Getting to the root of social issues in Singapore

Govt to pump $350m into social science and humanities research; findings could impact country's future policies

Questions such as why Singaporeans shun certain jobs, how they commute and the evolving needs of a fast-ageing population could be the subjects of more in-depth study, as the Government pumps $350 million into social science and humanities research.

The findings could impact the country's future policies, given that Singapore is grappling with issues such as social cohesion and technological changes.

Some of these challenges, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, "demand serious inquiry and fresh thinking".

Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, announced the latest funding push yesterday, as he called on Singapore to build up its community of home-grown researchers and thought leaders in social sciences and the humanities.

The money from the Ministry of Education (MOE) will help underwrite scholarship and research grants in these two disciplines over the next five years - and is a 45 per cent increase in its spending in this area over the last five years.

Mr Tharman gave an update on the work of the new Social Science Research Council (SSRC), set up in January to provide concerted direction for social science and humanities research.

In May, it launched a grant to support studies addressing future needs here and in Asia. So far, 70 proposals from eight institutions, including the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University (SMU), have been received.

The results are expected to be announced early next year. A second grant call will also be launched next year, said Mr Tharman, who was speaking at the launch of SMU's Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL).

"Our region today is a fascinating and fertile ground for study, but scholarship has not caught up with its growing importance. We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can inform and spur both policy reform and the initiatives of societal leaders," he said.

Singapore traditionally spends more on science, technology, engineering and medicine research.

Former top civil servant Peter Ho, now the senior adviser for the Centre for Strategic Futures and who is leading the SSRC, said that more work needs to be done in the social sciences. He noted that Singapore has built up strong research in the areas of science, technology, engineering and medicine, but work in the social sciences has been "relatively underdeveloped".

He said: "Policies as we formulate them need to be better informed by not just the technical solutions... but informed by societal insights."

Professor Lily Kong, council member and SMU provost, said: "As we progress as a society and the world becomes more complex, people are not just looking for a roof over their heads; they are looking for a sense of community, a sense of belonging."

Mr Tharman said the council is also working on developing local talent, and building global networks of researchers and policymakers across disciplines.

The SSRC has started to engage organisations and thought leaders around the world, he added, such as the Social Science Research Council in New York and the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University.

Mr Martin Tan, executive director of ISL, said the funding is "timely" and "a sizeable investment by the Government". The institute, which was set up in 2014 and has submitted a proposal to the SSRC, does applied research and works with organisations across the region on programmes related to social impact.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Getting to the root of social issues in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe