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, Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman said yesterday.
"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 narrow inequality, bridging the gap will become more difficult with time as globalisation and digitalisation threaten to leave behind those who cannot cope in the new economy.
The minister, formerly an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's social work and psychology department, assured the House that the Government pays very close attention to narrowing social stratification, as he sets out areas it intends to focus on to tackle it.
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, giving young people the assurance they can advance in 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 low-income families, he said, citing subsidies they can receive for childcare and school fees, as well as enhanced bursaries.
He added that public healthcare and home ownership are heavily subsidised, 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 achieve it, the country has to put in place a system wherein everyone is progressing, he added.
Singapore has to continue building a strong economy that can give its citizens good jobs, reasonable wages and sustained pay rises with improvements in workers' productivity and skills, he said.
It needs to also provide greater equality of opportunity, he added, by levelling uneven starting blocks for children and offering opportunities at every stage of life.
The Education Ministry 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, he added.
He also pledged that disadvantaged families will not be left behind, as the ministry improves access to quality and affordable pre-school education to give all children a strong foundation to temper inequalities they may face.
"Our starting point in life should not dictate our ending point, and with hard work, ability and ambition, we can succeed."
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 a conversation he had with some youth in his constituency that unsettled him.
One said she felt her schoolmates looked down on her when they found out she was receiving financial aid, while another said he felt a divide between himself and his university mates because he came from a less prestigious school.
To address this, Dr Maliki emphasised that Singapore needs a society of opportunity underpinned by humility, responsibility and a commitment to treat everyone as an equal regardless of his or her background.
Education is fundamental to nurturing such a society, and the Education Ministry will continue to instil these values, he said.
"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.