SINGAPORE – Broadening the definition of meritocracy, introducing targeted re-employment support and reducing the cost of SkillsFuture courses are among the moves the Government will make to shape Singapore’s future amid an uncertain and dangerous external environment.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday that months of engagement with Singaporeans have shown that the next stage of nation-building will need a new definition of success and new approaches towards skills, social support and caring of seniors, as well as a renewed commitment to one another.
These five key shifts will be important parts of the new social compact, which the nationwide engagement exercise Forward Singapore had been trying to establish, he said in Parliament on the first day of the debate on the President’s Address.
They are meant to ensure that the broad middle of society and their children will see continued improvements in their lives, and that gaps are closed for the more disadvantaged groups, he added.
For example, the Government will be scaling up the KidStart programme nationwide to reach out to more lower-income families. It will also study how to improve the pre-school participation rate for children from lower-income families, in particular those with children aged three to four.
“But there is a deeper challenge in our education system: our concept of meritocracy remains too narrow. Many feel caught in a rat race from a young age – under pressure to get the best grades, get into what they perceive to be the best schools, so they can get the best university places,” Mr Wong said.
“Many parents, too, are anxious about their children’s future. Some go to great lengths to maximise their children’s chances to get into brand-name schools, even pre-schools.”
He also called for society to refresh mindsets about schools and grades.
On the Government’s part, it has made significant moves and “slayed some sacred cows”, such as the old system of calculating Primary School Leaving Examination scores through a T-score that is relative to other pupils, he noted.
“We must be the change we want to see in our society. Every Singaporean must want to give themselves – and their children – more breathing space to discover and develop their diverse talents, and to maximise their potential,” he said.
It is important to recognise that formal education early in life is not the endpoint of Singapore’s concept of meritocracy, he said. Instead, continuous learning, reskilling and upskilling must be made a way of life. This will become more important with slower economic growth, rapid technological disruptions and greater job churn, he noted.
The Government is hence looking to reduce the costs for SkillsFuture courses and lower the barriers to training, said Mr Wong. It will work with tripartite partners to discuss how to support workers taking time off to train, but businesses must also shift their emphasis from hiring credentials to hiring skills, he added.
On the topic of success, Mr Wong said that mindset shifts are necessary to move away from material definitions. But these shifts alone are not enough to effect societal change.
He said it is not enough just to say that society celebrates a variety of professions. The pay and career prospects in different professions must also be consistent with what is valued.
For example, skilled trades like electricians and plumbers can be further professionalised, so that they can get better remunerationand the right value is ascribed to such forms of labour.
Singaporeans who graduate from the Institutes of Technical Education and polytechnics should also be assured that their wages and career prospects will not permanently lag behind those of their university-going peers, said Mr Wong.
“They can excel in the professions that they have trained in and have the aptitude for, be it hospitality, infocomm, social services, or others. There are many ways to make a difference, many talents to nurture, and many forms of contributions to reward.”
Lower-wage workers, many of whom serve in essential services such as security and cleaning, will continue to receive support to prevent their wages from diverging too far from those of median workers, he added.
Mr Wong made a plea to all Singaporeans to be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services they consume so that a new definition of success can become a reality. “All will gain when even the most vulnerable among us become better off. We will become a better people, a more just and more equal society,” he said.
There will also be more social support for vulnerable groups, said Mr Wong.
For example, the Government will look to reduce the financial burden on parents of children attending special education schools and care centres.
The social strategy includes assuring those in the broad middle class that they will be able to meet their key needs – housing, education and healthcare – even in the face of setbacks, said Mr Wong.
He added that the Build-To-Order flat supply is being ramped up and rules are being tightened to ensure flats go to those who need them most.
The Government will also consider doing more to support displaced workers, as losing a job can easily destabilise them and their families. It wants to design a targeted re-employment support scheme to enable displaced workers to make ends meet more easily, while encouraging them to continue upskilling and looking for jobs.
On the issue of caring for seniors, Mr Wong said there are plans to invest in infrastructure to ensure that caring for seniors goes beyond physical health. Seniors should be cared for in their own homes for as long as possible, and remain active and purposeful in their golden years, he said.
There will be more community care apartments, more active ageing centres, improved access to home-based care services and more efforts to work with community partners to prevent loneliness and social isolation.
The Government will also study how to enhance schemes such as the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme and Silver Support scheme to better support seniors in meeting their retirement needs, he added.
On ensuring collective responsibility, Mr Wong said the refreshed social compact is not just about the Government doing more, and Singaporeans depending more on the Government.
“It is about the Government, businesses, unions, workers, the community, and civil society all doing their part for fellow Singaporeans. It is about all of us coming together, to forge a society of opportunities and assurance for everyone,” he said.
This can be done through nurturing a broader culture of philanthropy and volunteerism, and creating more opportunities for Singaporeans to partner the Government and one another in policymaking and co-creating solutions.
“We will build on our strong foundations. But we must also have the courage to change where change is needed,” said Mr Wong.
These moves come amid the challenges posed by the war in Europe and big power rivalry, Mr Wong noted.
“From war in Europe, to deepening big power rivalry in our part of the world, we all feel a palpable sense of danger — danger not just to the economy, but also to an open and stable global order,” he said.
Singapore will continue to be afflicted by these external headwinds, but Singaporeans have the grit and resolve to overcome tough challenges, said Mr Wong.
“We can turn challenges into opportunity. With pride in our history, and strength from our unity, we can forge ahead with confidence. Do not fear or lose heart.”