Open letter calls on new economic task force to have more diverse representation

Open letter calls on new economic task force to have more diverse representation

Singapore skyline covid-19
A car drives along an otherwise empty road in the financial district of Singapore on Apr 24, 2020. (Photo: Roslan RAHMAN/AFP)

SINGAPORE: A task force set up to guide Singapore’s economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic should have greater representation from women, minorities, vulnerable communities and those committed to green causes, said an open letter to the Government on Monday (Jun 15). 

The open letter was signed by representatives from 36 not-for-profit, social enterprises and arts groups. Other individuals that signed the open letter include Nominated Members of Parliament Anthea Ong, Walter Theseira, Irene Quay and Yip Pin Xiu.

“We, the undersigned organisations and individuals, are seeking to strengthen the Emerging Stronger Taskforce by making it more representative of our society,” the letter said.

“The task force should include members of the people sector, economic players that are most vulnerable, as well as businesses focused on bringing a climate-safe future.

“It should also seek to achieve the cultural, gender and demographic diversity of our nation, including representation from the disability community," it added.

READ: New task force on economic resilience to help Singapore bounce back from COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in Singapore’s society and economy, and efforts to rebuild a country that can better withstand future shocks should include those who have been most impacted, said the signatories.

While the Government has said it will consult multiple stakeholders during the process, a “more formal engagement of issues” faced by those most severely hit by the pandemic is needed, they added.

First announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Apr 7, the Emerging Stronger Taskforce aims to look at how Singapore can stay economically resilient beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and PSA International’s group chief executive officer Tan Chong Meng.

The task force announced the appointment of 15 business leaders as members in early-May. They represent large corporations in sectors such as banking, property, healthcare, technology and aviation. Of the 15 members, two are women.

Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim had raised questions about the diversity of the task force during the debate on the Fortitude Budget earlier this month.

Noting the lack of female representation, Ms Lim questioned if the task force would be able to adequately address the issue of women being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

She also highlighted a weak representation of multi-racial voices and the absence of representatives from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

READ: WP MPs question lack of women in COVID-19 economic task force, role of President in use of reserves

A REPRESENTATIVE TASK FORCE

The open letter suggested that the task force be expanded to include at least one representative from the social sector who is formally supported by an advisory council of non-profits, charities and academics, as well as at least one environmentally friendly business.

It should also have a greater representation of vulnerable economic players, such as SMEs, social enterprises, self-employed individuals and workers in the gig economy.

Membership should also reflect the cultural, gender and demographic diversity of Singapore, the signatories suggested. This includes having women make up at least 30 per cent of the task force, minorities including Malays being represented, and representation of youth, elders and persons with disabilities.

READ: The economic impact of a pandemic: ‘Without COVID-19, we would be doing ok’ 

The letter said the challenges of COVID-19 has "disproportionately" impacted underprivileged groups in the society and underrepresented certain sectors of the Singapore economy.

It noted that relief measures announced as part of an unprecedented combination of four Budgets have cushioned some impact, but that the “systemic shifts” brought about by COVID-19 and their impact will have to be identified and assessed, the letter said.

These include improving the well-being and progress of low-wage workers to help them save for rainy days, ensuring the health, safety and fair compensation of essential workers especially in times of crisis, closing gaps in social safety nets for those more vulnerable, as well as bridging the digital divides in low-income and elderly communities.

READ: Singapore's jobless rate highest in 10 years, total employment registers record decline in Q1

Ms Margaret Thomas, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), described emerging stronger as an economy with more room for local enterprises to thrive and a society with more comprehensive social safety nets.

“One way to ensure this is for the task force to have at its table the voices of those who have been the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis - women, older Singaporeans, the disabled, workers in the gig economy, SMEs,” she said.

Representatives of Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE), a student organisation based in Yale-NUS College, said it is crucial for members of the youth, academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to be represented in the task force.

“Young people's futures will be the most impacted post-pandemic. Many NGOs work closely with marginalised and underrepresented groups (that) provide important perspective. Academics provide informed opinions and are vital for the development of an advanced future-ready knowledge economy,” said Ms Huang Runchen and Ms Nur Aina Binte Sapari from CAPE.

Singapore’s economic drivers should also be transformed to those that are "regenerative", the letter said.

It cited how the World Economic Forum had noted recently that continued reliance on extractive industries, such as activities leading to deforestation, or intensive agriculture and livestock farming, will increase risks of future pandemics.

“Continued reliance on carbon intensive industries including aviation and tourism not only increases the risk of climate breakdown, but also exposes our economy to the inherent volatile nature of fossil-based commodities,” the letter said.

There are new circular-based systems such as regenerative agriculture that seeks to balance food production with ecosystem needs. These are already being worked on by several companies, including those in Singapore.

“Focusing on jobs for the future in a circular and regenerative economy and choosing nature-based solutions to ensure we are reducing the risk of climate breakdown is crucial,” the letter said.

Noting the presence of large corporations and fossil fuel companies in the task force, CAPE’s representatives said: “As we look towards a climate crisis and prepare for the decarbonisation of our economy, it seems imperative that we include innovative businesses and start-ups that are working towards this aim.”

Mr Ho Xiangtian, co-founder of environmental group LepakInSG, said the task force must include leaders in the circular economy, environmental protection, and low carbon sectors given how a climate crisis looms behind the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Doing so will ensure that "we don’t go out of the COVID-19 frying pan into the climate crisis fire," he said.

Ms Tok Xinying, co-founder of environmental group Climate Conversations and lead author of the open letter, said: “Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, where we saw many groups and individuals step up, the letter’s signatories collectively expressed a hope for continued active citizenry and a formal integration of societal concerns into future economic planning."

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the story mentioned that the open letter was signed by more than 45 individuals representing 36 not-for-profit, social enterprises and arts groups. The lead author of the open letter has since clarified that some of these individuals signed the letter in their individual capacities. This article has been updated to reflect that.

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Source: CNA/sk

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