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Speech at Social Service Partners Conference

Good morning colleagues and partners, thank you for being here todayWe wanted to bring together all the partners in the social service sector. Some of you may not necessarily see yourselves as partners, but you’re here because we think you are partners. Our social service sector and you are one of our many partners, whom we want to work closer together, to serve our country and strengthen the services that we have for our people. 
 
We want to build a community of support. A community of support that includes not just MSF, the government agencies, not just the VWOs or the social service professionals; but also a community of support that includes community partners from the CDCs, to the grassroots associations – a community of support that includes the media, the academics, the business corporations and many more. Anyone and everyone who can play a part in the social service sector can help us deliver the quality of service that we want for our people. 
 
In the coming years, we will face quite a few new challenges for our society. In the economic front, business cycles are getting shorter and more intense. People are worried about their jobs especially many in the middle-aged group and many in the middle-income group. We too, are concerned with creating opportunities for the next generation of graduates from our polytechnics, ITEs and universities. At a time when the rest of the world are talking about 50% youth unemployment, how can we create new and interesting jobs for our people so that they can fulfil their aspirations in life? 
 
On another front, if you read some of the academic studies done recently across the entire world, the income inequality has started creeping back to the pre-war levels despite the fact that we have intensified, not just us, but many countries, have intensified their social spending, the redistribution. Yet, despite all these efforts, the income inequality is creeping up in many countries and to a large extent this has to do with the creation, or rather, the lack of creation of new jobs, meaningful jobs, at the middle-income level. This is something of concern to us. 
 
Yet on another front, if you read the newspaper the last few days, many other countries are cutting back their spending on social services because they’re on a very tight budget. We are in a slightly more fortunate position. Today we have a healthy budget position that allows us to do more, but we must not squander away our advantage. We must judiciously spend on those areas that are most needed. 
 
Those are economic forces, but what about the social forces? Things are also evolving very rapidly. The size of our family is changing very quickly. We might become much smaller in our average family size. We are almost into the post-nuclear family. If the nuclear family was defined by a set of parents and their children; now, many of our younger people are staying apart from their elderly parents and that will have an impact on how we design our social support system for our elderly and also for the young. Our demographics is aging rapidly, in about 15 years’ time, we will have about 900,000 elderly in Singapore. Please do not see them as a problem, they are an asset. But we have to take care of these 900,000 elderly. 
 
Our number of dementia cases, is expected to grow from 20,000 now to about 80,000 in about 15 years’ time – tremendous challenge for the social service sector and the healthcare sector. In a tightly-knit internet-enabled world, comparison has become more apparent. Many people staying in the community are now aware of the real and perceived disparity between the rich and the poor. While to some it might not be a big issue, but to others, it affects them personally. 
 
People are also concerned about social mobility. As our society grows, people wonder whether they will have a chance to break out of their present socioeconomic circumstances. We pride ourselves as Singaporeans, that we will always enable the next generation to do better, so long as they work hard and do justice to their talents and we must continue to do this, because this is how our society is organised and this is how we give hope to the next generation. 
 
But we have seen also positive forces changing in our society – many young people, many in their middle-age, many businesses they do not just want to do well, they want to do good. We see a flourishing of social enterprises across the community. We see businesses coming forward, not just to donate money to those who are less privileged, but coming forward to want to do good, and have something in their corporate mission statement that goes beyond dollars and cents. This is good and this is what we should tap on to build a stronger society, to forge a more caring society. 
 
That our society is not defined by what our sense of entitlement, but it’s defined by our sense of responsibility towards our fellowmen in the same society. I’ve always said in Chinese, that all our government schemes can provide us that sense of assurance; in Chinese they call it 安心, to provide that sense of assurance. But it is the community, that can provide the sense of warmth, 温馨. We need both. We need the sense of assurance, yet at the same time, we need the sense of warmth. Because each and every one of us, be it individuals or corporates, we come forward to serve not because the government say so, but we come forward to serve and care for our fellowmen because we believe in our own community. We believe we have a responsibility to do well and to do good for our fellowmen, that our success depends not just upon our own intelligence and hard work, but also to a large extent, enabled by the opportunities given to us by our society. 
 
There are three things that MSF will focus on in the coming weeks – we want to do much more, in partnership with you, we want to do much better as a social service sector, and we want to do much better together. Let me go through some of these priorities in the coming years, for the social service sector. 
 
From MSF perspective, it’s not just about delivery of more services. We want to catalyse and enable the community and the partners to come forward to look for sustainable solutions and most importantly to develop local solutions to the local community challenges. 
 
Let me start with what more we need to do. I have talked about the 900,000 elderly, the 80,000 dementia cases that we may have to grapple with in a few years’ time. Clearly, we need to expand the suite of eldercare services, not just for people in their sixties and seventies, but for people in their eighties and nineties. This is quite different, very different. Caring for the elderly in their fifties and sixties is one set of challenges, caring for the elderly in their eighties and nineties is another order of magnitude of challenge, but we must do it. We must put in place not just the community services but  also look at the legal framework to care for our vulnerable elderly as a last line of defence. In terms of services, we have to ask ourselves, how we can harness these 900,000 elderly, to be part of the community of support that we want to build for, that we do not see them as liabilities or problems, but we see them as assets and talent that we can mobilise. 
 
Disability service is another big challenge for us. The life expectancy of our disabled communities is not very different from our average Singaporean. This means that we have to strengthen the services in the adult care services for our disabled community. Today we have not done too badly for ourselves, up to 20 years old. Tomorrow, we need to do better for our disabled community, for them who will live to a ripe old age beyond 50 years old. Many of whom, will outlive their primary caregivers, we need to put in place systems and structures that will support them to live a meaningful life as part of our community. 
 
In terms of vulnerable families, increasingly we are seeing vulnerable families with multi-dimensional challenges, not just the one-dimensional financial assistance kind of challenge. If it was just a financial assistance, and a short-term financial assistance kind of issue, that would have been relatively straightforward. But increasingly, families which are not functioning well, it is multi-dimensional challenges and I’ll talk about this later in one example of how we need to come together as a community to support them. 
 
We also have emerging challenges of helping trans-national families cope with the challenges of life. Today, 40% of our marriages in Singapore are between a non-Singaporean and a Singaporean. These 40%, they come from diverse backgrounds – some of the foreign spouses come from different countries, others come from less-developed countries with very different social context but we need to integrate all these Singaporeans and Singaporeans-to-be as part of our larger family.  They will face different challenges and we need new capacities and new capabilities to take care of these trans-national families and help them integrate into Singaporean life. 
 
There will be families in distress. Yesterday, together with MinLaw, we have started talking about a new family justice system that’s simpler to execute, yet at the same time, that’s always putting the child as the centre of our ground. There’s much work that we need to do, to care for such families in distress, so all these require us to build new capacities and new capabilities. 
 
We have started to roll out the network of social service offices across the entire island. We hope to get about 20 of them across the entire island by the end of this year. The crux of the social services offices is not just about ComCare. That, we’ve been doing well with the CDCs and the previous system for family law. The crux of it is that we want the social service offices in each of our town to be the catalyst for the local networks to develop the local solutions. We want to bring together the partners in the town – the FSCs, grassroot leaders, community partners, community business, government agencies and businesses all together to manage issues at the local level. 
 
Just a week ago, I had a session with the Bedok Town community partners, businesses and government agencies. It was one of those sessions which I regularly have before we roll out the SSO in a particular town. I talked to them for about 10 to 15 minutes, giving them a rundown of what we want to do, what we want to achieve. They asked a few questions and in the usual scheme of things, it should be the end of the session. So I said thank you very much, this is the end of the session, but nobody left. They all continued sitting there, so I thought the proverbial fishball and beehoon wasn’t ready. But what struck me was this, they weren’t so much interested in what I had to say, they were more interested in building the networks, establishing the relationships amongst themselves so that they will be able to develop local solutions for their local communities with their partners in the community. I was mightily impressed and it made a deep impression on me because this is the kind of relationship we want to see in a local community and we want our SSO to continue to catalyse and enable such relationships to flourish in the local communities. 
 
On the other hand, as part of this thrust of work, we need to do much better in our volunteer management. Many of us will know that we have many kind-hearted Singaporeans who want to come forward. It is incumbent upon us in the sector to develop a system to bring forth their contributions, integrate them into the work that is required to be done, so that they find meaning and they too will bring forth others to come and join us. This is something that we would like to see in the communities and the SSOs. Local planning officers will want to work hard at this together with the community partners. So that’s so much of what we need to do in terms of expanding capacity, what are all the things that we’d like to do more. 
 
Now let me touch on the second one, where we want to do better, because we want to scale up sustainably. The first thing we’d like to do in the coming years to scale up sustainably is to make sure that we have deep professional competencies for the sector. And there are two sub-tracks in this: one is to allow our specialists to deepen their competencies; we’ve started schemes to enable social work professionals including counsellors, therapists, to go deep into their domain specialisation. We will have more scholarships, more training awards, more training opportunities to enable our people to do this. This will include counsellors, physiotherapists, social workers and so forth. The other track that we need to do much better is to develop a core of management and leadership capabilities for the entire sector in 10, 15 years. We want the future social service sector leaders to be not only grounded in their practice, but also  have a broad perspective to understand how to bring together the community of partners ranging from government to non-government bodies, VWOs, different VWOs, so that we can work together. Today we take pride in our social service sector leadership because many of them are passionate individuals. One of their common refrain is that they hope that in the process, in their journey of growing up,  they would have the wider exposure and opportunities to see how other people do things so that ideas can flow and we cross-fertilise each other’s ideas to do even better. So to do that, we will make sure that we expand the leadership training opportunities for the next generation of leaders. NCSS has been spearheading this and I was told that they have been making good progress and we look forward to their proposals towards the end of this year.     
 
Beyond developing the individuals and the leaders, we need to develop the organisations. Many of our VWOs are small; it’s very difficult for them to have the requisite HR capabilities to take care of all the people under their charge. We will need to find ways to enable even the smaller VWOs to develop HR competencies, to take care of their people not just for themselves but for the sector as a whole. 
 
Board composition is also something that we want to work on; we want to attract more people from diverse backgrounds to come and join the boards of all our VWOs. So that they can check our blind spots, bring in new capabilities, so that we can all do better. But most importantly, at organisational level, we must ensure what we call business continuity in each of our VWOs and business organisations. We must make sure that we can strengthen leadership team so that there will not be service discontinuity in the event that management needs to renew itself or refresh itself. These are things that the corporate world will be very familiar with; these are some of the practices that we need to learn as well, to do better, not just for our organisation, but always for the people whom we serve, the beneficiaries of our system. So beyond professional capabilities at the individual level, organisational capabilities, we also need as a community of practice to strengthen our own protocols. This is the reason I was very happy when we rolled out the code of social work practice, we need to harmonise our own practices across different establishments. Not just to do good for our beneficiaries, but also to give confidence to people beyond our sector. 
 
We need to see how we can strengthen our data protocol sharing, how to develop common assessment tools which in turn will lighten the workload of our social work professionals. We will be calling the tender on the Social Service Net or what we call, the SSNet soon. We have obtained feedback from you. We are in the process of deciding the system and we want to progressively roll out this system by the third quarter of next year. This is also part of our wider plan, to create capacity for our social service sector. Today, too many of our social service professionals are spending too much time on administrative workload. We want to change that, we want you to spend quality time with the beneficiaries and we want to enable that, which is why we want to spend this money to lighten the workload of our social work professionals so that you spend most of your time with the beneficiaries, doing good, holding their hands, guiding them, rather than on administrative workload. In order for us to do that, we need to share. We need to share a common set of protocols, common data so that we don’t have to keep getting people to repeat their stories, and for us to keep repeating or writing down their stories. It is a long journey. Even when the computer system is up from next year, we won’t get there immediately because it will take us some years for us to input the data. But we must start; if we don’t start today, we will never get there tomorrow or in the future.   
 
Next, we will also want to see how we can enable people working in the same community to work together better, in the way we organise the sector. And this is where we are exploring the format of how we can better cluster the services together. I give some very tangible examples – in a very typical HDB town, we will have quite a few Senior Activity Centres and some may have more than one Family Service Centre. The question is not how many we have inside a town. The question is how can all these Senior Activity Centres, run by different operators, come together to provide programmes for the local community in an integrated manner. It gives me no joy to see two different Senior Activity Centres going to the zoo on the same day with half a busload each. It doesn’t speak well for us, but that we can do much better. And we would want to enable and encourage the local community to do much better. 
 
When we start to integrate our services at the local level, then we will also overcome one of our fears, our own fear, that our own organisation cannot provide the full suite of services for the local community. Many of you want to do good from providing services to the children, to the youth, to the elderly, the dysfunctional families and so forth. But we don’t all have to provide all these by ourselves. We should leverage on each other’s strengths, build on each other’s strengths, to work together as a team, and that will allow us to focus our energies on what we do best. So we don’t need a do-it-all by-myself model, we can have a do-it-all together model. 
 
When it comes to integrated service delivery, this is the last part where we say we want to do better, together. The keyword is together, and this is where integrated services come. Integrated services across different dimensions, the first dimension is that we must bring together different capabilities to serve the beneficiaries better. The example just now of how we provide youth services, eldercare services and so forth together, is but an example of how we bring a suite of different services in an integrated manner to the beneficiary who needs it most. It will require us to integrate our service delivery for financial assistance to education, healthcare, housing, security and so forth. And this is the reason why we have invited many government agencies to come here today. Because whether you are in HDB, MOE, MHA, MOF, all of us have a role to play in the social service sector. The pillars of our social service safety net are not just MSF. It starts from housing, health, education and training, CPF and so forth. MSF is but the layer for the most vulnerable, so this is how we need to work better across all agencies, starting from the government agencies. 
 
But more importantly, when it comes to integrated services, we must also integrate across time. We must have the staying power, to see through the complex and the difficult cases. Many of you in the audience will know this much better than me, because you are the ones who have been quietly, behind-the-scenes, holding the hands of the vulnerable in their entire journey over many years. After many years, sometimes we have success, often we may not, but we try. We try to make it better for everyone that comes through our system. It is easy to identify people with needs. It is challenging to address those needs in an integrated manner across agencies, across capabilities and most importantly, across time. We need persistence and perseverance for some of these very difficult cases. 
 
A typical case profile of our FSC, very common: odd job labourer, married, three to four kids, unstable family, owing money, huge debts chalked up for all sorts of reasons, without a roof over his head. How do we deal with such issues with so many dimensions of need, we can’t just give financial assistance. We need to bring the community together, sit down with everyone, to provide that integrated solution. A simple, straightforward, multi-dimensional case like this will require HDB to see how we can provide housing, MOE to see how we can provide a stable education platform for the children to break out of the cycle, the FSC and SSO to bring in counselling and financial help, the community partners to take care and keep a watch on the children in need. It literally takes an entire village to bring up a child and to care for them. And this is why, we need the community of support, we need your partnership to make things work because if we don’t work together, each of us by our own efforts will not end up with the result that is given the sum of our individual efforts. But what we want to strive for is that the sum of our parts is more than the total that we can achieve by our self. 
 
So all of you have diverse strengths and you will bring to us diverse perspectives We want to tap on your capabilities to check on our blind spots and generate new ideas. In the afternoon, you’ll have the opportunity not just to establish networks, but we hope to see new ideas and new relationships. For the academics who are here amongst us, I’d like to thank you for coming forward. Not because you want to publish papers and studies on our social system, but many of you, like Irene and her team from NUS, are interested to come forward, to look at issues that we have, not just at the macro level, but at the micro level, to do long-term studies that may or may not allow them to publish on some international journals, but to provide real tangible solutions to how we should do things better. We hope to have such partnerships and many more that we have started – a partnership with NUS for their Social Service Research Centre, we are also working with UniSIM to see how we can bring forth a generation of applied research, applied practitioners, with mid-career experience to come and enrich our sector. And where possible, we would like to work with the rest of the tertiary institutions, polytechnics, to do more of these because we need local solutions for local problems. We can look at other people’s solutions from other countries, study them thoroughly, but most importantly, we need to apply them to our local context.      
 
Trainers – many of you are here because you train people. You help us train people from our sector, you help us connect up. UniSIM is going to start, or have started, programmes to attract mid-career people into the sector. They bring with them valuable life experiences and different perspectives to enrich us. The Social Service Institute has also started to organise more courses not just to train people in one big chunk but to have what I call, just-in-time modules to refresh our professionals and volunteers on the latest and good practices of the sector. We will need to do much more together with our trainers. 
 
The media friends who are here today – some of you are here to report. But actually, we don’t see you as a reporter at this function. We see you as an important partner to reach out to those in need. Many of you have helped us to spread the message and many of you have written articles that encouraged the people in our sector. Just an example, your recent sharing of the work of the SSOs has brought forth new partnerships in many of the communities. Many people in the communities are now more aware of what the SSOs and the FSCs do. And many of them have come forth, to help us in our work because they want to do good and they want to do well. Some of the media friends, you have even taken the extra step to embed yourself in the lives of the social service professions. You have gone to our juvenile Homes; you have followed some of the destitute patrols to see how we do work. All these bring to life the work that we do; all these encourage the people in their professions. For us to outreach, we have our blind spots. Sometimes the way we say things may not be most appropriate or may not reach out to the clients the most and in the best way that they can understand. But your ideas, your critique, your suggestions give us confidence that we can do better. So we would like to walk the journey, also with our media partners. 
 
What about the businesses and many corporations who are also here today? Perhaps the best way to illustrate your role is another living example, the SG Enable. Two weeks back, I hosted a luncheon for the corporate partners to visit the old e2i, the current SG Enable in its raw form. Many would have thought that this was but a fundraising luncheon for me to appeal to the goodness of the heart of the corporation to come forth and do good. But what pleasantly surprised us was that the corporates who were there were not just interested to give us a million dollars or so to spruce up the place. Most importantly, they wanted their employees to come forth to join in this journey, to provide expertise – expertise that they have abundance and are good. They want their young executives to come forth and join the work so that they expose their young executives to the leadership opportunities in this sector. For that we are most thankful, more thankful than even the money that they want to give us to help build up that place. Because it is those relationships, those provisions of expertise that will make the SG Enable Village a sustainable venture going forward. Once we have the relationships, once we have the commitment, I need not worry about the money. Even if I have the money, but without those relationships, I will constantly worry whether we will have a successful venture going forth to serve the needs of the disabled community and the special needs community. Many of them have volunteered their junior executives to come forth and mentor social enterprises and so forth and this speaks well for our community. 
 
And now, I come to the community partners. Some of you are from the CDCs, some of you are from the grassroots. I’d just like to use the example of Lengkok Bahru and Bedok. In Lengkok Bahru, the south central FSC together with the social services have really applied themselves using what we call the ABCD model – Asset Based Capability Development model. They go round to identify the needs of the community and also the assets and capabilities in the community, to link them up, to find sustainable solutions, to develop the indigenous solutions that local layer over and above what the government does at the macro level. For that, we are able to weave together that integrated safety net, if I may use the word, not safety net, but safety mesh, to bring forth everybody. This is similarly happening in Bedok, where people are coming forth to work together in the local community with the social service professionals, with the FSCs, with the government agencies, to develop local solutions for themselves. And for that, we are thankful but we need to do much more. 
 
So if I may conclude, today’s seminar is a partners’ conference. It is the partnership that we want to catalyse to enable, to build, for our local communities. There’s much more that we need to do – given our challenges. There’s much more that we need to do better as a sector, as organisations and as individuals. But the key is – there’s much more that we need to do together as a community of support, not because for what we want to do, never. We want to do all these, not to satisfy our personal desires or aspirations, we want to do all these because we all in this room believe in a higher calling and a higher purpose - to serve the community and to care for our fellowmen who are less blessed or less fortunate amongst us. It is this calling, the higher calling to serve beyond ourselves that have united us here this morning. This is the first step towards our caring Singapore. Without your partnership, without your contributions, MSF would never be able to walk this journey alone. With your encouragement, with your partnership, with your ideas, with your energies, MSF will be confident, just as you will be confident that we can walk this journey together to serve those in need and to build a better, brighter and more caring Singapore. 
 
Thank you very much and I look forward to walking this journey with you.
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Published On Wed, May 21, 2014
Last Reviewed On Mon, Jun 20, 2016

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