SINGAPORE — Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that creating an inclusive society with lesser inequalities is a key challenge for Singapore, and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has stepped up its strategies to meet this challenge.
In a live Facebook webcast on Tuesday (7 July), Tharman said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for an inclusive society more important than before, as the coronavirus outbreak is becoming a major social crisis in many countries around the world.
“It’s fracturing societies because it’s impacting some people much more than others. It is leading to a loss of hope amid large swathes of the population, particularly younger people. It's going to raise tensions between people, and we must avoid that... We've got to build a society with a stronger social compact and we can do it,” he said during the webcast.
Raising quality at every stage of a kid’s life
Tharman addressed three key aspects of PAP’s strategy for an inclusive society: for children, for working-life adults and for seniors in retirement years.
The party will be creating better social mobility by raising the quality at every stage of a kid’s life, even before the kid’s pre-school years – from quality programmes in the neighbourhood to ensuring that quality schools and pre-schools improve further.
But to be assured of social mobility, more needs to be done than simply ensuring broad-based quality.
“It has to involve deeper interventions to help those who start with less,” Tharman said. “We’re determined to make every effort to coach kids who start off with low income families, to have hope in life, to have confidence, and to enter primary school brimming with enthusiasm.
“We're hiring more teachers, more teacher counsellors, more professionals of every type to be in our schools, to strengthen the whole school team to help every student in need. We’re also preventing a digital divide with a substantial step-up in resource to ensure that, no matter how poor the family is, (the student will have) broadband, a laptop or a computer at home to use.”
Investing in skills upgrading for every Singaporean
For working adults, PAP plans to invest heavily in upgrading the skills of every Singaporean to make sure that middle-aged and mature workers do not find that the social mobility “escalator” has stopped midway through their career.
“Every generation must be on a moving escalator, and we take it very seriously... We have to find ways of sustaining the moving escalator, and this comes from continuous improvement in technologies, skills and movement towards better jobs,” he said.
The most immediate concern is to prevent a surge in unemployment levels, after the economy has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tharman said the key approach to this issue is to help Singaporeans up-skill themselves.
“Far better that we put government resources into subsidising jobs and skills, than into subsidising the unemployed. They both end up helping people who lose jobs, but only one will help them get back to the workplace with new skills appropriate for new jobs,” he said.
PAP will also place special focus on the lowest-income workers, with a progressive wage model coupled with Workfare supplements. With new skills, these workers get better respect for their jobs and a sense that they can contribute together with everyone else, and this will lead to a more equitable workplace.
“Nice-sounding promises” will hurt people: Tharman
Tharman criticised “nice-sounding promises” during the election period on what should be done to help seniors, such as earlier CPF payouts or the government paying for all healthcare costs.
“Many of these measures will end up hurting the people they’re trying to help,” he said.
“If you attempt to do away with a social security system where government takes responsibility and ensures that people have enough retirement savings, if we just leave it to individuals, what you'll find is that society becomes more divided. And it becomes more unequal in the years when people are the most vulnerable.”
Tharman said that for a lot of the schemes for later years – such as CPF Life, MediShield Life and CareShield Life – the basic rationale is that the government and the people have to take collective responsibility.
“We cannot say that everyone decides for himself and somehow things are going to end up rosy. Some people will take care of themselves very well. The rich will end up somehow being able to take care of themselves and doing better. And the poor will end up in tougher straits and more difficult circumstances. We have to take collective responsibility for each other,” he said.
Collective responsibility to create inclusive society
Such collective responsibility must come from every Singaporean, in order to create a more inclusive society in the future, said Tharman.
“It's about all of us getting involved by taking an interest in others, particularly those who are less well off than us, or those who come from different social backgrounds,” he added. “COVID-19 is going to be a challenging task that involves all of us, and we will have to evolve further from where we were in the years past.”
Tharman even quoted a lyric from a popular Hokkien song, which means “30 per cent relying on the gods, 70 per cent relying on hard work”, and said that Singaporeans should retain those social ethos – where people work out for themselves, take responsibility and take pride in standing on their own feet.
“But we can't rely on the heavens for our economy, we need to fend for themselves. So that 30 per cent has to be from the community. We have to take collective responsibility for each other,” he said.
“I think for the younger generation, this is a very exciting challenge what you and your friends can do to build an inclusive, agreeable and sustainable society.”
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