S'pore must strengthen social compact, defy the global loss of social cohesion, polarisation and despair: Tharman

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SINGAPORE - Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn. But it must "absolutely defy" the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation, and the despair that is taking hold in many other countries, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic ravages economies, he said Singapore must strengthen its social compact by helping those who have lost jobs to find work, by keeping social mobility alive, and by assuring Singaporeans that help is at hand when they meet difficulties.

Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, also said mature workers would get special help in finding jobs, so that no employer rejects them on account of their age.

Speaking on Wednesday (June 17) at the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong East, in the fifth of six national broadcasts by ministers on Singapore's post-coronavirus future, Mr Tharman said the Covid-19 pandemic has widened social divisions around the world.

Job losses have hit some groups harder than others, and schooling has been disrupted, especially for children who do not have well-off parents.

"All this is sharpening feelings of helplessness, and the sense that the system is stacked against those who are already disadvantaged. And it is bringing longstanding perceptions of racial injustice to a boiling point."

Mr Tharman cautioned against thinking that these trends will not take hold in Singapore.

"There are many societies which used to be cohesive, but are now fragmenting, both in the West and in Asia. No society remains cohesive simply because it used to be.

"Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn. But we must absolutely defy the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation, and the despair that is taking hold in many other countries."

He said the Republic must "redouble efforts" to strengthen its social compact in three areas - by ensuring everyone has full opportunity to do well for themselves through education, skills, and good jobs; boosting support for those who start life at a disadvantage, so as to keep social mobility alive in Singapore and lessen inequalities over time; and strengthening its culture of solidarity.

The Government's first priority is to save jobs and help those laid off to go back to work. Explaining that this cannot be left to market forces, he said: "As long as grave uncertainty hangs over the global economy, and trade and travel are down, new job openings in Singapore will very likely be fewer than job losses."

A targeted approach, with strong state support by subsidising job opportunities, is more helpful than giving out unemployment allowances, he said.

Mr Tharman, who helms the new National Jobs Council that oversees efforts to help Singaporeans stay employable, said this is why the Government is working with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships during this down period.

"They get real work opportunities and get paid, and pick up skills while waiting for permanent jobs to open up.

"No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long."

The council will oversee the design and implementation of the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Fortitude Budget speech on May 26.

The package aims to create 100,000 job opportunities over the next 12 months, including by bringing forward public sector hiring in areas such as healthcare and early childhood development.

Mr Tharman said special attention will be paid to middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers in their 50s and 60s, with the Government scaling up the new Mid-Career Pathways programme so that they can prepare for more permanent jobs.

But this is a national effort that requires employers to re-orient their management philosophies, human resource and talent management practices, he said.

"No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be 'too old' to hire. And no one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as 'overqualified'," he said.

"Our workers will be able to build on their skills and experience and we will have a more capable and motivated workforce, with a strong Singaporean core, that every employer can rely on."

He added that good schools are critical to social mobility, and Singapore "must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort".

Hence, the Government is investing much more into equalising opportunities when children are young, by expanding the KidStart programme to help lower-income families, and setting up the National Institute of Early Childhood Development to raise preschool standards.

Plans are also afoot to equip all secondary school students with a personal laptop or tablet by next year, seven years ahead of the original target.

"When you add up all we are doing, starting from the earliest years of childhood, we are making a determined effort to keep Singapore a place where every individual can do well, regardless of their starting points," said Mr Tharman.

Also important is a strong spirit of solidarity, where Singaporeans look out for the vulnerable and support one another. These community efforts complement the Government's social support schemes, he said, which are part of a broader re-orientation in the country's social policies "that began well before Covid-19, and will outlast it".

A key part of this, he said, is strengthening support for lower-income Singaporeans at work, and building a fair and just society.

He pointed out that cleaners, security officers and landscape workers have seen their wages increase by 30 per cent in real terms over the last five years under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM).

Going forward, he said, the aim is for every sector to eventually have progressive wages, with a clear ladder of skills, better jobs, and better wages for those with lower pay.

He added that Manpower Minister Josephine Teo is working with the tripartite partners on this, and will bring in industry associations to work out schemes that can be practically adopted in the different industries.

Likewise, lower-income Singaporeans in short-term contract work should also have opportunities for more stable jobs, better protection and the chance to progress in their careers, he said. "It may lead to a small rise in the cost of services that we all pay for.

"But it is a small price for us to pay for better jobs and income security for those who need it most, and a fair society."

Mr Tharman noted that the greatest confidence that Singaporeans have in their future comes from their social compact. But this goes much deeper than government policies, and is about the "self-effort and selflessness" that must be strengthened in the country's culture, he said.

"It is about the networks and initiatives that we saw spring up in this Covid-19 crisis. About the interest we take in each other, at workplaces and in the community, because we all make up the fabric of Singapore.

"About respecting every individual regardless of their job, and respecting their effort to overcome setbacks and make the best they can of life. And it is about how we draw closer to each other, regardless of race, religion or social background.

"It is how we journey together. A forward-looking, spirited and more cohesive society."

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