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Singapore Government

MSF-CSC Social Sector Conference

MSF-CSC Social Sector Conference

Good morning everyone.

It’s good to see you all bring and early this morning to come and discuss an important topic that is close to our hearts. First let me welcome all our foreign guests who have joined us here today. Thank you for taking time off to come and join us, to share your views, insights and perspectives to see how we can continue to improve our Social Service Sector performance and at the same time how to improve our safety net for our country.

I think many of us here share common challenges in the Social Service Sector. We all want to do better, for our people, for our society. We want to see how we can strengthen the social safety net, we want to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks or is left behind, yet at the same time we want to maintain certain ethos to our society of encouraging people to be independent, to have pride in what they do and to be self-reliant. All these are not easy to achieve and sometimes they seem to compete with each other and sometimes they seem to be not possible to what we want to achieve.

But it’s important for us to continue to open our minds to ideas beyond our shores, so that we can learn from each other. More importantly, is to apply these ideas to our local context. Each and every one of us in our respective societies will have different challenges. This morning, while we were sharing thoughts amongst the guest speakers, we all noted how different each of our countries may be in their social and cultural contexts and yet how we could still nevertheless share perspectives of how to overcome the challenges amongst ourselves.

Every responsible government will want to do the best for its people. But the question that confronts us is always, how do we define what is best, what do you mean by doing your best? Does doing our best necessarily mean just doing more? Is doing more necessarily doing better? These are the challenges and questions that we have to think about, and think about seriously.

To me, the mark of a good social service system or a good safety net has to be at two levels. At the individual level, we must make sure that not only the immediate needs of the needy are taken care of, but more importantly, we must be able to help the needy to stand tall and be independent. The first part is probably more straightforward- how to help the needy overcome his or her immediate needs. The more difficult, but perhaps more important challenge, is how to help them stand tall and independently and that requires us to put on our thinking caps.

The other way that we can judge ourselves as to whether we have a good and successful social service system and social safety net is at the system level- how we can not only provide for today but also provide for tomorrow. It’s not enough to start many schemes to help people, just today and for the short term. Many of the challenges that our people face have to do with long term issues. This is especially so for vulnerable families, families with complex social issues from drugs, gambling, parents being incarcerated, broken families, and so on.

These issues require long term solutions. These issues require people to walk with the families to get them out of the dark valleys that they are in. When we start new schemes and do programmes to help them, we must make sure that these programmes are sustainable. One of the worst things that we could do is to start off schemes with a big bang but not follow through and never truly help people throughout the entire journey, until they walk out of the dark valleys.

So to me, these are the two ways I would judge our own system:

One, do we just help people to meet their immediate needs or do we help them to stand tall and proud again as far as possible.

Two, at the system level are we able to master and grow our resources to help people over the long term and not just in the short term.

That being said, let us look a bit deeper into how we are trying to help our people and do the best for our society. At the macro level, there are two issues we have to manage. One is giving, the other is growing.

We must make sure that we have the ability to give- giving to grow, and yet growing to give. Let me explain what I mean.

Giving is probably the more straightforward issue, usually when you talk to people in the sector, it’s about social transfer. That part is relatively straightforward because it requires a certain social compact within society, where those who are more able will come forth and contribute more to those who with less. It seems a relatively straightforward concept, but actually it may not really be that straight forward. Some may say that all of us should be entitled to the same help, the same amount of help, and the same type of help. But from our own philosophy, and from our own experiences, we know that helping everybody equally may be just the baseline, but may not accurately address the needs of those who need more. Beyond the baseline help that we give to every citizen, we must make sure that those with less will be given more.

However, in doing this, many societies have also faced the challenge of  how to prevent moral hazards- how do you prevent those whom do not really need the help from misusing the resources that society has at its disposal. How do you, at the same time, encourage a person to stand tall and proud again, on his own, to be independent, while relying on society’s help. These are challenges that many other societies have faced and we will have to grapple with in Singapore in time to come as well.

At the same time when we design this system, we must make sure that we do not burden the current or the future generations. Going back to what I was talking about just now, that we do not start off things that may be sustainable only in the short term but unsustainable in the long term, and therein lies the greater challenge of giving.

But beyond giving, the more important part is about growing. Growing our ability to give. This is where we really have to put our thinking caps on and ask ourselves, how do we design a system that is able to sustain itself and yet at the same time, grow its capability to pool in more resources to help those people who need it.

So giving is one challenge by itself, it’s just about redistributing and social transfer but more importantly, beyond giving is the part about growing, how do you grow that pie, the pool of resources that the Social Service Sector can draw upon, to help the people in need. This may not just be the government resources, this must include the private sector and the people sector initiatives. We must tap on the strength, innovation and financial discipline of the private sector in all that we do. At the same time we must also tap on the people sector for the kind of passion that they have to bring to the work in the Social Service Sector.

So how do we grow these resources to bring forth this desire of ours to help even more people? We must give to grow, yet at the same time we must grow to give more.

At the programme level, we also face some challenges. Our challenges can simply be put down to getting the biggest bang for the buck.

Some seem to believe that efficiency and empathy don’t seem to coexist very well.  I don’t believe that. In order for us to do good, we must be efficient. We must make sure that we benchmark ourselves, so that every dollar and cent, every bit of resource that we have harnessed for the social service sector, is used for the good of our people, for the maximum good our people. We have to avoid wastage, minimise administration overtake, maximise resources to the targeted recipients, and find some way to reap economies of scale. So, having efficiency and having empathy are not a problem, in fact, both of them have to be done together at the programme level for us to achieve the goals that we want.

Even at the programme level, we have to find ways to continue to attract people to come and join our sector, and to grow our ability to deliver services. We cannot forget the needs of the caregivers and the people actually providing the services. Very often when we discuss our challenges in the social service sector, we focus on the people who need help. But just as important are the people who are providing that help. If the people providing the help are not well taken care of, then we will not be able to provide the help we want to the needy people.
In my weekly visits to various homes and institutions, beyond checking the conditions of our clients and our beneficiaries, I always make it a point to check the living conditions of the staff working there. Because if the staff are not well taken care of, then I am quite sure that our clients and our beneficiaries would not be well taken care of as well.

Having said that, what does it have to do with today’s topic? Today, for once, we are going to do something quite different. We are trying to understand behavioural sciences and use behavioural sciences to see how we can design better systems at the macro, micro and programme level. Later we will talk about some interesting examples and I’m sure the next speakers will also share their interesting experiences.

For those of you who study behavioural sciences, you will know that human responses are not often based only on logic. Very often our responses, programmes and plans are also based on emotions, intuitions and sometimes also perhaps levels of trust. We have a tendency to justify our actions after the event, no matter how logical or illogical we think our actions have been. From behavioural sciences we also know that there is an asymmetry between the long and short term interests that people have. Most of us as humans will only be able to focus on the short term interests and our own short term interests. It is very difficult for human beings to transcend that and look at very long term issues, macro issues.  But that will have an impact on how we design our policies and programmes.

Another interesting issue that has cropped up in behavioural science is the asymmetry between gain and loss aversion. People feel the pain of losses much more than do for what they gain. How do you overcome this asymmetry in the design of our programmes?

We also know that there is an endowment effect, where people tend to value what they own much more than what they would be willing to pay. All these are interesting nuggets of knowledge from the behavioural sciences, but we need to put all these things together and ask ourselves, if we accept the validity of all these theories, how then do we design programmes and policies taking into account all these vagaries of human nature.

For example, we ask ourselves, why would a beneficiary join a self help programme? It is often very difficult to explain to somebody, say a drug addict, that they need to take a long term perspective and join a specific programme. Likewise, doctors will tell you that the number of people who adhere to their own medication programme religiously is very low. They always have problems with compliance because people do not always necessarily take the long term perspective of their immediate actions.

This is where I would like to highlight an interesting example done by one of our local VWOs, Fei Yue. They had trouble trying to attract senior citizens to come to their Senior Activity Centre. They would go tell the senior citizens that it would be good for their health, good for their social-emotional well being, and ask them to come every day. Then they realised that didn’t work because the elderly found it very difficult to comprehend why they had to come every day to keep up with their exercises, to keep up with their social interaction. Fei Yue interestingly, understood a bit of behavioural sciences and they decided to use the typical Singapore incentive, which is to issue a stamp and coupon every time you turned up. After about 20 stamps and coupons you were entitled to some free gifts! Not a lot, it could be a few packets of instant noodles, coffee and so forth, the tangible value of the free gifts was not important. What it engendered however, was a change in mindset; suddenly people were able to relate to what they could do at a micro level day by day, adding to the eventual goal of coming down regularly to exercise and to socialise. At the end of the day, they also found an interesting group effect. It doesn’t matter how many days I come down, but I always want to look over my shoulder at my neighbour to see whether or not he is coming down. There’s a bit of a competitive element down there. And in the way that they have cleverly tweaked the system over time, they have generated a simple programme to encourage people to come down consistently, regularly to do their exercises and to have their social interactions. There are some examples of micro innovation.

Another example has to do with job placement for the unemployed. The conventional wisdom was that you train someone and then they can go and look for a job. But we also found that sometimes this did not work very well. Because the person always asks, why do I have to undergo this tough training for three to six months a year, and yet at the same time I do not know whether I will get a job at the end of the day. So some organisations have tried it the other way around - instead of train and place, we place and train. We place a person in a job, assure them of a job and then we train them. Of course if you go by conventional economics, people will say that there’s no incentive for the person to train hard because they have already got a job. On the other hand, behavioural science results show that if you give people a sense of assurance of where they are going, perhaps they will train harder because they have a target, it is more purposeful for them, and they can relate to it in a more immediate nature, that they are going to work in this particular job and that is why that particular training is given to them.

Yet another example at the programme level that we have seen on the ground: some beneficiaries do not like to be given handouts, they have a lot of pride. They know that they need help but they do not want to get help. Then the question is, how do we overcome that? Some of our communities have started projects, where instead of presenting the pay cheque as a welfare cheque, they just present it in another way, such as payment for community work, so that the needy can earn their keep. Interestingly, those who previously did not want to seek help now come forward, because to them they earned what collected at the end of the day, so they did not mind depending on the handouts. These are just some interesting ways that behavioural science can be applied to how we design our programmes at the ground level. Of course there are different people of different builds, and different folk will need different strokes, so we still need to be sensitive and not just apply one set of measures to the entire group of people that we are trying to help.

Beyond the individual level, we can also apply some of these ideas to the way that we organise our communities and corporates to help. For example, we always like to ask, why would the volunteers turn up to do great work for the Social Service Sector? Some people turn up because they have the infamous CIP points to encourage them to turn up, which has been useful to get some to take the first step in volunteering. However, other people feel very insulted if you give them any tangible rewards for volunteering because they adopt a purer approach, where volunteering does not need any incentive at all. Interestingly, a couple of weeks back when I was working with some of the young people from Heartware [Network], they did not want any tangible rewards. Yet at the same time, when presented with the opportunity to volunteer more hours and in return COURTS superstore would donate an equivalent amount to a needy family, it changed their perspective. They came forward to help not because they got something, but because it would help someone else. So again, we need different strokes for different folks! To encourage different behaviour to reinforce each other so that we can grow the pool of people who are willing to come forward.

What about corporates? Many people are very cynical about the corporates coming forward, many people are suspicious because they wonder if the corporates are coming forth to do Corporate Social Responsibility just because they want to brand their product, just because they want to sell their products, or with some other ulterior motive. On the other hand, if you understand how corporate behaviour works, actually we can also use some simple ways to encourage them to join us on this journey.

For example, if the corporates understand that in order to recruit younger talent, many younger people are working for something beyond immediate dollars and sense. They look for a higher purpose and we can appeal to that higher purpose from their own behaviour, to produce a more cohesive, energised and effective workforce. Again, some of this behaviour goes beyond the conventional economics of how we see people’s motivations. If we understand all this, it would make for a much more interesting way for us to harness the potential of the community to come forth and do all these things for us.

Having said that, there are still many challenges both at the policy and programme level where we can leverage on the ideas of behavioural science and economics to help us organise ourselves better.

How do we explain complex, long-term choice to people in bite-size? How do we get people to join a programme that has long term benefits but you may not see these benefits immediately. How do we get people commit to a system to help those with less, and to give more if you are more blessed and yet at the same time not abuse the system or misuse the resources that society has at its disposal to help people.

Recently these was this initiative- CHOPE FOOOD FOR THE NEEDY, it was done very well. How do you encourage more people to come forth and join an initiative like that and yet at the same time how do you encourage social norms such that people will not abuse the system, so that those who are well off, those who are blessed will not go forth and take a piece of the coupon that is meant for the needy. Many of these concerns require social norms, and social norms require time to evolve but social norms can also evolve faster and more rampant if we understand how people work in their minds and what intuition they use to react to circumstances and situations.

All these are challenges that we in the social service sector would like to explore. I encourage you throughout this conference to establish and expand you network with friends from overseas and across different backgrounds and communities, so that together we can explore the ideas of how we can use behavioural science techniques to better design our policies and programmes, to do better for our society.

We all want to do good, we all want to do the best for our people and our society. Our challenge is to bring forth ideas in order for us to organise ourselves better, so that when we give, we give with a view of growing the capabilities of the needy so that they can stand tall and proud. So when we grow, we grow our capacity as a society, harnessing energies from the private sector, the people sector and even from the needy, who have capabilities that we can harness  as we walk this journey together, to bring the greatest amount of help that we want for our society. All these are evergreen challenges and we will have to continually challenge ourselves to understand how we can do better.

On that note, I wish you a very fruitful conference and I do hope to hear your ideas on how we can harness the energies of everyone, from every walk of life to do better for our people.

Thank you very much.

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