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Trade-offs unavoidable in social policy: MSF

Trade-offs unavoidable in social policy: MSF

An elderly woman and a child in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Trade-offs are unavoidable in social policy, and "all too often good intentions have led to counterproductive results", the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said in a paper it released on Thursday (Nov 1).

The 32-page occasional paper, titled "Improving the lives of low-income and vulnerable families in Singapore", outlines Singapore's social compact, details existing policies, and sketches out further plans to support low-income and vulnerable families. This is MSF's first such paper.

"We have been encouraged by the ongoing social discourse on how we can help those in our midst who need our help and support. The occasional paper is the Government's contribution to this discourse," a ministry spokesperson said in response to media queries.

"We hope that the paper will set a helpful context for deeper conversations and actions on the way forward."

READ: Singapore society must maintain ‘informal and egalitarian tone’: PM Lee on tackling inequality

MSF said that since 2007, it has taken active steps to address income inequality and social stratification.

It pointed to progress over the years, such as more students from the lowest 20 per cent by socio-economic background moving on to post-secondary education, and growth in salaries for households with lower incomes.

However, many measures that have worked well in boosting progress and social mobility have led to other challenges, MSF said, adding that Singapore is at a crossroads, with its economy maturing and evolving and its society ageing.

"The same measures now bring new challenges that we need to address, to ensure that stratification is not enshrined and social mobility continues to be spurred," MSF said. 

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It said that while the Government studies fresh ideas and approaches and tries them out where they may help improve Singapore and the lives of Singaporeans, "we must not forget that trade-offs are unavoidable in social policy, and all too often good intentions have led to counterproductive results".

The paper comes at a time when social mobility and inequality have come to the forefront of public discourse, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung weighing in on related issues.


MSF said in the paper that there are three key areas that the Government is working on: Investing in every Singaporean, especially the low-income and vulnerable; providing assurance to deal with life's uncertainties; and improving social services.

The Government will invest even earlier in the educational journey, especially for those from disadvantaged families, "to lay a strong foundation for every child, and to strengthen social mobility", said the paper.

“Early childhood development will increase in importance as a social enabler, and we will continue to explore ways to better support children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” MSF said.

READ: Social stratification — a poison seeping into Singapore’s housing estates and schools

The paper comes on the back of a recent announcement on a new Ministry of Education (MOE)-led inter-agency task force that will study how to help under-performing students from disadvantaged families.

It will also keep housing affordable for the broad majority of Singaporeans and give more help to vulnerable families. 

"Beyond improving the physical environment of our rental flats, we recognise that many rental flat residents face complex and multiple challenges, including financial hardship, caregiving burdens and a lack of family support," MSF said.


The MSF described the needs of the low-income and vulnerable as "often diverse and complex", and pledged to strengthen efforts to coordinate the delivery of social services.

“Prior to 2013, there were 'many helping hands' in the community, but not everyone in need knew where to get the help they needed. This is why we have made significant effort to make help more accessible and coordinated over the past five years," MSF said, adding that it is continuing and accelerating this effort.

When an individual or family in need approaches any government or community agency to seek help, they are not only advised on that agency's schemes and services, but also referred to other social assistance schemes and services that support their needs, MSF said.

READ: Inequality has a geographic dimension - between and within neighbourhoods in Singapore  

Those who apply for ComCare social assistance will be automatically assessed for other relevant schemes or services, and need not submit the same documents or fill in multiple application forms.

For example, if a person living in public rental housing receiving ComCare assistance is unable to keep up with rent, the Social Service Office will share its assessment with HDB to consider a reduction in rent.

The paper also touched on Government schemes that aim to help Singaporeans deal with economic insecurity and uncertainties, such as illness, amidst a volatile global environment, the emergence of new technologies and mismatch of job skills.

Giving examples of assistance schemes for workers, such as job placements programmes and SkillsFuture, it said that it will better support the long-term unemployed and ensure that wages of lower-wage workers keep pace with economic and productivity growth.

READ: Lift the bottom, not cap the top: Minister Ong Ye Kung outlines key principles on education system

For healthcare, it said that the Government's approach is to ensure that no Singaporean will be denied access to basic and appropriate healthcare due to financial difficulties, and it promised to step up support for low-income and vulnerable seniors.

It cited CareShield Life, a national disability insurance scheme to be introduced in 2020, as an initiative that will help Singaporeans prepare for their long-term care needs.


In all, the Government has strengthened social safety nets and put in place a network of community agencies and partners to provide targeted assistance to those who need it, MSF said.

Social spending as a percentage of GDP has grown from 5.2 per cent in 2007 to 8.2 per cent in 2017, and it made up half of the Government's total expenditure last year, it said.

On average, resident households received S$4,433 per household member from various Government schemes in 2017 while households in HDB one- & two-room flats received S$10,245 per household member.

The Singapore system is not perfect, but has performed better than most, it added.

“The key is not just Government policy, but a coordinated approach across our many helping hands, strong family and community support, and also a strong sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility – without which no government effort can succeed." 

The Government publishes occasional papers from time to time on various issues. Examples include the Ministry of Finance's 2015 Occasional Paper on Income Growth, Inequality and Mobility Trends in Singapore and the Ministry of Trade and Industry's 2012 Occasional Paper on Population and Economy. 

Source: CNA/hm


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