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Speech by Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim at the Committee of Supply 2020

Chairman,

1   I thank the members for their valuable suggestions and continued support of my ministry’s work. I would like to start with a few words in Malay.

PERMULAAN BAIK BAGI SETIAP KANAK-KANAK

Memudahkan Akses kepada Prasekolah yang Bermutu dan Dimampui

2   Peribahasa Melayu “melentur buluh biarlah dari rebungnya” memberi gambaran akan pentingya untuk mendidik anak-anak ketika mereka kecil. Pendidikan awal kanak-kanak yang bemutu dapat memberi mereka asas pembangunan yang kukuh untuk berjaya dalam hidup. Pemerintah komited untuk memastikan setiap kanak-kanak mempunyai permulaan kehidupan yang baik tanpa mengira latar belakang mereka. Kami telah melaksanakan pelbagai usaha untuk membolehkan lebih ramai keluarga memasukkan anak-anak mereka ke prasekolah yang bermutu dan dimampui.

3   Kini lebih ramai keluarga Melayu Islam yang mendaftarkan anak-anak mereka di prasekolah. Pendaftaran bagi kohort kanak-kanak Melayu Islam berumur 5 hingga 6 tahun di prasekolah setanding dengan kadar pendaftaran prasekolah bagi kohort kanak-kanak 5 hingga 6 tahun kesuluruhannya. Ini satu tren yang menggalakkan.
Saya harap lebih ramai lagi ibu bapa Melayu Islam akan mendaftarkan anak-anak mereka di prasekolah.

Sokongan untuk Kanak-Kanak dari Keluarga Berpendapatan Rendah

4  Dengan pelbagai usaha pemerintah untuk meluaskan akses kepada prasekolah yang bermutu dan dimampui, kos tidak seharusnya menjadi halangan buat kanak-kanak dari keluarga berpendapatan rendah untuk menerima pendidikan awal kanak-kanak yang bermutu.

5   Untuk lebih membantu keluarga yang berpendapatan rendah, kami  akan menyelaraskan sokongan subsidi di bawah Kelulusan Khas untuk kanak-kanak dari keluarga yang tinggal di rumah sewa awam atau  menerima bantuan ComCare Jangka Pendek-hingga-Pertengahan atau ComCare Jangka Panjang. Mulai Ogos 2020, keluarga-keluarga ini akan layak  menerima subsidi prasekolah yang maksimum secara automatik sehingga tiba waktu penilaian subsidi yang selanjutnya, tanpa mengira status pekerjaan ibu. Ini memandangkan mereka telah pun melalui penilaian kelayakan bagi skim-skim tersebut. Bagi pendaftaran yang baru dari keluarga-keluarga ini, kami juga akan mempercepatkan proses kelulusan Geran Langkah Permulaan. Geran ini membantu mengurangkan kos permulaan prasekolah seperti kos pakaian seragam dan wang pendahuluan.

6   Kami akan meluaskan sokongan huluan untuk kanak-kanak dari keluarga berpendapatan rendah sebelum mereka memasuki prasekolah melalui program KidSTART. Kami telah menerima maklumbalas positif mengenai program perintis KidSTART. Justeru itu, kami akan mengembangkan KidSTART kepada seramai 5,000 lagi kanak-kanak pada tiga tahun akan datang. Kami juga akan menaikkan kriteria kelayakan pendapatan KidSTART dari pendapatan isi rumah bulanan berjumlah $1,900 kepada $2,500 mulai April tahun ini supaya lebih banyak keluarga dapat memanfaatkannya.

Kerjasama dengan M Kuasa Tiga untuk menyokong pendaftaran prasekolah dan pembangunan awal kanak-kanak

7   Kementerian saya bekerjasama dengan pelbagai agensi dan rakan masyarakat untuk memberi permulaan yang baik untuk kanak-kanak. Satu contoh adalah kerjasama kami dengan agensi M Kuasa Tiga. Di bawah Bidang Tumpuan Satu M Kuasa Tiga demi menyokong perkahwinan, keibubapaan dan pembangunan awal kanak-kanak, kami bekerjasama dengan MENDAKI dalam melaksanakan Program Pendekatan Prasekolah. Selain  meningkatkan kesedaran tentang pentingnya prasekolah, program ini juga membantu keluarga Melayu/Islam dalam pendaftaran prasekolah. Saya gembira untuk berkongsi bahawadua pertiga kanak kanak yang dibantu MENDAKI untuk pendaftaran prasekolah kini menghadiri prasekolah secara tetap. Tahun lalu, MENDAKI dan rakan kongsi M Kuasa Tiga juga melancarkan program KelasMatematika di CC bagi ibu bapa Melayu/Islam mempelajari teknik menyokong anak-anak mereka yang berumur empat hingga enam tahun membina kemahiran Matematik.

Penutup

8   Pengerusi, saya telah berkongsi tentang usaha kami dan rakan-rakan masyarakat demi memberi permulaan hidup yang baik untuk semua kanak-kanak. Tanggungjawab membentuk dan mendidik anak adalah tugas bersama seluruh masyarakat. Kita lebih kukuh jika kita saling membantu dan bersatu padu, bagaikan aur dengan tebing. Ayuh! Marilah bersama kami demi menjana masa depan yang lebih baik untuk kita dan generasi masa hadapan.

9   Chairman, in English.

GIVING EVERY CHILD A GOOD START

10   Quality early childhood development helps our children build strong foundations for life.

11   The Government is committed to giving every child a good start in life, regardless of their background.

Improving Access to Affordable Quality Preschools for All

12   At the National Day Rally last year, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will continue to make quality preschools more affordable and accessible.

a. Since 2012, we have doubled the number of full-day preschool places to 180,000 today. This will increase to over 200,000 by 2023.

b. Today, 50% of all preschool places are provided by government-supported preschools. We aim to increase this to 80% by 2025.

c. Over the medium term, we aim to lower fee caps at government-supported preschools so that working families with a child in full-day childcare will pay around $300 per month. This is the equivalent of primary school fees plus after-school student care fees. After means-tested subsidies, families will pay less.

13   Let me explain how we will get there.

Enhanced Additional Subsidies

14   First, we have enhanced preschool subsidies. From January this year, we have raised the monthly household income ceiling for the Additional Subsidy from $7,500 to $12,000, and increased subsidies across all eligible tiers.

Extension of Partner Operator Scheme

15   Second, we will be extending the Partner Operator (or POP) scheme for another five-year term from 2021 to 2025 and lowering the fee caps. We aim to appoint more POP childcare centres in the new term.

a. They will have to meet lower monthly fee caps of $760 for full-day childcare, compared to $800 today. With this, we expect industry median fees to go down. Fee caps for infant care will also be lowered.

Other Support Schemes for the Sector

16   Mr Darryl David asked how the Government intends to enhance support for preschool operators.

17   Besides expanding the POP scheme to support more quality preschool operators, ECDA and IMDA will launch an Industry Digital Plan for the early childhood sector later this year to provide broad-based support to help preschools adopt digital solutions.

18   In addition, I am glad to announce that ECDA will extend and enhance the Support Schemes to help eligible non-government supported preschool operators defray various expenses.

a. First, the “Kindergarten Conversion Grant”, “Enhanced Workplace Childcare Centre Scheme” and “Enhanced Social Service Agency Development Grant” help qualifying preschool operators defray start-up costs of infrastructure development, and furniture as well as equipment. Moving forward, ECDA will enhance the funding amounts and streamline the three schemes into a single Infrastructure Support Grant.

b. Secondly, the Community/Sports Facilities Scheme (CSFS) incentivises building developers to set aside spaces for new childcare centres. Moving forward, centres under the scheme may also qualify for support to defray their start-up infrastructure and furniture and equipment costs.

c. We will also increase the funding amounts for the Portable Rental Subsidy and the Teaching and Learning Resource grants which help preschools defray rental costs and support their quality improvements.    

Developing a Sustainable Early Childhood Workforce

19   Our educators are at the heart of quality preschools. Several efforts have been put in place over the past five years to attract more local educators and raise the quality of early childhood educators.

20   These efforts help to raise the resilience of our early childhood workforce. Mr Ang Hin Kee asked about the impact of staff on Leave of Absence due to COVID-19 on preschools. I would like to assure Mr Ang that educators certified to teach Chinese Language who were issued Leave of Absence or Quarantine Orders formed less than 6% of early childhood educators certified to teach Chinese Language.

21   We will continue to grow the pool of local Chinese Language Teachers, as part of our overarching strategy to make early childhood teaching a career choice. Today, locals can pursue the Early Childhood Chinese Language teaching track at NIEC at highly subsidised rates. Next month, NIEC will launch a new Professional Conversion Programme allowing mid-career entrants to complete the course in half the time.

22   We are also doing more to raise the standing of the profession. I am pleased to announce that we will make it mandatory for all preschools to close on Teachers’ Day from this year onwards. So from this year onwards, it will be mandatory to close and teachers can have a good holiday. This move further signals our recognition and appreciation for our educators.

Support for Children with Developmental Needs

23   While we work to enhance the affordability, accessibility and quality of preschools for all children, we recognise that certain groups of children need additional targeted support. Mr Desmond Choo spoke about children with developmental needs. We agree with him and are doing more to support this group.

24   The Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) provides young children at risk of moderate to severe developmental delays with early intervention (or EI) support. The intensity of subsidised intervention is tailored to the child’s needs and is comparable to other developed countries. EI centres also provide caregiving training to family members so that they have the skills to ensure that intervention can continue for the child beyond the centre for more sustained outcomes.

25   Beyond EI centres, many preschools strive to adopt a more inclusive approach and enrol children with varying needs. To support inclusion within preschools, the Government has introduced various EI programmes at preschools. Currently, about 550 preschools, offer the Learning Support (or LS) and Development Support (or DS) programmes for children with learning and mild development needs respectively. Preschools that are DS-LS providers receive government funding to train their Learning Support Educators and procure therapy services. The new DS-Plus programme allows children who have made sufficient progress under EIPIC to receive intervention within the preschool setting instead. Early childhood educators are also taught the basics of identifying and working with children with developmental needs during pre-service training. 

26   The cross-sectoral Inclusive Preschool Workgroup which Minister Desmond and MOS Sam referred to, and I co-chair with Assoc Prof Kenneth Poon. We are studying how to better support children with moderate and severe developmental needs in preschools, including the need to enhance preschool teacher training and the role of programmes such as EIPIC and the Enhanced Pilot for Private Intervention Providers (PPIP). We are more than halfway through our work and will share our recommendations by the end of this year.

Support for Children from Low-income Families

27   Besides children with developmental needs, children from low-income families is another group for whom we are providing additional targeted support. We have the Preschool Outreach Programme to reach out to low-income families to encourage them to enrol their children in preschool. We will also be doing more in three key ways.

Strengthening Subsidy Support for Low-income Families

28   First, we will ensure that preschool fees is not a barrier. Our recently enhanced subsidies will enable more low-income families to pay $3 per month at Anchor Operator (or AOP) childcare centres, or $1 at AOP or MOE kindergartens. We also made applying for subsidies easier.

29   Mr Darryl David asked about support for non-working mothers. Last year, we enhanced support for non-working mothers under Special Approval. Under the scheme, mothers who are not working for reasons such as taking care of a younger child, studying, undergoing pregnancy, or medically unfit to work, can receive the same subsidies as working mothers. Mothers who are looking for work can also qualify for Special Approval as a transitory measure.

30   Mr Seah Kian Peng also asked if we can do more for non-working mothers from low-income families. I am glad to announce that with effect from August 2020, we will streamline subsidy support under Special Approval for all children from low-income families living in public rental flats, or receiving ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term or Long-Term Assistance.

a. As these families have already been means-tested, we will automatically qualify them for maximum preschool subsidies under Special Approval. Families will not have to submit additional documents when they apply for Special Approval. The subsidies will also remain unchanged until the next fixed point of assessment, as opposed to the current process where they may have to reapply for support every few months.

b. For new enrolments from these families, we will also facilitate Start-Up Grants, which defray the initial costs of enrolment such as uniforms and deposit.

c. Allow me to illustrate how this supports families. Consider Lisa, who lives in a public rental flat. Her husband is the sole breadwinner and they have a son, Caden, who recently turned two and enrolled at an AOP preschool. As Lisa is looking for a job, ECDA provided her with working mother subsidies for six months under Special Approval, and she only pays $3 per month for childcare. Previously, Lisa would have to reapply for subsidies once her Special Approval expires in six months. With our enhanced subsidy process, Lisa will receive maximum subsidies and continue to pay $3 per month until Caden completes Nursery Two. With this, Lisa can have a peace of mind while she seeks employment. She will not have to worry about her subsidy support expiring.

d. Mr Chairman, this also demonstrates the Government’s efforts to better coordinate the delivery of social services, by linking assistance schemes across preschool, housing and social domains for families.

Preschool Opportunity Fund

31   Second, we want to ensure that children from low-income families can access developmental opportunities at their preschools. These activities, such as field excursions, may incur some costs to families. All AOPs are required to set aside funds to help low-income children access such opportunities. For all other preschools, I am pleased to announce that ECDA will extend the Preschool Opportunity Fund (PSOF).

a. The PSOF provides funding support for children from low-income families to participate in these developmental activities.

b. The number of children who had benefitted from Preschool Opportunity Fund has increased from about 900 in 2014 to 2,400 in 2019. Over the next three years, we expect this to go up to about 2,700 children per year.

Expanding KidSTART and Strengthening Partnerships

32   Third, as Minister Desmond shared, we will extend more upstream support to children from low-income families, even before they enrol in preschool, through KidSTART.
 
33   We have received positive feedback. Parents felt more confident in parenting. Health and development issues were detected earlier, and younger children on KidSTART enrolled earlier in preschool.

34   This is why we are expanding KidSTART to another 5,000 children over the next three years. We will first expand to the Woodlands and Bedok regions this year, which have ComLink sites. From April onwards, we will also raise the household income ceiling from $1,900 to $2,500 to benefit more children.

35   As the Government increases support for children from low-income families, we have also received active interest from many community and corporate partners wanting to do their part. This was why my ministry launched the ‘Growing Together with KidSTART’ initiative together with ComChest last September. This will enable us to deepen partnerships with interested parties to provide support in a more impactful, meaningful and sustainable manner.

36   Dr Tan Wu Meng and Ms Rahayu Mahzam asked for an update on the partnerships that we have forged thus far. Allow me to share some examples.

a. Since we launched the ‘Growing Together with KidSTART’ initiative last September, we have received over $800,000 in donations. This includes a sum of $600,000 which the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore (REDAS) had collectively raised from its members.  Singaporeans such as Ms Joanne Lim, Founder of the Right PerspectiveSG, have also stepped forward to raise funds for KidSTART with the launch of her children’s book.

b. Last year, Kimberly-Clark Corporation sponsored about 12,000 diapers for 420 KidSTART families. Over the next three years, they have pledged another 100,000 diapers for families on KidSTART.

c. Besides donations, we currently have about 250 volunteers from all walks of life. They partner our officers in running activities for KidSTART families.

d. One example is Mr Simon Loh, who is the Risk Management Director and the Chairperson of SP Heart Workers, H-E-A-R-T workers, which is Singapore Power’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee. Beyond stepping forward to volunteer when he heard about KidSTART, Simon also mobilised 30 Heart Workers to volunteer weekly at our KidSTART group sessions over four months. Besides assisting with programme delivery, they provided some very helpful suggestions to improve our activities which we took in.

e. We appreciate the strong commitment by all our partners, and welcome more to join us.

More Accessible and Affordable Student Care Services

37   When children enter primary school, we recognise that some parents may require after-school care. Mr Ang Hin Kee spoke about enhancing the accessibility, affordability and quality of student care centres, or SCCs in short.

38   Overall, fees for registered SCCs, including those in the community, have remained stable. The current median fee is $295 per month, close to the median of $290 per month in 2015. So it has been quite stable. For school-based SCCs, MOE puts in place measures to keep fees affordable. Operators are selected via a competitive procurement process, where they are required to state any proposed fee increases throughout their six-year contract upfront. This is taken into account as part of the bidding evaluation criteria. Contract specifications also limit the types of fees that operators can charge.

39   We want to ensure that student care remains affordable, especially for lower-income families. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that we will increase the amount of subsidies under the Student Care Fee Assistance (SCFA) scheme from 1 July 2020. Eligible families will receive up to $60 more subsidies each month. To benefit more families, we will also raise the income criteria from $4,000 to $4,500, and the per capita income from $1,000 to $1,125. Around 9,000 students will benefit from these enhancements this year.

40   Currently, SCCs registered with MSF provide sufficient capacity to meet public demand. Moving forward, we want to make sure that we regulate the sector in a manner that is conducive. And we feel that needing to regulate the sector more tightly will have to be weighed against the increased costs and manpower requirements, on the part of both Government and SCC operators, of doing so. Nevertheless, we have the framework in place. We will continue to monitor the student care landscape and review the requirements for SCCs as needed, to ensure that they remain relevant and appropriate.

STRENGTHENING SUPPORT FOR THE VULNERABLE

41   As MPs, we might have encountered families with children who have been abused or neglected. They need strong intervention to ensure they have the best shot in life. This is why Parliament had passed amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act (or CYPA) last year.

Enhanced Care and Protection Order

42   Mr Melvin Yong had asked for an update on the implementation efforts. I am pleased to announce that from second quarter this year, the Court will be able to grant Enhanced Care and Protection Orders, or ECPOs in short, so that all children facing abuse and neglect can benefit from enhanced protection.

a. With an ECPO, MSF and designated caregivers can make day-to-day and more substantive decisions for a child whose family struggles to provide a safe environment.

b. An ECPO will minimise disruption to the child, as it can last till the child turns 21 years old.

Extension of Childcare Leave Benefits to Foster Parents

43   We had earlier announced that childcare leave benefits will be extended to foster parents. Today, I am pleased to share that from second quarter this year, these benefits will be available to 530 foster families. Foster parents will be able to use the leave when they, for example, bring foster children under their care to visit a doctor.

Ensuring Digital Rights for Children

44   We hear Prof Lim Sun Sun’s concerns about the need to safeguard the digital rights of children. There are various legislative, regulatory and public education measures in place. For example, new offences related to the distribution and advertising of child abuse material were introduced through the Criminal Law Reform Act. Another example is the Personal Data Protection Act which all organisations must comply with when they collect, use or disclose personal data, including that of children.

45   We will not be able to completely insulate our children from online dangers. It is therefore important that children learn to use the internet safely and responsibly, such as through Cyber Wellness programmes in schools. Parents also play a role in keeping their children safe.

Raising Awareness on Domestic Violence

46   Assoc. Prof. Walter Theseira asked if the Break the Silence campaign could be more inclusive. We recognise that it is not easy for persons facing violence to seek help. Their concerns are varied, such as whether it would lead to the arrest of the perpetrator who might be a loved one, stigma or fear about being judged.

47   The Government’s stance is very clear. Violence against any person – LGBTQ or not – should not be condoned. We are very clear about it. The Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act protects all victims from domestic violence, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identities or marital status.

48   As a policy, social services must be accessible to all, without discrimination. For example, our Family Violence Specialist Centres have supported LGBTQ persons who faced violence after “coming out” to their families. In fact, I have spoken to a few of them and, in fact, it is heartening to note that they recognise and even when they engage the social work community, increasingly, they talk about it and see how they can look at the needs of everyone, including the LGBT community, friends and families in Singapore.

49   The Singapore Association for Social Workers has a Code of Professional Ethics, which is covered and reinforced throughout a social worker’s training and practice. This code binds social workers to strive towards a culturally sensitive practice that acknowledges all diversity, including sexual orientations and gender identities.

50   We will continue our efforts to be inclusive and make social services available to all persons who require them. For example:

a. MSF is exploring the setting up of a one-stop dedicated national hotline to make it even easier for victims to seek help, regardless of the type of abuse or violence they face.

b. A new inter-agency taskforce, which I co-chair with SPS Xueling, will address domestic violence, regardless of family and social forms.

51   At the same time, we continue to encourage social service agencies and social workers to deepen their capability to support all victims with empathy and sensitivity.

CLOSING

52   Chairman, my colleagues and I at MSF will continue to work hard to build a society of opportunities for all Singaporeans, at every stage of their life.

a. We will continue to transform our social safety net.
b. We will enable Singaporeans of all abilities to participate fully in our society.
c. We will give every Singaporean a good start in life.

53   We cannot do this alone and must continue to partner Singaporeans in this national journey. Together, we are stronger than the sum of our individual parts.

54   On that note, I thank your chairman and all members to make life better for all Singaporeans.

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