Budget debate: MPs call for stronger social compact to support vulnerable groups amid tight fiscal environment

Ms Carrie Tan suggested that elderly homeowners can rent out spare rooms to low-income families to prevent their social isolation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened political and social divisions in many countries, and Singapore needs to renew and strengthen its social compact to guard against such fractures in society, MPs said on Thursday (Feb 25).

This includes paying closer attention to vulnerable groups, and making better use of limited resources to deliver outcomes, they said.

Speaking on the second day of the Budget debate, Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC) said Singapore faces the difficult challenge of balancing support for marginalised groups with the need to maintain fiscal prudence amid the current crisis.

Class segregation and division is emerging as the biggest fault line in Singapore, she noted, and the effects of the pandemic-fuelled recession have likely worsened it.

"How do we lift up the most vulnerable, during and beyond the current crisis, while conserving our country's reserves? That is a critical question that our Budget needs to address," she said.

Sharing resources can be one way to achieve better outcomes, said Ms Tan, who proposed ways to optimise them in various areas, including in housing and social services.

Given that a majority of the elderly wish to live in the same flats that they have raised their families in, their homes may be underused in their silver years, Ms Tan noted.

Elderly homeowners can share their living space by renting out spare rooms to low-income families at HDB-subsidised rates, which will help to prevent their social isolation as well as give the rental flat families more living space, Ms Tan suggested. The elderly can also help to care for such families.

"Such a housing sharing strategy will help to mitigate class silos and reduce the need to build more," she said.

Ms Tan also called for more to be done to professionalise the social services sector and build up social service professionals' expertise, so they can better help the vulnerable communities, and develop a more effective social safety net.

She commended the ComLink initiative, introduced in 2019 to support low-income families with children living in rental housing by providing proactive and coordinated integrated help, saying that this is a good start.

Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), welcoming Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's announcement that ComLink will be expanded, proposed two initiatives to better improve outcomes for vulnerable children and young people, which will help to strengthen the social compact.

Providing sustained long-term mentorship for at least a year to such children can give them a safe space to process their feelings and thoughts amid unpredictable and painful circumstances, she said, which can lead to better development outcomes and improve their well-being. It can also help to open up new perspectives and opportunities for them.

"My hope is that through ComLink, long-term mentoring will be of easy access for our 10 to 16 year olds to effect mindset growth and a healthier worldview," she said.

Ms Ong also suggested opening an automatic personal savings account for children from low-income families to help them cultivate the saving habits.

Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Eric Chua wants more support to address young people's mental health needs, citing a 2016 study which found that young people were more vulnerable to mental disorders.

"It is not enough for us to just have a conversation. We need to change the way we think about mental health if we have the well-being of our younger generations at heart. And more importantly, we need to act," he urged.

In his speech, Mr Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) said prudence must remain a key principle in healthcare subsidy expenditure, with Singapore having to dip into its reserves for the second year running.

"If costs grow faster than fiscal revenue, then healthcare subsidies might need re-distribution - because ultimately the pie is finite," said Mr Xie.

At the same time, Singapore should review how subsidies could be distributed across various care settings, he added. He called on the Government to beef up investment in the intermediate and long-term care sectors, so that Singaporeans who need such support can receive more dignified care.

"But more subsidies for this sector may mean less subsidies for acute and specialist care in hospitals, for example. These are tough choices, but choices that we, as a maturing society, must continue to make," added Mr Xie.

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