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Joint Segment Speech by Mr Desmond Lee at the Committee of Supply 2019

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Desmond Lee

Topic(s): Committee of Supply

Mr Chairman,


1 Mr Chairman, my colleagues have described some of the further measures that we will take, to give our children a good start, uplift our workers, and support families living in rental housing.

2 I will update Members on our efforts to provide stronger and more integrated support for Singaporeans with complex challenges. These include

a. Enhancements to ComCare;

b. Setting up of Community Link or ComLink for families in rental flats; and

c. Localised Community Networks to support youth at-risk.

Strengthening Social Assistance for the Vulnerable − Increase in ComCare Assistance

3 ComCare is a key component of our social safety net. It complements the support provided by the family, community, and other Government assistance.

4 We regularly review our ComCare schemes at MSF − with inputs from our stakeholders.

5 ComCare Long-Term Assistance (LTA) supports those who are permanently unable to work due to old age, illness or disability, and have little or no income and family support. Most of our beneficiaries are elderly Singaporeans. And they receive

a. Monthly cash assistance for living expenses and household bills;

b. Assistance with their medical bills, medical consumables and one-off essentials; and

c. Access to government-funded social services such as Senior Activity Centres and befriending services, to stay engaged and connected.

6 Over the last 10 years, MSF has reviewed and adjusted these rates every 2 or 3 years. The last was in 2016. Minister Heng Swee Keat has announced that we have completed our latest review.

a. So from 1 July this year, we will increase the cash assistance that beneficiaries on ComCare Long-Term Assistance will receive to meet their basic living expenses.

b. For example, single-person households will receive $600 in cash assistance each month, an increase of $100. And larger households will receive higher amounts.

7 In addition to ComCare Long-Term cash assistance, the Government has enhanced wraparound support for seniors in recent years, so that our seniors can age with better assurance.

8 You will see a picture of Madam Jaya, here with Priya from SSO@Hougang and Moses from Fei Yue Cluster Support. Madam Jaya suffers from polio, and lives with her sister in an HDB studio apartment.

a. Since 2016, she has been receiving ComCare Long-Term Assistance. Sunlove Home Help delivers meals to her every day, as part of MOH's Meals-on-Wheels programme.

b. She receives cash supplements through the Silver Support Scheme.

c. And we assist her with her medical bills and medical consumables.

d. She further benefits from the Pioneer Generation Package, which provides additional help with her healthcare costs.

e. Mdm Jaya spends time at the Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre at Hougang every day.

f. Fei Yue Cluster Support officers also visit her every year to check on her well-being.

g. And we hope such wraparound support will help Madam Jaya and seniors like her, live and age well in their golden years.

9 Sir, apart from ComCare LTA, we provide ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term Assistance, or SMTA, to help families tide over difficult times and regain stability. For example, those whose breadwinners are temporarily unable to work, looking for jobs or earning a low income may receive temporary support through SMTA.

a. We have similarly reviewed ComCare SMTA to keep pace with living expenses and changes in expenditure patterns.

b. So from 1st July this year, new SMTA beneficiaries and those who have their assistance renewed should expect an increase in their cash assistance. Amounts will vary depending on their needs and financial circumstances.

10 These are part of our efforts to strengthen social assistance for the vulnerable, which Dr Lily Neo and Mr Seah Kian Peng have asked about.

More Integrated Support for Rental Families - Community Link

11 Beyond enhancing our social assistance schemes, we must continue to strengthen the ways in which families receive help. Families facing complex situations often require support beyond financial assistance. And it can be challenging for them to navigate the system and interface with multiple agencies and VWOs. To achieve better sustained outcomes, we are working to provide more Comprehensive, Convenient, and Coordinated assistance. And I will share more at MSF's COS.

12 I will move on to the second significant area of strengthened support, which concerns rental families. Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling had just earlier described some of MND's efforts to help families living in rental flats.

13 We will also do more to enhance support holistically for these families. And in particular, to work with a network of partners to help them and their children overcome early disadvantages and do better as they grow up.

a. In July last year, I sketched out plans to set up social service hubs at or near rental flats.

b. Dr Lily Neo and Mr Seah Kian Peng have asked about our plans. And over the past few months, we have been consulting our partners.

c. MSF, together with MND, will be launching Community Link, or ComLink for short, at or near rental flats to offer more integrated and coordinated support, and customised programmes and services for families living there.

i. ComLink will provide an accessible focal point in each community.

ii. The SSO and officers from other social services will work together and proactively support those in need.iii. Community partners can also come together to assist these families more holistically through the ComLink. For example, we may bring in parenting workshops and night-time student care or childcare, if such needs are identified in the community.iv. Most importantly, ComLink will develop a sense of community and mutual help, with neighbours supporting one another in their journeys.

14 We will start with four sites - Jalan Kukoh, Marsiling, Kembangan-Chai Chee and Boon Lay - over the next two years. We chose these sites because of their profile of rental families with children. ComLink is expected to benefit around 1,000 families in these estates.

a. At each of these sites, dedicated spaces will be available for community partners to run programmes catering to the needs of the families. This is a photo of one of the programmes provided at the existing space in Jalan Kukoh, which we are using.

b. ComLink will provide proactive, collaborative and community-driven support to these families. The SSOs have brought community partners like the grassroots, government agencies on the ground, and VWOs together in local implementation workgroups to better understand each community's specific needs.

c. These implementation workgroups will be engaging the families and the local community to better understand their aspirations and needs. We want to design programmes and services alongside them. And we look forward to working with partners to serve the community.

More Integrated Support for Children and Youths with Complex Family Circumstances or At-Risk Behaviours - Localised Community Network Pilot

15 Apart from families living in rental housing, we also look into the needs of children and young people who may be derailed because of family issues, such as financial difficulties or family conflict. Their parents may also be absent or unable to care for them. These are stressful situations that can affect the children, including their level of motivation and learning in school, which Minister Indranee has been looking into under UPLIFT.

16 Without proactive early support and intervention, some of these students may underperform or start to skip school. And yet, these are young people with potential and promise; and we want to ensure that they have the best chances in life.

17 Today, there are many organisations doing good work on the ground, but there is room for us to do more and work closer together.

a. We will therefore embark on a Localised Community Network pilot, to see how we can better support these young people.

b. We want to intervene more proactively upstream, and partner the community and grassroots more closely to support youths with complex family circumstances.

c. This is part of the work of NCPR, the National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism, formed by Minister Josephine Teo and myself last year, to develop and implement a coordinated and integrated approach to prevent offending and re-offending, and strengthen rehabilitation, including for children and young people.

d. For this pilot, we will work with schools and the MOE UPLIFT Programme Office or UPO which Minister Indranee announced earlier, to identify these children and youths early, and provide timely social service support and intervention. By facilitating fuller data sharing between the relevant government agencies, we hope to gain a better understanding of the challenges they face at home, in school or elsewhere. And in doing so, we hope to help them resolve, or cope with the issues they are facing.

e. The pilot also complements UPLIFT's efforts to support students who exhibit long-term absenteeism or emerging attendance issues, arising from challenging family circumstances.

i. For these students, we will strengthen and coordinate support, by bringing together relevant Government agencies, schools, VWOs, community organisations and volunteers to help their families holistically, so that family members receive support in relevant areas and do not have to approach multiple agencies on their own.

18 We will pilot this Localised Community Network model at Boon Lay and the broader Jurong West, starting this July. This is also one of the four sites for ComLink, thus allowing families involved in the pilot to also be supported under ComLink, if they live in rental houses.

19 ComLink and the Localised Community Network pilot are part of our efforts to strengthen the way in which families receive help and strengthen the overall social service network.

a. The Government will continue to invest in, and strengthen our system of social support.

b. But with the needs of families becoming more complex, it is encouraging to see more community organisations and volunteers joining us in our efforts to uplift families. To ensure that such goodwill and resources translate into a more impactful and sustainable improvement, we must work together to organise and integrate our community efforts better.

Response to the Public Discourse on Inequality

20 Mr Chairman, over the past year, public consciousness about the challenges of income inequality and social mobility has been raised through a series of thoughtful books, articles, forums, and programmes. These include

a. Channel News Asia's documentary, titled "Regardless of Class", narrated by Dr Janil Puthucheary;

b. Books by academics, such as Associate Professor Teo You Yenn's "This is What Inequality Looks Like", and the volume edited by Professor David Chan on "How Working Together Matters";

c. The dialogue with Professor Tommy Koh and DPM Tharman at last year's Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Conference, and subsequent dialogues involving Professor Koh and Mr Lim Boon Heng on minimum wage;

d. Op-eds by practitioners, policymakers and academics such as Dr Sudha Nair, SMS Maliki Osman, Associate Professor Walter Theseira, - to name a few, and forum letters by members of the public.

21 Mr Mohamed Irshad asked for the Government's views on the positions taken in Prof Chan's and Prof Teo's books, and I presume by extension, the views on inequality articulated by other academics and commentators in the media.

22 This isn't quite the right platform for a full exposition and assessment of the broad range of issues raised. The Government has in fact set out its views and approach on inequality and social mobility earlier. In particular, in PM's parliamentary reply, DPM Tharman's interview with the Straits Times, and MSF's Occasional Paper entitled "Improving the Lives of Low-Income and Vulnerable Families in Singapore".

23 So let me make a few broad points to close this joint segment

24 First, we welcome the diversity of views and ideas on inequality and social mobility.

a. It gives us the opportunity to see fresh perspectives, step back and challenge our own assumptions, so that we can continue to make our system better.

b. And it focuses us on how each of us can play our part to help uplift Singaporeans in need.

25 Second, we are encouraged that many more people are volunteering and giving generously. More companies are asking how their giving can be made more impactful. We can achieve greater impact if we better harness our collective resources and complement each other's efforts.

26 Third, there are many causes of inequality, not just a single cause

a. From differences at birth in people's abilities; to differences in resources that parents can invest in their children.

b. From differences in educational outcomes; to the way technology and market forces shape wages of different groups of Singaporeans.

c. From the difficulties and derailers that life's circumstances present, to issues of individual motivation and mindset.

d. From lack of awareness about help schemes and support services, to challenges in navigating the system and accessing these opportunities and schemes.

27 Because there are multiple causes, our solutions must be multi-faceted. We must tackle inequality practically, rather than ideologically.

a. So, where inequality is caused by differences in how much resources families can invest in their children - we put in significant investments to narrow the gap and give children from lower-income households a good start in life. For example, through preschool.

b. Where there is structural income inequality, we put in place structural measures to mitigate this. For example, Progressive Wage Model (PWM) in specific sectors, the Workfare Income Supplement which has just been enhanced, Silver Support Scheme and permanent GST Vouchers and transfers.

c. Where mindset and motivation is an issue, our social workers seek to counsel, nudge, and inspire.

d. Where life circumstances derail and anchor people down, we try to intervene where possible upstream, to help to solve these difficulties and challenges in their way.

e. And where complex and interlocking problems consume a family's attention and ability to access opportunities, or respond positively to social interventions, we find ways to strengthen and integrate our social support for them.

28 Fourth, we are committed to tackling the "unfinished business" of inequality, to borrow the words from my colleague, Minister Ong Ye Kung.

29 We will keep studying fresh ideas and approaches, both here and abroad. We do not assume we have all the answers. We don't. We will try out pilots; experiment and partner community groups working hard on the ground. This is what committees and working groups set up by the Government, like UPLIFT, M3 and others seek to do - to examine issues closely, to identify gaps and close them, and work with our community partners to identify workable solutions we can implement on the ground.

30 No system or solution is perfect. And few if any policies come without trade-offs or unintended consequences. When new ideas or philosophies are offered, we need to see how they have worked in other societies and carefully consider the fuller implications and trade-offs, so that good intentions do not lead to counter-productive results.


31 Mr Chairman, the important work of building a society of opportunities for all extends well beyond our four ministries, to the whole of society and to all Singaporeans. In fact, if you listen throughout COS, you will find that in many ministries, there will be schemes and programmes, thoughts and ideas that we will implement, that will address the issue of inequality and social mobility.

a. None of us got to where we are today on our own efforts alone. Along the way, we were offered opportunities, second chances or a helping hand. Similarly, we should pay it forward.

b. Our society is stronger and more resilient when all Singaporeans come together - when we look out not only for ourselves, but for our families, neighbours, and fellow Singaporeans in need.

c. And as we do this, we ensure that all Singaporeans have the chance to pursue their dreams, regardless of their background and starting points.

32 This is the society of opportunities that we aspire towards.

33 Thank you.