SINGAPORE - Parents can expect more pre-school places and better-trained pre-school teachers, as Singapore steps up efforts to improve the quality of its pre-school sector.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made these announcements at the start of the National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug 20) when he spoke in Malay.
He noted that the sector, which covers infant care all the way to education for children under six years old, helps lay the foundations for children to develop cognitively, emotionally and socially.
"With this, every child can reach his full potential in school, at work, and in life. From a broader perspective, a good pre-school system will enable every student to compete fairly in our meritocracy, and every citizen to benefit from Singapore's progress.
"This will keep Singapore a society of opportunities and hope for every one."
For this reason, Mr Lee said he is glad to see more Malay children attending pre-school. It is also the reason behind the Government's push to raise the quality of pre-schools here, and keep them affordable.
Plans are afoot to create more pre-school places, including in infantcare and nursery classes, to ease the burden on working parents who cannot leave their children at home or with grandparents. Pre-school teachers can also expect better training and careers.
In his 14th National Day Rally, Mr Lee set his sights on the future, and identified three things that will keep Singapore and its citizens thriving in the years ahead: improving pre-school education, fighting diabetes and embracing technology in the country's drive to be a Smart Nation.
"These are long-term issues, but we need to lay the foundations now so that we can benefit in the future," he said.
Do more to fight diabetes
Diabetes affects 10 per cent of Singaporeans, but even more alarming is that 17 per cent of Malays suffer from it, Mr Lee said. One reason is obesity, which is also more prevalent in the Malay community.
Malay/Muslim organisations have been working with the Health Ministry to raise awareness about the disease.
Mosques, for instance, are spreading the message on healthy lifestyles and promoting better understanding of diabetes. The People's Association is also working on it, led by its Malay Activity Executive Committees Council.
The Government, said Mr Lee, can only do so much. Everyone can do their part to guard against diabetes by watching their diet and exercising more, he added.
For exercise, doctors recommend 150 minutes of physical activity a week, or 20 minutes a day - not a difficult task, he said.
And, when it comes to food, less is more.
"I know Malay food is tasty because it contains lemak (rich). Unfortunately, the richness comes from coconut milk and sugar. I myself love dodol... I also love ondeh-ondeh. But my doctor would surely scold me if I eat too much and would tell me to eat less," he said to laughter.
Mr Lee advised, for one, using less coconut milk or sugar when cooking, noting: "Curry is still delicious if we use evaporated milk instead of coconut milk."
And when dining out, look for healthier options, he said, recalling his visit to Our Tampines Hub this month. Each stall had at least one "healthy choice" dish, like the popular soto ayam cooked by hawker Salama Salim, who boils ingredients instead of sauteing them, and who uses less salt and no preservatives.
Seize opportunities in Smart Nation
Singapore's push to become a Smart Nation aims to make full use of IT to create jobs and opportunities for all.
PM Lee noted that many Malay students in universities, polytechnics and ITEs are pursuing technical courses such as software engineering, data science and digital art. These will stand them in good stead in the new economy.
The Government, through SkillsFuture, will support workers in their bid to upgrade themselves and retrain.
The ecosystem here is vibrant, he said. Singapore has attracted multinational technology companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, and has many start-ups, often launched by Singaporeans.
The incubator launched by the Association of Muslim Professionals, Common Space, is full, he added.
More young Malays are taking advantage of IT and starting new companies in various sectors, like school dropout Syafiq Yusoff, who now runs logistics company Riverwood.
It started out as a small company with only two vans and four workers, but Mr Syafiq pressed on - often joining his workers to make deliveries - and upgraded his operations by tapping on technology.
Now, Riverwood employs 120 workers of all races, and was engaged by Amazon Prime Now as its logistics partner when it set up in Singapore.
"Riverwood and Syafiq are just one among many Malay success stories in our new economy," said Mr Lee. "I am confident many more Malays will be able to seize these new opportunities, be it as entrepreneurs, professionals or technicians."
While he devoted his speech to the long-term problems confronting Singapore, he ended his speech on an optimistic note.
Multiracial presidency will strengthen racial harmony
The Malay community has participated fully in efforts to build a better Singapore, PM Lee said, and the collective resolve of all here will enable the country to face looming challenges and progress as one united people.
This was what Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak envisioned 50 years ago, he noted. "If he were alive today, he would be happy to see how much progress we have made."
Singapore is set to see its second Malay president if all goes well in the coming election.
Next month's election is reserved for candidates from the Malay community, following changes to the law to ensure the highest office in the land reflects Singapore's multiracial society.
"I hope he or she will bring as much distinction and honour to the office, and be as well-loved and remembered by Singaporeans, as Encik Yusof Ishak was. Our multiracial presidency will strengthen our racial harmony, and our pride in and love of Singapore," said Mr Lee.
"It will enable us to work even closer together to face whatever challenges that may come our way so we can thrive and progress as one people, one Singapore."