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Forward Singapore: Opening Remarks by MOS Sun Xueling on 15 Nov 2022

Type: Official Speeches: Sun Xueling

Topic(s): Social Service Agencies & Partners, Social Service Professionals


1. Good afternoon friends from our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).

2. In case you are looking around the room and saying there are many other young people you do not quite know, I guess you can use the opportunity to make friends as well. Just to acknowledge the different institutions who are here with us today, we’ve got Eunoia Junior College, Hwa Chong Institution, Jurong-Pioneer Junior College, St Joseph’s Institution, ITE, Nanyang Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic, and also representatives from NUS, NTU as well as SUSS. So we have students from a very wide mix of institutions and we are very delighted to organise this and it’s hosted by Singapore Polytechnic, because we want to discuss some very important issues with you, and we do want to hear your inputs.

3. I think we all know that there are many challenges, changes all around us today. When we switch on the news at any time, we read about geopolitical tensions, we read about the digital revolution and how it’s upending industries. We also worry about a rapidly ageing population that we have here in Singapore. These are just the challenges we can see on our horizons, and there may be other unknowns that we don’t know about that, but you are the builders of tomorrow for Singapore and the government want to work with you to discuss how we can navigate the way forward in the face of these challenges that we see, and perhaps these unknown unknowns that may pop up and will need our collective resolve.

4. What has worked well for us in the past, may not continue to work well for us in the future. We need to discuss and decide what are the policies or objectives in order to continue to achieve what needs perhaps to be tweaked, what needs perhaps to be changed or perhaps what needs to be overhauled. Let us not leave any stone unturned. And I think we can have a very honest conversation with each other today.

5. So, we will need to review and refresh our strategies, including our shared understanding of each and every one of our roles and responsibilities, this is for us as in individuals, us as family members, us as community members, and also what can the Government and corporates do? The roles that each of us play vis-a-vis each other, the responsibilities that we have towards one another, all that comes together to form a social compact under the Forward SG exercise was launched several months ago to decide and discuss what should be that social compact moving forward for all of us. And this shared understanding through this process hopefully will form a new social compact that we can all feel ownership towards and that we will all strive and put our best foot forward to create a Singapore that we can all live happy, meaningful lives and have confidence in.

6. We have had conversations with many Singaporeans to understand their aspirations and concerns.

a. Today we want to work with you to hear from all of you on how we can refresh meritocracy and strengthen social mobility.

b. This particular topic is parked under the Care Pillar in the Forward Singapore exercise. At the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), we are focused on working together with individuals, families, and the community to support families with complex challenges, and to give opportunities to lower-income children and families for a better tomorrow.

c. But we should not just think about social mobility as something that only lower-income families think about. Because I think for each and every one of us, we are striving for a better life, for ourselves and for our families. Social mobility is important to all of us. I think we want to know that we are all on a moving escalator moving forward together.

d. So the question for us today is, how do you think we can enable every Singaporean and every Singaporean child to lead a dignified and fulfilling life here in Singapore, not only to better care for themselves, but also for others around them?

7. To get the ball rolling, I would like to some preliminary thoughts on refreshing meritocracy and strengthening social mobility.

State of meritocracy and social mobility today

8. Singapore has organised itself as a meritocratic society. What does that mean? A meritocratic society is one that rewards individuals based on their efforts and talents rather than their connections and wealth. The Singapore story, which has always been about enabling every citizen to develop their potential to the fullest and experience progress, complements this.

9. Organising ourselves as a meritocratic society, coupled with factors like our market-oriented economy and prudent government spending, has contributed to Singapore achieving significant progress. Our little red dot has performed well, compared to many other advanced economies on a wide range of indicators – education, housing healthcare, social mobility. But I think all of us would always want to ask ourselves, how can we continue to do better?

10. What issues do we continue to see?

a. For instance, lower-income families also want to give their children the best, but many face complex and interlocking challenges.

b. Let me give you an example. Imagine that there is a lower-income family with young children. Perhaps the parents, the adults in this family have health conditions that do not allow them to work continuously. Their income may not be consistent. They may face many other challenges, there may be family violence disputes at home and so on and so forth. And this leads to their children not having quite the same starting points as other children. Perhaps they do not get as much care and concern from their family members as other children do, because perhaps their family members do not have the same amount of time or resources to provide for these children.

c. So even with specific financial support, these families may find still find it difficult to achieve longer-term stability.

d. And as other families comparatively do better and better, it becomes harder and harder for these lower-income families to catch up.

11. So the issue of social inequality exists in our society and it must be addressed. And we must at the same time continue to reward hard work and allow Singaporeans to enjoy the fruits of their labour. So we cannot simply just use a one-size-fits-all solution, say to increase taxes on those who have succeeded for redistribution. So what can we do?

Refreshing meritocracy and strengthening social mobility

12. One way to address the issue is to push forward with our ongoing efforts to provide Comprehensive, Convenient, and Coordinated (3‘C’) support.

a. MSF has been proactively reaching out to vulnerable families through ComLink. This is our flagship initiative to support families to achieve Stability, Self-reliance, and Social mobility.

b. We do proactive outreach to understand the needs of these families

c. Where required, there are multiple lines of financial assistance to these families. But what is very important is to first understand their needs. What are those interlocking challenges that present themselves to these families? Perhaps what might be needed also is a friend to journey with these families. So we may be looking to, for example, partner befrienders with them so that they can journey with these families.

d. SMEs and community partners may also be brought in to design, collaborate, understand and customise policies, programmes and services that are customised to meet the needs of these families.

13. Another less tangible but very crucial way is for us to shift societal attitudes and mindsets. What do I mean by this? Today, I believe many of us here in this room may feel that the definition of success in Singapore is too narrow. This is something that many of you may perhaps view as you go about thinking about your educational pathways, as you think about what careers you would like to embark on.

a. Certain jobs are valued more than others although all jobs are important and have a role in our society and economy.

b. Some jobs are paid many times higher than others and the discrepancy is starker in Singapore than in other economies.

14. When we talk about refreshing meritocracy, we should be cognisant of how to broaden the definition of success so that we can become a nation that values and appreciates the contributions of every individual and every worker across all professions. Some hard questions we need to consider.

a. Are we prepared to pay more for services in the heart and hand industries where workers tend to earn disproportionately lower wages?

b. Some concrete steps we could take to broaden the definition of success also include providing greater flexibility in educational pathways and giving individuals multiple continuous opportunities to progress, such as through training, throughout life.

c. But we will need to partner parents, employers, corporates in this process. Because employers need to invest in training, and parents probably also need to update mindsets about jobs, skills and academic qualifications.

15. Beyond broadening the definition of success, another key societal mindset shift should be to nurture a strong sense of responsibility amongst our people, such that those who have succeeded and have the capacity are willing to contribute, to give back and uplift their fellow Singaporeans.

a. One possible unintended consequence of our meritocracy today is that those who have succeeded under the system may develop a sense of entitlement. This is something that we can discuss later.

b. What do I mean by that? “Winners”, through our meritocratic system, may feel that their success is fully earned through their capabilities and hard work, and therefore, the “losers” in this process may not deserve help because they landed themselves in those circumstances because they did not work hard. Do we see that there are individuals around us who feel that way?

c. Such misconceptions could not be further from the truth because there are so many factors that lead to one’s success or failure. Indeed, working hard is important but like the example that I shared with you earlier, some barriers individuals or families face cannot be overcome by hard work alone.

d. Even though they may try very hard, there may be all sorts of challenges that come their way. All sorts of unlucky things can happen to them at the most critical points in their lives. And they may fail because all these extraneous factors that may not have anything to do with their hard work, or lack of hard work.

e. Thus, we must guard against the breeding of a sense of entitlement, and instead grow a culture of collective responsibility.

Working together to refresh meritocracy and strengthen social mobility

16. I have provided a brief overview of the state of meritocracy and social mobility in Singapore today and my colleague will be going through some slides. He will be presenting some statistics to you. And the reason for that is because we want to provide you with the context so that subsequently when you have a discussion, when you provide feedback, it is grounded on perhaps some of the statistics and facts we have presented. But what we are most interested in finding out are your views, your lived experiences, you being a student in Singapore, what are your experiences growing up in Singapore? Do you find that the system is a meritocratic and fair one? Are there fair opportunities provided to everyone? Or if you see other students, younger children around you, and you know that they come from less-than-ideal home situations, what can you do to help them? What can we do as a community to provide more opportunities to those who unfortunately started out with less?

17. Hope that we will have an exciting and meaningful discussion later. Thank you.