practise inclusive hiring; educators to help bring out the best in our children;
b. Community partners and social service practitioners to enable and uplift families in need;
c. Individuals and families to step up and to care for each other.
52. The Government can facilitate through our policies, but the drive and energy to shape a better society must ultimately come from all of us:
a. Business leaders who want to do well while doing good;
b. Parents who wish to leave behind a more fair and just society for their children;
c. And all of us Singaporeans caring for the future of our nation and our fellow citizens.
53. Together, let us all journey forward toward a fairer and more inclusive Singapore.