SINGAPORE: The economic challenges Singapore faces underscore the need for the country to strengthen its social compact and make sure no one is left behind, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Wednesday (Jun 17).
While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit economies hard around the world, it also has “the makings of a profound social crisis”, Mr Tharman said in a televised speech.
“The economic dangers we now face compel us to fortify our society, and reinforce the strengths that we have developed over many years,” he said.
“Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn. But we must absolutely defy the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation and the despair that is taking hold in many other countries. Never think these trends cannot take hold in Singapore.”
Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, was delivering a national broadcast on Singapore’s future post-COVID-19.
In a speech focused on creating a stronger and more cohesive society, Mr Tharman noted that social divisions were already growing in some countries, but are now getting even wider.
“All this is sharpening feelings of helplessness and the sense that the system is stacked against those who are already disadvantaged. And it is bringing long-standing perceptions of racial injustice to a boiling point,” he said.
“No society remains cohesive simply because it used to be.”
In Singapore, the Government will “redouble efforts” to strengthen the country’s social compact, Mr Tharman said, outlining three ways in which it will do so.
ENSURING OPPORTUNITIES FOR EVERYONE, TACKLING INEQUALITIES
First, the Government will do more to ensure that everyone has opportunities to do well for themselves, through education, skills and good jobs, said Mr Tharman.
It will also boost support for those who start life at a disadvantage, to keep social mobility alive and lessen inequalities over time.
“And third, we must all play a role to strengthen our culture of solidarity, so we know we have each other to depend on, in good times and bad,” Mr Tharman added.
“Every individual must put in the effort to achieve their fullest potential. But we must also take responsibility collectively, to help people bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks, and make sure no Singaporean is left behind.
“We are doing this through Government policies to help those with less, at every stage of life, as well as through citizen-led initiatives and communities of care that are growing in every neighbourhood.”
SAVING JOBS A “SOCIAL PRIORITY”
The Government’s first priority is to save jobs, and to help Singaporeans who have lost their jobs to find new work, said Mr Tharman, who chairs the new National Jobs Council.
“This is not just an economic issue, but a social priority,” he added.
“We will do all we can to prevent people from being out of work for long, so they can stand on their own feet and retain their sense of dignity. Good jobs are also at the heart of our whole approach to building a cohesive society and tempering inequalities.”
He cautioned, however, that the “reality of the matter” is that as long as there are uncertainties in the global economy, affecting trade and travel, new job openings in Singapore will very likely be fewer than job losses.
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If left to market forces, unemployment will rise significantly over the next year or beyond if COVID-19 remains a threat, he added.
“We are therefore working with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships during this down period, so they get real work opportunities and get paid, and pick up skills while waiting for permanent jobs to open up,” Mr Tharman said.
“The Government is heavily subsidising these opportunities. It gives people far greater benefit when Government provides support this way. No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long.”
The Government is also making a “concerted effort” to help middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers, said Mr Tharman, adding that employers will get extra support when they hire these workers.
“This is and must be a national effort. And it needs new thinking among employers, to give middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers a fair chance to prove themselves. Employers need to reorient their management philosophies, and their HR and talent management practices,” he said.
“No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be ‘too old’ to hire. No one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as ‘overqualified’. We will work closely with the business associations to bring all employers into this national effort.”
While the Government has been investing heavily in reskilling workers and preparing people for the digital revolution for several years now, COVID-19 is “fast-forwarding the changes”, said Mr Tharman.
“Everyone must have the courage to re-gear to stay on track, and make the effort to acquire new skills at regular points in your careers, possibly even learning whole new disciplines,” he said.
SCHOOLS “CRITICAL” TO SOCIAL MOBILITY
Apart from jobs, good schools are critical to social mobility as well, said Mr Tharman.
“We must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort,” he said, noting that countries have found it more difficult to sustain social mobility with time.
“It therefore requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools and dedicated networks of community support to keep social mobility alive,” he said.
The Government is investing “a lot more” into equalising opportunities when children are young, said Mr Tharman, pointing to programmes such as KidStart, which is designed to help lower-income families and their children.
“During the recent circuit breaker, our teachers made great effort to help students from poorer homes and those at risk, to ensure they did not fall behind,” he added.
The Ministry of Education will give schools more support in the coming years to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
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Mr Tharman also noted that all secondary school students will be equipped with a personal laptop or tablet for learning by next year, seven years ahead of the original target.
“When you add up all we are doing, starting from the earliest years of childhood, we are making a determined effort to keep Singapore a place where every individual can do well, regardless of their starting points,” he said.
STRENGTHEN CULTURE OF SOLIDARITY
Singapore must strengthen its culture of solidarity, and Singaporeans must be assured that they can get help with they meet with difficulties in life, Mr Tharman said.
“We also need, more than we did in the earlier years, a strong spirit of selflessness and solidarity, looking out for the vulnerable, and supporting each other. Not because we are obliged to do so, but because it makes us a better society together,” he added.
Many people have come forward to help those in need during the COVID-19 crisis, Mr Tharman noted.
“These community efforts have complemented the Government’s social support schemes to help Singaporeans through the crisis. They are schemes responding to today’s crisis, but they are also part of a broader reorientation in our social policies that began well before COVID-19, and will outlast it,” he said.
The Government is “working systematically” to provide greater support for lower- and middle-income Singaporeans and to build a fair and just society, Mr Tharman added.
“We will strengthen these policies in the coming years. No one can tell what world will emerge when COVID-19 is over, or whether it has entered a long period of economic stagnation as many fear,” he said in his speech.
“But we will do all we can to make ours a more cohesive society, and do it in ways that can be sustained into the next generation. And we must all do our utmost to avoid the rifts and fractures that we see developing in many other societies.”
He noted that the Government has increased subsidies for lower- and middle-income families in education, housing and healthcare, and is also boosting the Silver Support scheme to help poorer retirees.
“Very importantly, we continue to strengthen support for our lower-income Singaporeans at work,” he said, adding that through Workfare and the Special Employment Credit, the Government pays as much as 40 per cent on top of the wages that employers pay older lower-income workers.
Mr Tharman added that Singapore is also making progress in helping its lowest paid workers through schemes like the Progressive Wage Model.
“In time, we want every sector to have progressive wages, with this clear ladder of skills, better jobs, and better wages for those with lower pay,” he said.
Such measures will bring “meaningful and continuing improvements in pay and conditions” for lower-income workers, he added.
“It may lead to a small rise in the cost of services that we all pay for. But it is a small price for us to pay for better jobs and income security for those who need it most, and a fair society.”
While the Government has made efforts to help workers and boost social support, Mr Tharman said Singapore's future lies in how its people overcome challenges together.
“Ultimately, the greatest confidence we get in our future as Singaporeans comes from our social compact,” he said.
“The compact is about all of us, and goes much deeper than government policies. It is about the compact of self-effort and selflessness that we must strengthen in our culture. It is about the networks and initiatives that we saw spring up in this COVID-19 crisis.”
He added: “It is about how we draw closer to each other, regardless of race, religion or social background. It is how we journey together. A forward-looking, spirited and more cohesive society.”