SINGAPORE: People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament (MP) on Thursday (Sep 3) called on the Government to strengthen social safety nets by "socialising" pre-school education and increasing support for vulnerable families.
The MPs were speaking on the fourth day of the debate on the President’s Address. President Halimah Yacob said in her address last week that the benefits of pursuing economic growth should be shared “widely” with all citizens.
READ: Singapore will push for sustainable growth, further strengthen social safety nets: President Halimah
MP for Sembawang GRC Vikram Nair said the Government should consider “socialising” pre-school fees to level the starting points for children’s education.
“Pre-school is not compulsory. It has been made significantly more affordable but it is still more expensive than primary school,” he said, pointing out that parents sometimes have a "perception" that some pre-schools are significantly better than others.
“I acknowledge that the socialising of pre-school to try and make it equally accessible, free and potentially even compulsory, will (cost) significantly more than primary school. So this is a big-ticket item and this is something that, I think, we should focus on if the budget allows it.”
Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Education as well as Social and Family Development, said the Government should examine how it can further enable pre-school participation, as a child’s formative years play a critical role in their development.
“While the vast majority of each cohort has attended pre-school prior to Primary 1, there is nonetheless a group of children whose attendance is irregular in pre-school and a few who have not even enrolled in childcare or pre-school,” she said.
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Ms Sun pointed out that since January, many families are now paying less for pre-school because of enhanced subsidies, with the share of Government-supported pre-schools set to increase from more than 50 per cent of the market to 80 per cent by 2025.
“The Government is also investing significantly in the software aspects of teacher recruitment, progression and professional development,” she added.
“Taken together, this sends a strong signal that the Government prioritises the early learning years and wants to give every child a good starting point from which they can chart their future paths.”
Besides financial help, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim said vulnerable families should also get more help to ease their “mental and emotional strain”.
“The family or the building block is very different now than what it was 30 years ago,” he said in his first speech in Parliament.
“Blended families, unwed mothers, single working adults taking care of their elderly parents all make up our building blocks of society. We must not leave anyone behind, especially the vulnerable.”
Mr Zhulkarnain urged the Government to make it easier for the discreet reporting of domestic violence involving elderly abuse and immigrant wives.
The Government should also look at how it can attract and retain temporary foster caregiverswho can care for vulnerable children, such as those whose parents are incarcerated.
“The broader point I am making is this - we need to see beyond the lens of the beneficiary or recipient,” he said. “We need to look at it from the perspective of the provider also.”
Fellow new MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin asked if the Government could consider introducing a fixed rental fee for a longer period of time to allow vulnerable families to build up their savings for "rainier days". Rental fees are currently pegged to household income.
Ms Nadia spoke about a 20-year-old woman who lives in a rental flat with her husband and two children. Her husband is usually not at home as he is serving National Service.
“She shared with me her hopes of finding a job, but worried there would be no caregiver for her children as her husband's vocation did not allow him to return home in the evenings, and that the flat's monthly rental fees would be adjusted upwards when she became a new income earner in the house,” said Ms Nadia, who is MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Ms Nadia said the affordability of rental flats is important as some vulnerable youths, upon reaching the age of 19, are no longer able to stay in protective homes under the Children and Young Persons Act but do not have families to reintegrate with.
“The sudden shift to independent living without a routine, while having to find work to pay for accommodation, can be overwhelming, and these youths sometimes are not able to reach their full potential,” she added.
"SOCIETY OF OPPORTUNITIES"
Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan acknowledged that there are families out there who need help.
“I am most concerned about young children and the opportunities that they may lose if nothing is done,” said the MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.
Mr Tan added that he would like to see a “society of opportunities for all”, noting that the economic impact from COVID-19 has hit lower-income households much harder.
“While there are various Government schemes to support individuals and families along the life journeys, there is an important role for the community and individuals to reach out to fellow Singaporeans,” he said.
Mr Tan gave the example of a 24-year-old grassroots leader named Hamid, whom he said was part of a group of volunteers who tutored children living in rental blocks and helped deliver special care packs during the “circuit breaker” period, on top of regular Zoom sessions.
“I urge members of this House, many of whom have spoken passionately about this topic, to rally our community to step up and do something for our children who may not have a good start to ensure they receive at least a good education,” he added.
“Together, let us ensure that there will always be social mobility in our society and this remains deeply anchored in our value system.”