S'pore looking at more measures to address income inequality: DPM Wong

DPM Lawrence Wong noted that there needs to be a refresh in the overall approach to social support in Singapore. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Republic will refresh its measures to support lower-income groups, seniors and young families amid early signs that society is becoming more stratified, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday.

While significant moves have been made to reduce income inequality and sustain social mobility, more can be done, said Mr Wong as he underlined that both will be a key priority for the 4G leadership team.

Moves in the works include reducing fee caps at government-supported pre-schools in 2023, a review of leave measures and the development of better senior living options in housing estates that can be scaled up nationwide.

Mr Wong was speaking at a dialogue with social service practitioners, where he noted that more young families were living in rental flats for several years or more.

One important gap to be bridged is that of respect and status, he said, as he outlined his vision for a fairer and more inclusive society with better support for lower-income families, seniors and those starting and raising families.

He noted that the Singapore story has always been about enabling every citizen to develop his potential to the fullest, and while the situation here is not perfect, the country is doing better than most developed countries.

"Somewhat paradoxically, the more we lift people out of poverty and hardship, the more challenges we will face with relative inequalities in our society," he said.

"Any society which has been stable for a long time tends to stratify and become less socially mobile."

To tackle this, for a start, there needs to be a refresh in the overall approach to social support in Singapore, he said.

While there are many community organisations and the Government has many programmes and schemes today, "what we have learned is that to help lower-income families sustain progress, our social services need to be delivered in a more holistic manner", said Mr Wong.

There is still scope to better integrate various services and interventions across the whole of government, such as KidStart, ComLink and Uplift - which all target vulnerable groups, he said.

"We must bring together these social services in a more coordinated suite of interventions tailored to the family's needs, with befrienders serving as consistent touchpoints across programmes," he added.

He added that the Government is also open to new ideas to encourage lower-income families towards better life outcomes, empowering them to achieve success on their own terms.

Mr Wong said the most important and hardest gap to narrow is not defined in terms of income or wealth, but in respect and status.

"How do we shift attitudes and mindsets, so that the contributions of every individual and every worker across all professions are valued and appreciated," he said, adding that he would speak more on this topic at another time.

Mr Wong was speaking at a Forward Singapore dialogue at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Paya Lebar. Forward Singapore is a nationwide engagement exercise that will culminate in a report in mid-2023.

In terms of supporting seniors, Mr Wong noted that as Singapore ages rapidly, healthcare needs increase and families and caregivers will face increasing stress.

"We must take better care of our seniors - to help them live independently for as long as possible and live active and meaningful lives, contributing to society - at work, or in the community," he said.

Efforts have been made on this front - such as guidelines, incentives and support schemes to help seniors remain in the workforce for longer, as well as increasing affordability through schemes like MediShield Life and CareShield Life.

With the recent Healthier SG movement - a paradigm shift in Singapore's healthcare system, noted Mr Wong - the basic idea is to help Singaporeans live healthier and lead more active lives.

At the same time, he said, a lot more needs to be done to revamp and strengthen the elder care sector, beyond building more nursing homes.

One strategy is to develop better senior living options in our housing estates, and scale them up nationwide. Community Care Apartments have been launched, but more has to be done and several ministries are working on this, said Mr Wong.

Apart from healthcare, social care is also just as important for seniors to prevent them from becoming socially isolated, he said.

He noted that the elder care sector is highly fragmented today, with many providers and centres offering different types of services, so there is a need to strengthen and coordinate the providers, in particular the smaller ones.

Noting that financial assurance in old age is top-of-mind for all Singaporeans, Mr Wong said the Government's promise to all Singaporeans is that as long as you work and contribute consistently throughout life, you can be assured of meeting your basic retirement needs.

The Government will study how to achieve this, and also how to further strengthen retirement support for current seniors who do not have much runway to benefit from newer enhancements, in particular those with low or less stable incomes.

On the topic of strengthening families, Mr Wong noted that Singaporeans are getting married later and having fewer children, so the Government must do whatever it can to encourage Singaporeans to settle down and have children.

It will consider how these schemes can be enhanced, and will also review how it can reprioritise resources and adjust existing marriage and parenthood measures that are no longer as relevant today, he said.

He added that many young couples have said their key considerations for having children are not just about the Baby Bonus, but about issues like housing, workplace arrangements and education for their children.

The Government will be reviewing housing policies to see how it can help first-time home buyers secure a flat quickly and affordably, said Mr Wong.

It will also review leave measures to better support parents in managing work and family commitments, while taking into account the needs of employers in the current tight labour market, he said.

Another area of support is in the early years - fee caps at government-funded pre-schools will be reduced in the coming year.

He said: "We want to make full-day childcare more affordable for working families. Eventually, what families have to pay to send their child to full-day childcare should be similar to what they pay today for primary school and after-school student care."

Noting that the Forward Singapore exercise is meant to refresh the social compact, Mr Wong said it is worth remembering that the current social compact is forged based on a few core values that have been around since Singapore's independence, and will continue to guide the country in the road ahead.

These values are personal and collective responsibility, fairness and inclusivity, and fiscal sustainability.

Singapore must avoid the consequences of an unfettered market economy - such as when people are left to fend for themselves and the vulnerable are left behind - while also avoiding the pitfalls of social welfare models where everything is left to the state to resolve.

"Navigating this will require all of us to listen to, partner and engage each other on the way ahead. Some of the conversations will not be easy, but they are necessary," said Mr Wong.

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