MPs call for more protection for the vulnerable, better political discourse in day 2 of debate on President’s Address
Members of Parliament also highlighted the importance of lifelong learning and spoke against ageism against the elderly.
SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament on Tuesday (Apr 18) called for better political discourse and spoke about the need to protect vulnerable segments of society on the second day of the debate on the President’s Address.
The week-long debate follows President Halimah Yacob's Address, delivered on Apr 10, which sets the agenda for the second half of this government's term.
The Address set out four main themes: Expand opportunities throughout life for every citizen, strengthen social safety nets, build a smart and liveable city and deepen Singaporeans’ sense of shared identity and mutual responsibility.
Following the President’s call for a passionate civil society, Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim highlighted the need to engage youth in various issues, beyond climate change, mental health and discrimination.
They also care about the affordability of public housing, cost of living and jobs, she said.
“We must be careful not to pigeonhole young people’s issues into a handful of areas and only seek to engage them on those,” she added. “That would be a big turnoff and a disservice to our young.”
In his speech, MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) said that differences of opinion should not be treated as “necessarily equivalent to polarisation”.
“In our political discourse and even in our debates in this House, we should strive to treat members’ views and other parties’ views fairly, and accept when there is a philosophic or ideological difference … rather than being too quick to label the other side as disingenuous,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in parliament on Monday that the opposition should provide concrete alternatives to raise revenue and “not just opportunistic or populist ideas” to chip away at trust in the government.
In response to Mr Wong’s comment, Mr Perera on Tuesday said the WP has been doing this. He pointed to proposals by the party such as alternatives to a Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike and reducing Build-to-Order (BTO) prices based on tweaks to the land valuation formula.
“We championed universal healthcare insurance and delinking BTO from resale prices long before they were adopted by the (People's Action Party) government. We championed anti-discrimination legislation and redundancy insurance – policies that the PAP are now considering in some form. The DPM and the PAP know this.”
PROTECTING VULNERABLE SEGMENTS
MPs on Tuesday also spoke of protecting several vulnerable segments, from the elderly to those needing help with mental health.
Amid an ageing population and families having to care for both the young and elderly, Ms Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) called for a review of support for caregivers.
She noted that “means-testing qualifying criteria” for caregiving support for middle-income Singaporeans may work against some middle-income families that care for their children, parents and extended families at the moment.
She raised an example of a middle-income household living in private property taking care of aged parents and a sibling under the same roof. They may not qualify for any relief or subsidy for eldercare services because of housing type, yet they “believe that staying together contributes to the overall well-being and care” of their sibling and aged parents, she said.
Dr Wan Rizal (PAP-Jalan Besar), known for championing mental health issues in parliament, then outlined several suggestions to improve mental health in Singapore.
He suggested increasing access to mental health services in the heartlands, while reducing costs and waiting time through government subsidies.
Volunteers in the well-being circles launched as part of the mental health network “must be adequately and rigorously trained and deployed to provide the much-needed first tier of support in the community”, he added.
Dr Wan Rizal, who is also a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic, called for equipping dedicated staff in schools and Institutes of Higher Learning with the necessary skills and resources to identify and support students at risk of developing mental health issues.
Calling for greater support for families with autistic children, especially lower-income families, Mr Don Wee (PAP-Chua Chu Kang) urged the government to work with insurers to improve access to insurance for autistic people.
"For low-income families, we must ensure that the treatment is affordable to them and provide sufficient subsidies, so that they will be able to keep up with the therapy. Counselling and adequate support should also be provided to the family members, who often suffer from caregiver fatigue and burnout, as well as depression," he said.
Mr Wee added that there is a need for more activity and care centres for children and adults with autism to engage them and allow family members to "work with peace of mind", and for caregivers to take regular breaks.
"The lack of capacity in these centres often mean that someone in the family, often the mother, will not be able to work because she becomes the caregiver. This is a blow to their household income, plunging them into deeper financial difficulty," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) addressed the need to protect vulnerable groups from scammers – one of the prevalent challenges of a new world – and suggested implementing a “kill switch” in bank accounts and better safeguards for e-wallets.
He also suggested better support and compensation for those who lose their life savings, such as the elderly who often lose six-figure sums.
“Often, the compensation offered by the bank is insufficient for them to retire with. That would leave many of our seniors having to find more work. That may not be ideal at all if the couple is already in retirement,” he said.
AGEISM TOWARDS THE ELDERLY, SKILLS UPGRADING
Speaking about discrimination against seniors in Singapore, WP’s Ms Lim cited examples of companies not wanting to hire middle-aged job seekers and a Ministry of Manpower survey that confirmed ageist attitudes affected older workers in Singapore.
“For stronger protection for all workers, we are eagerly awaiting the anti-discrimination legislation which the prime minister announced nearly two years ago,” she said.
Addressing ageism could involve reviewing school curriculums to remove stereotypes about different age groups, and the government can lead by example in hiring older employees, she said.
Public discourse, including in parliament, also matters, said Ms Lim, pointing to statements such as “by the year 2030, we will face a silver tsunami”, which she said “evokes all the wrong images”.
Ms Lim said she supports the Housing Development Board’s move to have mixed blocks of flats for seniors and for younger families as it increases intergenerational contact.
The productive engagement of seniors is no longer optional, added Mr Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang).
“We must encourage our seniors to engage in gainful activities that will not only benefit themselves, but also their families, communities and society as a whole,” he said.
He also asked for "quality jobs" to be created for seniors and for flexible work options such as sabbatical leaves, job-sharing, micro jobs and phased retirement.
Mr Patrick Tay (PAP-Pioneer) said workers in their 40s and 50s are especially concerned and anxious about skills obsolescence and unemployment. He welcomed potential support for unemployed workers beyond the pandemic, referring to speeches by President Halimah and DPM Wong.
For workers more broadly, Mr Tay said an individualised approach may be needed in the SkillsFuture framework so that training and skills upgrading lead to clear outcomes in salary and career progression.
Currently, there are too many programmes to choose from and some are not convinced that the training will lead to tangible benefits. He suggested that there be an industry-led accreditation of career coaches and counsellors, and allowing SkillsFuture credits to be used to engage such mentors.
“As we navigate a skills and employment landscape that is increasingly complex, the assistance and guidance by a career coach is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury,” he said.
“The advice and guidance rendered by the career coach would complement what SkillsFuture, in its existing form, already offers.”
In the long term, SkillsFuture could also reduce the mismatch between skills and jobs, said Mr Tay, who is assistant secretary-general of NTUC and chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for education.
“It would maximise our intended structural outcomes in progressing the development of our people and economy, while ensuring that Singaporeans continue to have access to opportunities.”
The debate will resume on Wednesday.