The journey towards a fairer and more inclusive Singapore

In what ways can lower-income groups, seniors and young families be better supported as the country faces fresh challenges ahead? Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong flagged these issues for discussion at the Forward Singapore Conversation with social service practitioners on Monday. Here are edited excerpts of his speech.

(From left) DPM Lawrence Wong, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling and MSF's director-general of social welfare Ang Bee Lian with social service practitioners at the Lifelong Learning Institute. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

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. We must find new ways to tackle these challenges.

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.

Uplifting the lower-income

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.

We have worked very hard to keep this going. The situation in Singapore is not perfect. 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.

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.

So we can and must do more in several areas.

One key priority for me is to further reduce income inequality in Singapore.

Here, we have already made improvements over the past decade. And we have just made significant moves through a combination of measures - raising the local qualifying salary, expanding progressive wages, and enhancing Workfare.

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.

A related priority is to sustain social mobility. Here too, we have done well because if you look at children born in the 1980s, around 14 per cent 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.

But any society which has been stable for a long time tends to stratify and become less socially mobile. 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 difficulty with securing and remaining in stable employment; unstable financial situation; strained family relationships; lack of bandwidth to plan for their future.

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.

We must deal with this challenge, or we risk becoming more stratified and unequal as a society, with a permanent underclass unable to progress.

Already, there are some early signs that social stratification is becoming more entrenched.

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.

There are no easy solutions. If you look around the world, there have been many ideas that have been proposed and tried, but there are no magic bullets.

For a start, I believe that we have to refresh and update our overall approach to providing social support.

Today, we have many passionate community organisations offering support to vulnerable groups. The Government too has many different schemes and services. But what we have learnt 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.

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.

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.

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 so that the contributions of every individual and every worker across all professions are valued and appreciated.

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. This is a huge topic in its own right that deserves a fuller treatment.

Supporting seniors

Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing nations in the world - by 2030, we will have around one million citizens who will be aged 65 and above. That is about one in four of us.

As we get older, our healthcare needs will increase.

We must take better care of our seniors - to help them live independently for as long as possible; and live active and meaningful lives, contributing to society - at work, or in the community.

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. 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.

Now we are moving on Healthier SG to keep Singaporeans, especially our seniors, healthy for as long as possible too. This represents a paradigm shift in our healthcare system.

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. 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.

In return, as part of this compact, seniors must do their part too to improve their own health.

Of course, despite our best efforts to remain healthy, we will all inevitably need some care as we get older.

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.

In fact, not all seniors are frail and require round-the-clock care.

Moreover, many of our families prefer to care for their seniors at home if possible, as an expression of their filial piety and duty. 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.

So there is an urgent need to revamp and strengthen our eldercare sector, and to transform the care and living options for our seniors.

One strategy is to develop better senior living options in our housing estates, and scale them up nationwide.

We have already made some preliminary moves on this, with the launch of Community Care Apartments, but much more still needs to be done. The design of such apartments must meet our seniors' diverse needs and preferences, while remaining affordable.

Besides the hardware, we must also complement the living arrangements with an extensive network of community and eldercare services within easy reach across all neighbourhoods. Because for many seniors, social care is as important as healthcare.

The eldercare sector today is highly fragmented, with many providers and centres offering different types of services. Providers also come in different shapes and sizes.

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.

The pilot batch of Community Care Apartments comprises about 160 units and is expected to be completed in 2024. PHOTO: HDB

Separately, financial assistance in old age is always top-of-mind for all of us.

We have a strong foundation in the CPF system to help us build our retirement nest egg.

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.

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.

Strengthening families

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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 home buyers secure a flat quickly and affordably.

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.

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.

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.

HDB has been ramping up the supply of new flats, and will be able to launch more flats to meet the demand soon. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

Early childhood education

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.

That is why we have stepped up investments in the pre-school sector over the years, and we plan to do more in the coming years.

Improving pre-school 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. In fact, we will go further to reduce the fee caps at government-funded pre-schools in the coming year. We want to make full-day childcare more affordable for working families.

Singapore's core values

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: personal and collective responsibility, mutually reinforcing each other, so that everyone contributes to take care of ourselves and one another; fairness and inclusivity, where all Singaporeans contribute to and have a stake in our nation's progress; 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.

These values will continue to guide us as we navigate the road ahead.

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.

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.

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, what trade-offs are we prepared to accept, given our fiscal and resource constraints? Where are we willing to do more, pay more, or bear with some inconveniences? 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?

Ultimately, to build a society with stronger safety nets and collective support, we need everyone to play a role: employers to practise inclusive hiring; educators to help bring out the best in our children; community partners and social service practitioners to enable and uplift families in need; individuals and families to step up and to care for each other.

The Government can facilitate through our policies, but the drive and energy to shape a better society must ultimately come from all of us: business leaders who want to do well while doing good; parents who wish to leave behind a more fair and just society for their children; and all of us Singaporeans caring for the future of our nation and our fellow citizens.

Together, let us all journey forward towards a fairer and more inclusive Singapore.

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