Singapore will double its annual spending on pre-schools in the next five years, to add 40,000 new places for children and improve the quality of pre-school education.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday announced three initiatives to build up the pre-school sector so that every child - regardless of family background - can have the best possible start in life.
Besides increasing the number of childcare places for children aged up to four, the Government will roll out more kindergartens and set up a new centralised training institute for pre-school teachers.
"Today, every child goes to a good school. We want every child to go to a good pre-school," said Mr Lee.
"If we get this right, we will foster social mobility and sustain a fair and just society."
At his 14th National Day Rally, Mr Lee focused on building for the future, highlighting three issues that he said are important for the nation's prosperity and the well-being of its citizens in the long term.
Unlike past rallies where he spoke of Singapore's future, its economy or geopolitical issues, Mr Lee homed in this year on improving pre-school education, fighting diabetes and creating a smart nation that offers opportunities for all.
He noted that the economy is expected to grow by about 2.5 per cent this year, and, most encouragingly, productivity went up by 1 per cent last year after years of almost zero growth.
But he moved beyond immediate priorities like creating jobs to discuss longer-term issues.
He said the Government had moved decisively to transform the pre-school sector five years ago, by creating nearly 50,000 childcare and kindergarten places, increasing pre-school subsidies and raising education standards.
Anchor operators will build more childcare centres in new Housing Board developments to address a shortage of places in young towns.
To improve the quality of education, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will increase the number of its own kindergartens from 15 now to 50 in the next five years, Mr Lee said. This greater scale will allow MOE to influence and raise the quality of the whole sector, he added.
In addition, a National Institute for Early Childhood Development will be set up to consolidate existing training programmes for teachers and develop new curricula.
The Government will also work with employers to ensure salaries for pre-school teachers rise in tandem with their career progression.
Annual spending on pre-schools, which was $360 million in 2012, has more than doubled to $840 million this year. It will double further to $1.7 billion in 2022, he said.
But pouring resources into the sector will mean little unless young parents do their part, he added, as he encouraged them to have more babies.
Moving to health, he warned Singaporeans about the threat posed by diabetes, and urged them to maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising more and watching their diet.
Soft drink producers have agreed to reduce the sugar content in all their drinks sold here, he said, adding that the Government is exploring solutions tried elsewhere, like a sugar tax in Brunei.
He then turned to the Smart Nation initiative, noting that Singapore is lagging behind in several areas, including cashless payments and using IT to enhance security.
As Mr Lee outlined various ongoing projects, including using artificial intelligence to comb through data from an integrated national sensor network, he also cited a new app to solve daily problems like paying for parking.
The app, named parking.sg, will allow users to remotely pay for the exact duration they park after it is launched in October, saving them the hassle of adding coupons.
Singapore, he said, had to keep pushing such projects to keep up with a changing world and make sure it stayed among the world's leading cities. Underlying this drive for a smart nation, he added, was the need to make the most of IT to create new jobs and opportunities, making life better for Singaporeans.
Concluding, he noted that each generation in Singapore has sought to create a better future for the next, adding that it is his Government's duty to help realise this. "It has ever been so, and it must always be so."
He added: "Keeping our eyes on tomorrow, and investing in our children. Undaunted by challenges and disruptions.
"Instead, working together to overcome every obstacle, seize every opportunity and realise a bright future for all of us."