SINGAPORE - As Singapore works to reduce inequality, conversations about the kind of social compact its citizens want and how to fund that support have to continue, said Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman on Thursday (Sept 3).
"There needs to be societal consensus on what is a basic and reasonable standard of living we commit to provide to all Singaporeans, bearing in mind that increases in support and benefits provided are not free, but ultimately paid for by everyone through taxes," he added.
Joining the debate on the President's Address, Dr Maliki noted that while Singapore has moved to bring down inequality, bridging the gap will get only more difficult with time as globalisation and digitalisation threaten to leave behind those who are unable to cope in the new economy.
The minister, who has a doctorate in social work, assured the House that the Government pays very close attention to narrowing social stratification, as he set out several areas it intends to focus on to tackle this issue.
Singaporeans, regardless of their income or background, must be able to meet their basic needs and achieve a reasonable standard of living, he said.
This includes giving children a good education and preparing them for adulthood, providing young people with the assurance that they can advance through the job market, and allowing adults to have job security and prepare well for retirement.
Investing in education is thus important, and the Government has set aside more resources for those from low-income families, he said, citing various subsidies such families can receive for childcare and school fees, as well as enhanced bursaries.
He added that public healthcare and home ownership are heavily subsidised in Singapore, allowing all to meet their fundamental needs.
But there has to be social mobility for all to reduce inequality in a sustainable way, said Dr Maliki, who is also Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.
To that end, the county has to put in place a system where everyone is progressing, he added.
Singapore has to continue work on building a strong and dynamic economy that can give its citizens good jobs, reasonable wages, and sustained salary increments that increase with workers' productivity and skills, he said.
The country should also strive to provide greater equality of opportunity, he added, by levelling uneven starting blocks for children and offering opportunities at every stage of life.
He pointed to how the Ministry of Education (MOE) has made significant moves to address this by taking into account the skills and abilities of individual students and going beyond grades and paper qualifications.
It is also providing more pathways in higher education by expanding the percentage of aptitude-based admissions in institutes of higher education.
Disadvantaged families will not be left behind, he said, as the MOE works to enhance access to quality and affordable pre-school education for all, so that all children will have a strong foundation to temper any inequalities they might face.
"Our starting point in life should not dictate our ending point, and that with hard work, ability and ambition, we can succeed," said Dr Maliki.
Singaporeans also need to work towards a society where success is not defined solely in economic terms, and it has to avoid allowing material divides to translate into social divides, said Dr Maliki.
He recounted to the House how a conversation he had with some youth in his constituency left him feeling "unsettled".
One of them said that she felt looked down upon when her schoolmates found out she was receiving financial aid, while another said he felt a divide between himself and his other university mates because he came from a less prestigious school.
In order to address this, Dr Maliki made the point that Singapore needs a society of opportunity that is underpinned by humility, responsibility and a commitment to respectfully treat everyone as equals regardless of their background.
Education is fundamental to nurturing such a society, and he said his ministry will continue to instil these values.
"We must remain committed to the fundamental aim of Singapore being a place where our efforts are rewarded not just in economic terms, but also in the quality of life we enjoy; and a society where everyone has a place that is valued equally," he said.