Debate on ministries’ budgets

Multifaceted effort needed to tackle issue of inequality

Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee
Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee

Diversity of ideas on improving social mobility welcome, says Desmond Lee

Inequality is a challenge that has to be tackled on multiple fronts, and the diversity of ideas on lifting social mobility is to be welcomed, said Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee.

"It gives us the opportunity to see fresh perspectives, step back and challenge our own assumptions, so that we can continue to make our system better," he told Parliament.

"There are many causes of income inequality," Mr Lee said. "Because there are multiple causes, our solutions must be multifaceted. We must tackle inequality practically, rather than ideologically."

For instance, there are differences in how much parents can invest in their children and in the way technology and market forces shape wages, he said. Other people may have difficulty accessing support, or they may be weighed down or derailed by life circumstances.

Mr Lee outlined the Government's approach during a debate on measures to mitigate income inequality and increase social mobility, an issue that has been in the public consciousness of late, including through books, articles, forums and programmes that he called "thoughtful".

The discussions, he noted, help focus "on how each of us can play our part to help uplift Singaporeans in need". "We are encouraged that many more people are volunteering and giving generously," he said, adding that there can be greater impact if collective efforts are better harnessed and complemented.

Mr Lee assured members that the Government was committed to tackling the "unfinished business" of inequality, and said it would keep studying fresh ideas and approaches, both here and abroad.

"We do not assume we have all the answers. We don't," he said.

MAKING THE SYSTEM BETTER

Because there are multiple causes, our solutions must be multifaceted. We must tackle inequality practically, rather than ideologically.

SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT MINISTER DESMOND LEE

"We will try out pilots, experiment and partner community groups working on the ground."

But he reminded MPs that no system or solution is perfect, and nearly every policy has its trade-offs or unintended consequences.

"When new ideas or philosophies are offered, we need to see how they have worked in other societies and carefully consider the fuller implications and trade-offs so that good intentions do not lead to counterproductive results," he said.

Mr Lee's speech rounded up the debate after political office-holders of three other ministries outlined aspects of Singapore's targeted approach to improve social mobility and ease the impact of income inequality by intervening early on - from giving children a good start in life through pre-school subsidies to supplementing workers' incomes.

Ms Indranee Rajah, who is Second Minister for Education, cited various measures to help uplift under-performing students from disadvantaged families.

Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad outlined measures to support lower-income workers, while Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Sun Xueling spoke on what the Housing Board is doing to help families living in rental flats own their homes.

Mr Lee also announced a scheme in four HDB estates with a concentration of rental blocks to make help more accessible to residents.

A pilot local community support initiative in the Boon Lay and Jurong West area will also step in at an earlier stage to help young people with complex family circumstances, as well as their families, working with the Education Ministry's new Uplift Programme Office to identify them early.

Despite the many groups doing good on the ground, there is room for all of them to do more and work more closely together, he said.

He reminded members that no one got to where they are today on their own efforts alone, and urged people to "pay it forward" and look out for fellow citizens in need. Doing so will ensure that all Singaporeans have the chance to pursue their dreams, regardless of their backgrounds, and create a society of opportunities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2019, with the headline 'Multifaceted effort needed to tackle issue of inequality'. Print Edition | Subscribe