In June last year, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat launched the Singapore Together movement - an initiative of leadership centred on partnership - and invited all Singaporeans to work with the Government and one another to shape our future.
We made good progress. Working together, we improved the way we recycle and strengthened work-life harmony through the #RecycleRight Citizens' Workgroup and Citizens' Panel on Work-Life Harmony respectively. Our youth came together to create their vision of Singapore and take action on ground-up projects through the SG Youth Action Plan. Residents had a say in shaping their physical environment through the Lively Places Programme.
We were moving forward at a steady tempo when the world changed. Covid-19 hit us like a wrecking ball.
The pandemic has inflicted a terrible toll in human lives and the count continues.
The economic fallout has been as spectacular as it has been unprecedented. Governments have been forced to respond in extraordinary ways, locking down cities, shutting borders, quarantining millions and injecting huge fiscal stimuli to keep economies going.
The social cost too is tremendous. Jobs will be lost and livelihoods affected. Without intervention, inequalities will widen and social mobility will slow.
Mental health issues increased and the digital divide was sharply exposed. In some countries the situation has been made worse by racial and other divides, causing social unrest to erupt.
This is compounded by increasing geopolitical polarisation and erosion of the world order that has been in place since World War II.
We are facing the crisis of a generation.
Against this backdrop, Singapore Together has become even more imperative and necessary.
With the multitude of challenges ahead, we will prevail only if we are united, combining our strengths, talents, wisdom, experience and resources. We must leverage the power of partnerships to emerge stronger as an economy and a society and to prepare for the future.
We have made a good start.
Jobs and economy
The National Jobs Council led by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is harnessing both the public and private sectors in an all-out effort to create and save jobs as well as upskill and retrain workers for new opportunities under SGUnited Jobs and Skills.
Under the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, government and industry representatives from different sectors are working together on recommendations for economic recovery. Beyond recommendations, it has also launched Singapore Together Alliances for Action to prototype new ideas within three months to catalyse growth and to generate new jobs.
On the social front, strong partnership between government, people and organisations is essential to tackling social issues effectively. This was amply demonstrated during the circuit breaker.
Working with the Ministry of Education (MOE), more than 100 volunteers from Heartware Network, RSVP Singapore, Life Community Services Society, Cahaya Community and Youth Corps Singapore came forward as tele-befrienders to check on vulnerable students' well-being and to ensure families were coping.
The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund partnered MOE to provide meal subsidies totalling $4 million for more than 47,000 students from lower-income families during the mid-year holidays.
The Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers network (comprising 26 public agencies, social service agencies and community partners) collaborated with 40 other community partners to set up Safe Sound Sleeping Places to shelter about 600 homeless persons.
Going forward we have to address not only pre-existing social issues but also new ones thrown up by Covid-19, like digital inclusion.
Many of us were able to pivot to working remotely during the circuit breaker, but this was far less the case for low-income households and workers, seniors, and traditional businesses like hawkers. Here too a partnership approach will be helpful to bridge the digital gap.
The implementation of home-based learning during the circuit breaker made urgent the provision of devices to students without any. Engineering Good, a charity, refurbished some 2,000 laptops from donors which social service agencies then distributed to students in need, complementing the schools' loan of 22,000 devices, while banks and telecommunications companies offered free Internet access.
Going forward, MOE is accelerating plans to equip all secondary students with a personal laptop or tablet for learning. They will have the devices by next year, seven years ahead of schedule. We will continue to work with community partners to address any other gaps.
For seniors, low-wage workers and hawkers, providing devices is only one aspect of addressing the challenge. They need to learn to use them and be comfortable doing so.
The Government is hiring 1,000 digital ambassadors to help stallholders and seniors acquire basic digital skills, especially for smartphone use, and aims to reach out to 100,000 seniors by March next year. I encourage digitally savvy Singaporeans to come forward and help in this effort, whether as employees or volunteers.
Even as we act immediately to address pressing economic and social issues, we also need to take time to process what has happened and consider the future.
Covid-19 has operated like a giant reset button for the whole world. The global lockdowns and our own circuit breaker is a shared experience of an entire generation. It is now seared into our collective consciousness and will influence our attitudes and thinking for years to come.
While each individual's experience of this unusual period is unique, there are common themes.
The enforced break has compelled many to re-evaluate what is truly important. Families in the same households got to spend more time together. Separation from family members in other households made us realise how precious time with them is. We were able to focus on health and exercise. We reconnected with nature. We discovered it is the little ordinary everyday things we took for granted - like having coffee with a friend - that matter.
We gained renewed respect and gratitude for healthcare and front-line workers, cleaners and teachers. The digital work practices we adopted in haste are set to become permanent features of work life. Those who shunned technology found they could not outrun it.
The world has changed. And we have changed too, even if we have not yet realised it.
There is a palpable sense that we are at a turning point in history and presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape our future.
Hence there is a need to reflect on our experience, to make sense of it and ask what we want for ourselves and for Singapore in a post-Covid-19 era.
To that end, we have started a series of Emerging Stronger Conversations to explore what kind of society we want to be and engage each other so that we can build that future Singapore together. To translate the conversations into action, we will set up the Singapore Together Action Networks. The nature of the networks will depend on the issues and priorities that arise out of the conversations.
Do lend your voices to these conversations and consider what you can do with the Government and others to shape the Singapore of tomorrow.
When we launched Singapore Together, we said that it would be the work of a generation. We did not know then this would include overcoming the crisis of a generation. But we can be confident that we will do so.
Our strength lies in our unity, our can-do spirit and the partnership between government and people. We will emerge stronger because we are Singapore Together.
• Indranee Rajah is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Finance and Education.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2020, with the headline 'After the Covid-19 reset, time to pull together to shape Singapore's future'. Subscribe
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