SINGAPORE: Lowering the cost of a child’s pre-school education, helping older Singaporeans stay in their jobs and keep working, as well as the long-term challenges that climate change poses to Singapore and its infrastructure planning.
These were some of the key topics Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dwelled on in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 18).
Mr Lee stated his intent to speak about three things at the start of his English speech: Enabling every young person to succeed regardless of their background; supporting people to work longer even as they live longer; and protecting the country from climate change and renewing the city for the next century.
For the first area of focus, the Prime Minister pointed out that Singapore’s meritocracy meant that anyone who works hard will have a chance to succeed, regardless of one’s starting point or family background.
Internationally, Singapore has been recognised for its efforts in this area, with international non-government organisation (NGO) Save The Children ranking it as the best place in the world for a child to grow up in. The World Bank, too, ranked Singapore first among 157 countries in its Human Capital Index, which measures the knowledge, skills and health that a child born today can attain by age 18, he said.
KEEPING PRE-SCHOOL FEES AFFORDABLE
However, the Government is not resting on its laurels and there are plans to bring pre-school fees down further.
Already, the Government funds the Anchor Operators and Partner Operators for this purpose, while parents also receive childcare subsidies to help defray costs.
However, the Prime Minister acknowledged that for middle-income parents, pre-school fees can take up a chunk of their household budget, which is why he is enhancing subsidies to help these families.
Currently, families with a household income of S$7,500 and below per month qualify for additional means-tested subsidies. The Government is raising the ceiling to S$12,000 per month, which will extend this subsidy to 30,000 more households, he said.
The quantum of preschool subsidies will also be increased across the board, Mr Lee said.
In the medium term, the aim is to bring down full-day pre-school expenses to the level of the cost of primary school, which is almost free for Singaporeans, plus afterschool care that comes up to about S$300 per child, he said.
“We need a while to get there, but we are working towards that,” the Prime Minister said.
He added that just over 50 per cent of all pre-school places are Government-supported today, and over time, it aims to bring the figure up to 80 per cent – just like public housing.
Another programme he highlighted was KidSTART, which was piloted three years ago to help 1,000 children from disadvantaged families. The results have been encouraging and parents are “very happy” with the results, but there is a need to follow up for a few more years to assess its exact benefits.
That said, Mr Lee said he will expand the programme to another 5,000 children over the next three years and assess how to expand it after.
In terms of resources, the Government already spends around S$1 billion a year, and this will more than double over the next few years, he added.
LOWERED FEES, MORE BURSARIES FOR TERTIARY STUDENTS
For post-secondary education, Mr Lee said the Ministry of Education (MOE) had conducted a comprehensive review of tertiary fees and bursaries.
Specifically, it looked at whether universities here can operate more economically. For two, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), the curriculum is more applied and there are more industry attachments and internships.
As such, their operating costs per student can be lower and MOE will reduce the annual fees for full-time general programmes at the two varsities from around S$8,000 to S$7,500, the Prime Minister said.
The ministry will also significantly enhance Government bursaries.
For university courses, these bursaries will rise from 50 per cent of general degree fees today to up to 75 per cent. Similarly, bursaries for polytechnic diploma programmes will cover 95 per cent, up from today’s 80 per cent, he said.
Additionally, Mr Lee singled out a specific university course – medicine – in his speech, saying it has the highest course fees of all university courses. Today, NUS school fees for medical students are at S$29,000 a year, while NTU students have to fork out S$35,000.
“We should not let the cost of medical school deter good students from studying medicine,” the Prime Minister said, adding the Government wants doctors to have diverse educational and family backgrounds.
As such, it is enhancing Government bursaries for medical school to be “significantly more generous” than those of other courses. Together with other bursaries from the university, lower-income students will pay at most S$5,000 each year, he said.
"Don't worry about the money, it will be taken care of. Go for it," Mr Lee urged these prospective medical students.
These fee initiatives will apply to existing and new students from the next academic year, the Prime Minister said.
RAISING RETIREMENT, RE-EMPLOYMENT AGES
Mr Lee also spoke about supporting people who want to work longer given the increased life expectancy.
He said the country’s life expectancy at birth is now almost 85 years, which is even longer than Japan, and this means many can expect to live longer than that age. The number of centenarians here, for one, has more than doubled from the 500 in 2007 to 1,300 today, he pointed out.
He added: “Most seniors in fact don’t want to stop working. We are healthy for longer, we live longer, but we don’t want to spend more years idle in retirement.
“We want to stay active and engaged, to feel a sense of worth and purpose … many of us want to build up a bigger nest egg for when we eventually retire.”
READ: New retirement, re-employment ages of 65 and 70 by 2030; higher CPF contributions for older workers
To address this issue, Mr Lee said it will increase CPF contributions for older workers and raise both the retirement and re-employment ages for all employers.
For CPF, contribution rates for workers taper down after they turn 55, but the Government is changing this.
Mr Lee said it will raise the rates for workers above 55 and take the first step in 2021, with subsequent steps thereafter. The whole process will take “10 years or so, depending on economic conditions” and once done, those 60 and below will enjoy the full CPF rates.
Rates will only start to taper down after 60, and level off after 70, he added.
Mr Lee also reiterated the point that there are no changes to CPF withdrawal policies or withdrawal age.
As for retirement age, he said this will go from 62 to 63 in 2022 and eventually to 65 by 2030. Similarly, the re-employment age will go from 67 to 68 in 2022 and rise to 70 by 2030.
The Government, as a major employer, will take the lead, he said. The public service will raise its retirement and re-employment ages a year earlier, in 2021 instead of 2022.
Businesses will also be given help to adjust to these arrangements, including a support package that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will announce in the next Budget, he added.
RISING SEA LEVELS A “GRAVE THREAT”
On climate change, Mr Lee said it is one of the “gravest challenges facing humankind” and Singapore is already feeling the impact of global warming, with our weather palpably hotter and rainstorms heavier.
READ: Climate change one of the 'gravest challenges facing mankind', impact on S'pore to worsen, says PM Lee
This, he said, will very likely worsen over the next few decades.
Given that Singapore is a low-lying island, it is especially vulnerable to one grave threat - that is, rising sea levels, he added.
He pointed out that floods were common in the 1960s and 1970s, but these problems are largely resolved after the drainage system was improved and buildings are required to be built at least 3m above the main sea level.
But should sea levels rise by 1m due to global warming, the designed buffer will be no more, and Singapore will be in literal “deep water”, he warned.
As such, the Government is looking to understand, mitigate and adapt to climate change.
READ: More than 9 in 10 in Singapore concerned by climate change; most agree to use of taxes to fight impact: Mediacorp survey
For instance, Mr Lee said the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) was set up to study in detail how climate change is affecting the region. In fact, the team of scientists and meteorologists are finding that Singapore, being near the equator, is more vulnerable to climate change than the global model suggests.
To adapt to climate change, especially rising sea levels, there have been measures introduced to protect buildings and developments like building MRT stations with elevated entrances. New buildings are also required to be constructed at least 4m above mean sea level, he added.
“But local measures will not be enough,” Mr Lee said, adding there are many older buildings here that cannot be lifted up or transported to higher ground.
This is why there is a need to protect entire areas and the way it is doing so is to build coastal defences.
One example is the City-East Coast segment. The Marina Reservoir and Marina Barrage were built to protect the city area from flooding. The Pump House at Marina Barrage houses seven giant pumps, and they pump water out of Marina Reservoir into the sea when there is heavy rain at high tide.
However, when sea levels rise, one pump house will not be enough, and a second will need to be built on the opposite end of the barrage, which PUB has planned for, the Prime Minister said.
As for protecting Singapore's eastern coastline, poldering is a “serious option” - a method it had picked up from the Netherlands, he said.
READ: New reclamation method aims to reduce Singapore's reliance on sand
Mr Lee said a small polder is being built at Pulau Tekong so as to gain experience in operating one, and the new land will be used for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training.
“(Polders) will not only protect existing low-lying areas … at the same time, (these) let us reclaim new land from the sea,” the Prime Minister said.
Another alternative is to reclaim a series of offshore islands from Marina East to Changi, connect them up with barrages and create a freshwater reservoir, similar to Marina Reservoir, he said.
He added that it will probably cost S$100 billion, perhaps more, to protect Singapore against rising sea levels though the upside is that it's a 50- to 100-year problem.
“We should treat climate change defences like we treat the SAF – with utmost seriousness,” Mr Lee said.
“Work steadily at it, maintain a stable budget year after year, keep your eye on the target and do it over many years and several generations. That way we can afford it, and when we need it, we will have it ready.”
REMAKING THE GREATER SOUTHERN WATERFRONT
Mr Lee then outlined long-term plans to remake and take full advantage of the country’s coastline, specifically the Greater Southern Waterfront.
He said the area comprises 30km of the country’s southern coastline and contains 2,000 ha of land, or six times the size of Marina Bay and twice that of Punggol.
With the relocation of the city port terminals by 2027 and Pasir Panjang Terminal by 2040, the land will be freed for re-development. This means the opportunity to develop more housing options, more offices and new entertainment and leisure hotspots in that area, he said.
When Brani Terminal moves out, for one, the Government can develop Pulau Brani together with Sentosa, he said, adding labour chief Ng Chee Meng had already requested for a “Downtown South” resort.
“We will set aside land for the Labour Movement to build a resort, probably on Pulau Brani. We will make this gesture to thank our workers for all their contributions to the nation,” he said.
Ending his speech, Mr Lee said these ambitious plans will not be completed in a decade or even in one generation. There will be space for successive generations to fill with their hopes and dreams, he added.
“The next few years will be very demanding,” the Prime Minister said. “We have to hand over smoothly to a new generation of leaders and continue to strive to realise our ambitions.
“My team and I will work with you to build this jewel of a nation, so that Singapore will always be a vibrant, thriving city where opportunities are open to all, and our children and their children will have a bright future.”