The Year of the Snake has been eventful. We made good progress, despite some difficult moments. I am confident that we will continue to move forward in the Year of the Horse. The global economy is looking up. At home we still need to improve public transport, but housing queues have shortened and low-wage workers like cleaners are getting more help. The festive mood is all around us. I visited Chinatown two weeks ago and was cheered to find the shops bustling with families shopping for Chinese New Year decorations and goodies.
IMPORTANCE OF FAMILIES
Chinese New Year is a time to strengthen our family bonds. Families are the foundation of a cohesive, harmonious society. Our families anchor our identity and sense of belonging. They inspire us to reach for the stars, and support us when we are down. Our extended families too provide a valuable network of kinship and mutual support. We are raised to respect our elders, and do our best for our children.
THE PIONEER GENERATION
As a society, we are making a special effort to take care of our elders. Many elders lead active and fulfilling lives. We are promoting healthy living and lifelong learning, and helping those who wish to work do so, so that more people can age happily. We are also addressing retirement and healthcare needs, by increasing medical subsidies, building more hospitals and nursing homes, and expanding home care services. Beyond infrastructure and financial help, we are creating a social environment where people can age with peace of mind, and be valued and respected for their contributions.
One group of elders that deserves special recognition is our Pioneer Generation. They saw Singapore through our most difficult times. They worked hard to build Singapore, and transform it from Third World to First. All of us today benefit from their efforts and achievements.
It is right and fitting to honour this special group as Singapore approaches our 50th birthday. We are preparing a Pioneer Generation Package to thank them for all they have done. I am also holding a special event at the Istana on 9 February to honour members of this Pioneer Generation, and hope to present them a little hongbao!
While we honour our seniors, we must also keep Singapore the best home to raise our children and fulfil their aspirations. We love our children unconditionally and place great hopes in them. We want to pass on to them a better Singapore than the one we inherited. We hope that our children will build on what they will inherit, and will create a brighter future for themselves and their children, just as the Pioneer Generation did for us.
For this to work, we do need enough children to form the next generation. Unfortunately, despite our efforts to promote marriage and parenthood, our birth rates are still too low. Singapore's Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was 1.19 last year, far below our replacement rate of 2.1. The TFR for Chinese Singaporeans (1.06) was even lower. We must try our best to do better.
I hope the Year of the Horse will see some improvement. This year we will have a "double spring" or "双春". Valentine's Day coincides with Chap Goh Mei, the 15th day of Chinese New Year. Almost 300 couples have registered to marry on this auspicious day, so we are off to a galloping start. I hope to hear more wedding bells and newborns' cries throughout the year.
One important factor when couples decide to start families is access to good childcare and pre-schools. We are creating more places as quickly as we can. We added 7,000 new childcare places last year, and will reach our target of 20,000 new places in all by 2017. MOE has started running five kindergartens, and will expand this to 15 over the next few years. We have just identified three more pre-school Anchor Operators, to add to the two existing ones - PCF and NTUC (My First Skool). We must create a pro-family environment which gives families the confidence and support to raise their children.
INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE FAMILY
This year we celebrate the "International Year of the Family". We have planned many family-friendly activities, including at the River Hongbao and Chingay Parade. The response has been enthusiastic - many families will perform in the "Singapore Celebrates Family" float in Chingay, including 3-G families, families with disabled members and extended families with aunts and nieces. They have spent many weekends practising their dance moves, and treasure the special family moments they have shared together. The events continue throughout the year, including Family Days at places like the zoo and National Family Celebrations. You can find out more at www.iyf2014.sg.
STRENGTHENING OUR SINGAPORE FAMILY
Beyond our own families, we should also strengthen the larger Singapore family. Do look out for the less fortunate and lonely, especially the elderly, during this festive occasion. Also let us nurture our ties with fellow citizens of different races. We live in peace and harmony because we have strived to overcome differences in our ethnic or religious backgrounds, and expand the common space where we all interact comfortably. We must continue to make this effort, to protect what we have achieved and build upon it.
Visitors from other countries are often amazed at what we have achieved, but we ourselves sometimes take our religious harmony for granted. In our multi-racial, secular society, we must all live and let live, and be willing to compromise for the common good. As the majority race, Chinese Singaporeans have to be sensitive to the needs of the minorities, and give them ample space to practise their cultures and ways of life. Minorities too must give and take, and work with other communities to make progress together.
Strong families and close ties with our fellow Singaporeans have underpinned our success, and will continue to be the foundations for a brighter future. Next year we celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday. It is a time to celebrate our achievements, and rededicate ourselves to building a better Singapore. The SG50 campaign which we have just launched engages Singaporeans on this shared endeavour. Do join the SG50 campaign, and share your ideas on how we can celebrate our golden jubilee together.
Let us stick together as one family, and work with one another to build a brighter future for all. Together we can ride into the Year of the Horse with confidence. Together we can create an even better Singapore for ourselves and our loved ones.
I wish all Singaporeans a very Happy Chinese New Year!