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Opening Speech by Mr Desmond Lee at the Committee of Supply 2019

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

Topic(s): Committee of Supply


1 I thank members for their thoughtful speeches yesterday evening.

2 We will focus on three priority areas:

a. First, building a strong social compact, by strengthening family and community bonds and our collective resilience.

b. Second, building a more inclusive society, to enable people of all abilities to achieve their fullest potential. My colleague MOS Sam Tan will share more.

c. Third, giving our children a good start in life, through affordable, accessible and quality preschool. My colleague SPS Faishal Ibrahim will speak on this later.


3 Sir, our social compact has evolved over the years.

a. In the early days, there was a strong emphasis on self-reliance. Social assistance was minimal, and community support ground-up.

b. As our economy developed, we experienced uneven income growth. We then introduced targeted social policies to give more support to those with less, and placed stronger emphasis on collective responsibility and the need for many helping hands.

c. As we face more challenges - an ageing population, shrinking family sizes and economic disruption, individual and family efforts may sometimes not be enough.

d. And so, over the last decade, we have shifted the balance decisively, with the Government and community shouldering a heavier responsibility.

e. We now have

i. Broad-based transfers and subsidies that benefit the majority, as well as
ii. More targeted assistance for the low-income, vulnerable and those with specific needs.

f. We have

i. Put in place trampolines to help people bounce back, in the words of DPM Tharman, and

ii. Social safety nets for those who cannot care for themselves, with little or no family support.

4 But even as our broad-based policies and our targeted, means-tested support continue to uplift many low-income families, we need to do more to better support families who are bogged down by complex and often interlocking challenges.

a. For such families, the consuming nature of their difficulties - addiction, incarceration, family violence, illness, divorce, mental health challenges, and so on, and often a combination of a number of the aforementioned- may make it difficult for them to access available opportunities, benefit from schemes and programmes, or respond effectively to help offered to them.

5 I know of a four-generation family.

a. Teenage girl raised by her grandmother.

b. She dropped out of school, had a son out of wedlock a few years ago, in lower secondary.

c. The girl's son did not have any pre-school education until recently, when services intervened.

d. Why is this girl looked after by grandmother? Because the mother has been in and out of prison for various offences. Out for a while, and now in for a long-term sentence for a serious crime.

e. Father remains uncontactable for some time now, and refuses to take responsibility for the family.

f. And unfortunately her grandmother is showing signs of dementia.

6 So this is a family that faces very complex challenges, which makes it difficult for them to cope on their own, despite many agencies and VWOs coming in to assist in different areas. How can we support such families with their existing needs and also ensure their next generation has a good start in life?

7 At COS last year, I shared that MSF would be working and partnering with other agencies and community groups to transform and integrate our social services, and strengthen that important last mile support for families, especially those with very complex difficulties. So that help can be provided in a more Comprehensive, Convenient and Coordinated manner.

8 Ms Denise Phua, and Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about our progress.

a. At the Joint Segment on Opportunity yesterday, I described the ComLink, that we will be setting up to support rental housing families, and the Local Community Network pilot to wraparound at-risk youth and their families. MOE has also articulated the UPLIFT proposals to support students whose performance and absenteeism are worrying.

b. Now, all of these that we announced yesterday carry the DNA of integration and coordination, and a different way of doing things in the social services.

c. So let me give this House an update on our broader-level work across the entire social sector.

9 Sir, at the centre is a family with complex challenges, like the kind I described earlier.

Providing More Integrated Support

10 They sometimes face issues beyond those that they are seeking help for. For example, if a family seeks help from HDB because of HDB rental arrears, it could be because a breadwinner has lost his job, and the family is in financial difficulty.

11 We want to ensure that these families get the necessary information, and referrals to the relevant agencies' services, regardless of which agency they first approach.

12 So even if they approach only HDB in the first instance, and it is in relation to arrears - when the officer speaks to the family, and understands that, actually, this is because of this and that, and it goes beyond my remit as I assess you for assistance on arrears. What they ought to be doing is to refer the family to Workforce Singapore (WSG) or NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to help the breadwinner with job matching, and to the SSO for financial assistance.

13 So we want each frontline agency in the community to be a potential gateway for families with complex needs, to receive other social services, including those in the community.

a. By end this year, we will train 2,500 officers from various frontline agencies to identify a client's broader needs, and link the client to the relevant agencies.

i. They include our frontline colleagues from the People's Association (PA), HDB, WSG, NTUC's e2i, Singapore Police Force (SPF), Singapore Prison Service (SPS), and Silver Generation Office/ Agency for Integrated Care (SGO/ AIC)

ii. Over time, we will expand to include more ground agencies as well as VWOs and community partners.

14 Next, the solution to families' problems may rest with multiple agencies. Families also need to travel to multiple touchpoints. And clients with complex problems are often asked to submit multiple documents or repeat their circumstances when they seek help. We should not let this be a barrier to them seeking assistance. We have therefore established a single touchpoint where they can access multiple services. We will start with the SSO.

a. Some of our SSOs are already physically co-located with complementary services such as employment assistance and family services.

b. We are using technology as well, to provide some of these services via video-conferencing links.  You can see that on the screen - An SSO officer working with the client, addressing the assistance that the SSO can provide, but also linking the client through video conference to offices in other agencies, so that there is direct face to face contact. And if the documents need to be shared, we can send it across.

c. By end this year, clients will be able to access financial, employment and housing services at all 24 SSOs, either through physical co-location of services or video-conferencing links with HDB, WSG, and NTUC's e2i career coaches.

d. By the second quarter of this year, clients will be able to access legal advisory services through video-conferencing at Boon Lay, Taman Jurong and Queenstown SSOs. This is part of a pilot we are trying out with the Legal Aid Bureau.

 15 We also observed that agencies and VWOs are currently approached separately for specific issues - families approach HDB for housing related concerns, SP Power services for utilities issues, and other departments for specific areas of need. These agencies sometimes end up with a compartmentalised understanding of the family's challenges, rather than a holistic overview.

16 To address this, we are improving information and data-sharing across agencies.

a. We have established protocols with HDB and MOE. Why? To enable ComCare clients to be automatically considered for reduced HDB rental rates, and assessed concurrently for MOE's Financial Assistance Scheme for their school-going children.

b. By the second half of this year, ComCare clients with young children will be automatically assessed for childcare subsidy and financial assistance.

c. This is work in progress, and we will continue to expand these arrangements to more agencies.

17 We are also using data and system interfaces to provide more coordinated and targeted assistance, especially if it can allow us to intervene early. I agree with Ms Tin Pei Ling that data can be used to tailor assistance to clients' needs. SSOs and Family Service Centres, for example, use SSNet to share client information with consent, and we are looking at the possibility of more information link-ups.

18 Beyond systems and data sharing, there needs to be careful case coordination so that no Singaporean falls through the cracks.

19 I assure Mr Darryl David that our SSO officers will work closely with the family and other agencies to understand the family's circumstances, and support them holistically. But we take his feedback and will seek to do better.

a. At the same time, we need to better organise and coordinate all of this work, especially when so many agencies and VWOs may sometimes be involved in a family's case, so that families can achieve the best outcomes.

b. We are therefore introducing a set of case coordination guidelines for agencies and case workers across the community.

c. Agencies will discuss and coordinate around the needs of families with complex challenges, with one agency maintaining overall oversight for each complex case.

d. We call these Guidelines for Case Master Action Planning, or Case-MAP for short.

e. The Case-MAP will guide agencies and caseworkers from different organisations, both within and outside government, so that they share a common understanding of the entire family's needs, and align their interventions accordingly.

f. And if they identify barriers, gaps, road-blocks or inconsistencies in policies, criteria or operational implementation, these will be surfaced to the relevant Ministries through the SSOs, to be looked into, and resolved.

g. About 200 agencies and 400 officers across seven towns are being trained in these guidelines, which we have started rolling out from this month.

 Partnering with and galvanising the community

20 The initiatives I have shared will strengthen our social service architecture, and enhance the support which families with complex challenges receive.

21 Going beyond systems, data and protocols, what we are really working towards is a strong, interpersonal network comprising our officers, social workers and partners across various agencies, in every town, embedded amongst our communities.

22 Our fellow residents, VWOs and partners on the ground know the local community and their needs best, and what local informal resources are also available to supplement formal support.

a. Just imagine a map − Each and every town in Singapore, covering the whole island. And on this map, you can see many, many dots and each dot from a man's point of view is a healthcare institution, service centre, SSO, school, polyclinic, all embedded in each town.

b. Each of these is like a node that we seek to connect through the SG Cares Community Network.

c. And these community networks seek to:

i. Share and tap on the collective knowledge of the community's needs;

ii. Explore collaborations to make a greater impact; and

iii. Align and organise our efforts to better support individuals and families.

23 Since May last year, we have started bringing together government agencies, VWOs and community partners at the town level, not at headquarters but on the ground − the people who are actually running the centres in the community. The first round of networking, involving about 160 agencies and 200 officers per town, will be completed by July this year. The second round for some towns will take place later this year.

24 As follow-up, the SSOs will in between each of these session, lead deep-dives to tackle specific social issues, such as youth offending, disability, the needs of seniors in that specific locality. They will also create more opportunities for our ground officers to build the professional people-to-people relationships with counterparts in other agencies and VWOs. We talk about systems theory, we talk about silos and people guarding their turf. What better way to address this on the ground than to let officers meet each other, and know that they are all aligned to the same purpose, the same families we are serving. And let us work together.

a. We are already seeing positive outcomes from the networking. Project Home Alone (PHA), for example, is an initiative which arose from the Hougang-Serangoon SG Cares Community Network session in September last year.

i. SSO at Hougang, Ang Mo Kio-Hougang Grassroots and Xinmin Secondary School initiated an elderly befriending programme after they met during the session and they started last month. Secondary school students are befriending elderly residents living near the school, and in Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Nursing Home in Hougang.

ii. We hope to see many more of such partnerships.

iii. A strong network of support within the community is crucial for those who need more help. Community Link or ComLink, and the Localised Community Network pilot, which I announced yesterday, will complement and strengthen support for the vulnerable.

b. So imagine, each and every town, having a local community network of agencies,

i. All knowing each other - with the Government, people sector, religious organisations, corporates who want to come on board, informal groups who want to play a part.

ii. But doing so in a coordinated way − through the SSO who understands the landscape and galvanises the data.

iii. Each and every node in that town − with training, with relationship building, all aligned to say that yes, I am doing well in my job, but in understanding my clients' needs, I understand the broader landscape of challenges. And I will bring in my relevant partners to make sure that everyone is working together as far as possible.

iv. And within each of these community networks, you have your local LCN pilots, your ComLink, all working and plugging into the same motherboard.

Safeguarding the welfare of children and youth

25 Let me move on to youth offenders. The community support that I spoke about earlier is also important to break cycles of offending for young people. Upon discharge from our MSF Youth Homes, young people may re-offend for various reasons - mixing with bad company, difficult family circumstances, and so on.

26 But every young person matters, and we will do our utmost to help them overcome their challenges. Let me share Jervin's story.

a. Jervin is a young man currently serving NS.

b. He was discharged from the Singapore Boy's Home last year.

c. It is not easy to adjust back into the community after some time away.

d. Jervin's case worker understood this, and went the extra mile.

e. She checked in regularly on his progress for six months after his discharge,

i. Helped arrange his NS check-up for his enlistment, and

ii. Connected Jervin's family with the Family Service Centre for additional support.

iii. Jervin was also placed on the Bettr Barista Holistic Training Programme, and received his professional barista certification before he started NS.

f. His social worker and I are both proud of Jervin, and we hope that he continues his good progress.

27 To better support young people, like Jervin, after their discharge from MSF's Youth Homes, we have decided to lengthen post-care support from two months to one year.

a. Post-care officers in the community will therefore have a longer runway to build rapport and help link youth to community groups, such as schools, employers, interest groups, and other local community partners, to help keep them meaningfully engaged, and develop them with positive support and positive influence.

b. If issues arise, they can help these young people manage and resolve them early.

c. The nature and intensity of support will be tailored to the needs of these young people. Those with additional needs will be referred to partner agencies for support.

d. In fact, if you speak to youth work agencies, youth workers and youth at-risk, including those who have emerged from crisis, they will share with you that relationship is critical. And if you ask them to work with one youth worker in one agency and then say well the programme is over, go to another programme in another place and have another youth worker, that relationship is very hard to rebuild. And if you push them from pillar to post and say that well there are multiple people involved, it can be very difficult to break through sometimes, that barrier and wall that they put up around themselves.

e. And so, this work of lengthening post care builds on the work of the NCPR, National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism (NCPR), which Mr Melvin Yong asked about. We will help our youths re-integrate more smoothly into the community, and reduce re-offending.

28 We are also strengthening statutory protection for children and young persons. Ms Sylvia Lim asked about the timeline of proposed changes to the age for protection under the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA). We are consulting stakeholders on the proposed amendments, some of which are substantive. It is important to ensure our partners are equipped to play their roles, and not unduly rush implementation. Our public consultations will run till mid-March. We aim to table the Amendment Bill in Parliament later this year or early next year.


29 Sir, close partnership between the Government and community is crucial to tackle yet another serious social challenge - homelessness or rough sleeping. Mr Seah Kian Peng and Assoc. Prof Daniel Goh asked about efforts to tackle emerging types of homelessness, different types of rough sleeping.

30 MSF works closely with Family Service Centres, HDB and other agencies to coordinate support for homeless persons.

a. Transitional Shelters offer temporary accommodation and social support to homeless persons who need intensive support to access stable housing,

b. While Welfare Homes provide long-term residential care for destitute persons who are unable to support themselves and lack family support.

31 As Mr Seah Kian Peng and Assoc. Prof Daniel Goh have pointed out,

a. Some individuals who sleep rough in public places may have homes, but do not, or are unable to go home for various reasons, such as conflict with family members or co-tenants and so on.

b. They may also not be known to social service agencies, or have declined Government assistance.

32 Over the year, we have stepped up partnerships with community groups who are active in befriending and engaging persons who sleep in public places, so that we can better coordinate and strengthen our outreach to them, better understand the precise circumstances they are in and then work with the relevant partners, both local community partners, VWOs and government agencies to try to resolve the challenges that they face.

33 Mr Chairman, what the house has heard earlier and in fact yesterday with the ComLink and LCN work is that the social services will play a bigger role, together with ground government agencies in a coordinated, holistic approach, to try to tackle some of the most difficult challenges that complex families face.  And by no means will this work be easy, but this work will be intensive and our social workers and our VWOs will need all the support that they can get.

Strengthening our Social Service Sector

34 Mr Chairman, we cannot transform social service delivery or look forward to achieving this new social service landscape, without our partners in the social service sector.

a. As Mr Seah Kian Peng pointed out, the demands on the sector are increasing and social needs are growing in complexity.

b. We must grow and develop the sector to meet these emerging challenges and better support vulnerable groups.

35 We will continue to provide resources, together with community partners like the Tote Board.

a. Over the years, the Tote Board Social Service Fund, or TBSSF, has supported various social service programmes benefitting vulnerable families, children and youths, the elderly, persons with disabilities and persons with mental health issues.

i. For example, EIPIC, or the Early Intervention Programmes for children with developmental needs,

ii. Family Service Centres, FSC, for low-income and vulnerable families, and

iii. School Social Work programmes for at-risk youth. All these are just some examples of programmes that have made a big difference in improving lives.

Sustained funding is crucial to ensure that vulnerable groups continue to receive the support they need. It also enables VWOs to focus on delivering services well, and expand, and develop new programmes to serve growing areas of need. It will also place them in a better position to operate in a network environment of social support. I am happy to share that the Tote Board has committed $580 million to the Tote Board Social Service Fund, over the next four years - and this is the largest tranche of funds they have put in since it was set up in 2006. This will benefit many VWOs who serve the community.

36 Beyond funding support, we must also support and upskill our social service professionals, and develop their competencies to meet growing and changing social needs.

a. We launched the Skills Framework for Social Service in January this year. This helps our professionals map out career progression pathways, and guides organisations in training and developing their talent in the social services.

b. Mr Darryl David asked about further efforts on this front. How can we better support our social workers, to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Building on the framework, we will set up a Social Service SkillsFuture Tripartite Taskforce, to coordinate and drive skills development initiatives in the social service sector

i. The taskforce will comprise sector professionals, it will include academics, experts and policymakers. I counted four but I still call it tripartite.

ii. They will explore further ways to build capabilities and strengthen professional practices. This includes reviewing the entry and training pathways for our social service professionals, ensuring relevance in curriculum, identifying improvements for professional practice, and working on joint projects to strengthen evidence-based practices.

37 Chairman, I have spoken about

a. Our plans to provide Comprehensive, Convenient and Coordinated help, centred around our community networks across the island; and

b. Our efforts to strengthen our social service networks in every town and community. And to also strengthen our social service sector and professionals.

38 Doing this will take time, but we must commit to this if we want to better support and uplift the vulnerable in our midst. And we will work together with the community to do better, go further, and make a greater difference.

39 But at the same time, we must continue to support and strengthen families, as families are the bedrock of our society.

Support for Single Parent Families

40 So now let me address a number of cuts that members have raised relating to family. Single parent families may face more difficulties. Mr Desmond Choo asked if we could extend benefits, such as tax reliefs, to single mothers.

a. Single parents comprise divorced, widowed and unwed parents. Most single parents are divorced or widowed, and enjoy the same benefits as married parents.

b. Today, all Singaporean children receive government benefits that support their growth and development. These include education and healthcare subsidies.

c. Arising from our review in 2016, we extended 16 weeks of maternity leave and the Child Development Account benefits, including the $3,000 First Step grant, to unwed mothers and their children.

d. Some benefits, such as the Baby Bonus Cash Gift, tax benefits and housing benefits are intended to encourage and support marriage and parenthood.

e. Nevertheless, we will continue to see how we can better support single mothers and their children who face challenges.

Abortion and adoption of children

41 Assoc. Prof Daniel Goh and Mr Christopher de Souza asked if more could be done to support pregnant mothers contemplating abortion in coming to an informed decision, with the option of giving up their children for adoption instead.

42 The decision to terminate a pregnancy or carry a baby to term is deeply personal, and we must respect that. But it is important that an informed decision is made. All women considering abortion are required to complete pre-abortion counselling, where a trained counsellor will share on the medical, psychosocial and emotional aspects of terminating a pregnancy. She can only give her written consent to abort at least 48 hours after this session. Those who require further support will be referred to Family Service Centres or appropriate help-lines. MSF and MOH will continue to review how to strengthen and enhance the counselling process.

Working Elderly Singaporeans

43 Mr Faisal Manap asked about working elderly Singaporeans. According to the 2018 Comprehensive Labour Force Survey, 27 per cent of residents aged 65 and above were employed. Among those who work, some do so for financial reasons, others do so to stay engaged, some for both.

44 Retirement adequacy is a concern for low-income elderly. We have assistance and support schemes to ensure our seniors age with assurance. We regularly review these schemes and introduce new ones where required. Much of this has been discussed yesterday at MOM's COS, and more at subsequent COS for MOH, I presume.

45 But broadly, seniors receive healthcare support through the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages. The Silver Support Scheme and ComCare assistance provides further financial support. For seniors who continue working, they also receive employment assistance through the Workfare Income Supplement, which has just been enhanced, and Special Employment Credit. And there are options for them to unlock value from their flats, such as the Silver Housing Bonus and Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme.

46 And if they need someone to kind of guide them, support them and link them to the relevant agencies, our Silver Generation Ambassadors and our AIC officers on the ground will lend them support. Ultimately, helping our seniors age gracefully and with peace of mind is also about nurturing communities of care and support within their homes and community, from family members to volunteer befrienders.


47 Sir, MSF will partner Singaporeans to build a caring and inclusive Singapore, where we can live with dignity, raise strong families, and take pride in contributing to our lives and those of others.

a. Singaporeans need not face life's uncertainties alone, and help is available to better support and uplift these individuals and families.

b. This is possible only with the strong partnership of individuals, families, the community, the social service sector and the government.

48 This is the essence of our social compact.

49 Let us continue to strengthen the bonds that hold us together, as we collectively to build a better Singapore, and a better social service sector for all Singaporeans.