SINGAPORE - Just like in the rest of the world, inequality is one of the most serious issues facing Singapore today - with one difference. Here the Government wants to tackle it early and believes that the best chance of addressing it is during a child’s pre-school years, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Friday (April 20).
The idea is to give every child a good start and the chance to succeed right from the beginning, he said. That is why the Government will start to level the playing field by providing more assistance to those in danger of being left behind during pre-school years.
It will double spending on the pre-school sector to $1.7 billion by 2022 and open 40,000 more childcare places by then, said Mr Shanmugam.
Explaining the rationale behind this approach, he said that while Singapore remains wedded to meritocracy, children have different starting points in life.
"At the point of birth, there is already a gap. That gap widens because of the difference in the families. And inequality will manifest itself in many intangible way," he said.
"Therefore, the pre-school years are crucial - the best chance that Government has to give our children a good start… and a decent chance to succeed in life and to close the inequality gap."
Those from less privileged backgrounds have limited networks and fewer opportunities to develop their talents.
The Government is now stepping in to offer these opportunities.
"The focus should be on lifting up others, not penalising those who have done well," said Mr Shanmugam.
He was speaking at Our Tampines Hub at the launch of the Red Cross Junior club, a programme by the Singapore Red Cross and early childhood education specialist Kidz Meadow, which teaches five- to six-year-olds first-aid skills.
He used the occasion to stress that it was from early childhood onwards that inequality, an issue that loomed globally, needed to be tackled.
He said the issue was especially challenging here. "In a small country like Singapore, where the richest and the poorest are never separated by more than a 15 minutes' drive, inequality can be seen by all," he said.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam referred to how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had warned in February that Singapore's politics will turn vicious, society will fracture and the country will wither if it allows growing income inequalities to create a rigid and stratified social system.
He also noted that the late minister Goh Keng Swee had warned, as early as 1961, that groups of elites might create an environment that would favour one community at the expense of another.
Mr Shanmugam noted that while globalisation is good overall, those who have lost their jobs as a result may not see it this way. Their trust in the Government may be affected when they see the winners of globalisation enjoying most of the benefits.
He said that while Singaporeans have kept their trust in the Government for the past 50 years, that cannot be taken for granted.
"(There is) no room for complacency - trust has to be continually earned. And it can easily be lost," he said, adding that inequality was central to the election of US President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union.
Mr Shanmugam said the Government has always aimed to help Singapore's disadvantaged progress upwards, through programmes such as education bursaries and healthcare and housing subsidies. The next step was to go upstream and address the issue at pre-school level.
At the event on Friday, Mr Shanmugam said the Red Cross Junior club was an important effort that will help to lay the foundation for a gracious society.
Under the programme, the children taking part will learn first-aid skills such as treating simple wounds, and how to care for the elderly and disabled people.
The Singapore Red Cross' secretary general and chief executive, Mr Benjamin William, said: "We are welcoming some 1,200 young ones to the Red Cross Junior club in the first year, and by next year we expect the enrolment to hit 3,000."