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Speech by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Health, at the MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards on 27 January 2021, 12.30pm

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Masagos Zulkifli

Topic(s): MSFCare Volunteers

Our MSF volunteers and partners
Friends and colleagues


1 A very good afternoon to all of you.

  • This is my first MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards, and it is my pleasure and honour to be here today.

2 I would like to begin by congratulating and expressing my deepest appreciation to our 394 award recipients.

  • You are integral to MSF’s journey to nurture and build lives together with the community.
  • More stepped up and stepped forward to help, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. The crisis has indeed brought out the best in us.
  • This is why the award winners almost doubled this year. It is a strong testament to the caring society that Singapore is.

Emerging Stronger from COVID-19

3 The public-spiritedness and generosity of our people are especially important as we are in a defining crisis for this generation and beyond.

  • Singapore is in its deepest economic recession. Many businesses, livelihoods, and lives have been greatly impacted. Stresses on individuals and families have increased.
  • The crisis has also disproportionately affected those who were already facing challenges. For instance, home-based learning was harder for students from lower-income families. The mental wellness of seniors with little or no family support were constantly at risk because of social isolation during the Circuit Breaker.

4 It is tough times like these that will test the strength and togetherness of societies. Around the world, how quickly governments and their people worked together, determined whether they could get a reprieve or ended up being overwhelmed from the onslaught of COVID-19.

  • Together, we have staved off the worst of COVID-19 thus far and are now seeing the Calvary coming to the rescue.
  • With the vaccines, there is now light at the end of the tunnel. We can calmly and progressively get our population protected from the virus.
  • While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it also means we are still in the tunnel. The crisis is still not over.

5 There was a time when we faced a similar crisis as a nation. That was during our independence. I came across a 1966 press release on the Common Currency Exchange with Malaysia by then Minister of Finance, Mr Lim Kim San. In 1965, we had barely $1billion in reserves and were still negotiating for it to be in our control. We also had to ensure that when we managed our reserves, our currency would be freely exchangeable, stable and still garnered the confidence to be used in international trade. The proposal was for our currency to be 100% backed by our reserves and be fully convertible.

6 Mr Lim said “For Singapore whose economy is open and faces competition at every point from the rest of the world, the most rigorous monetary policies have to be followed. This calls for the tightest economic and social discipline from the people of Singapore. The 100% backed currency system means that if Singaporeans wish to spend more, then we must first earn more.”

7 This principled prudence over the decades enabled us to accumulate reserves that not only strengthened our currency, but if we have enough, we could use it in a mega crisis. And COVID-19 was that crisis that came along. We committed $200 billion in just a year, of which $50 billion came from our reserves that we had saved for during those decades.

  • We had to quickly reduce job losses, and put in the Jobs Support Scheme, to help companies retain local employees by subsidising their salaries.
  • We provided further support to those affected financially especially during the long period of Circuit Breaker through our many lines of help, including the new COVID-19 Recovery Grant, or CRG, which we just rolled out.

8 Even as we had the reserves to use for this rainy day, we move forward knowing that we owe the next generation a rebuilding of the reserves that we had used, for another rainy day. We are faced with questions about how we can continue maintaining our social spending, in face of a sick and weakened global economy.

9 While the pandemic has deepened our sense of solidarity, like the early days of independence, our discipline to hold on to age-old principles is key to seeing us through this crisis and beyond.

  • More than ever before, we need to renew our Social Compact to create an uplifting society. One that continues to provide opportunities for all Singaporeans.
  • Hence, I would like to spend some time today to talk about this.

Nurturing & Building Lives Together

10 In the early years of Singapore’s independence,

  • Our focus was on nation-building.
  • We had to fight for our survival, as the odds were stacked against us.
  • With the scarce resources that we had, our pioneer leaders’ priority was to develop a competitive economy, build up a sizeable defence force, and provide basic education, housing and healthcare to all Singaporeans. Social assistance was very basic.
  • If you would infer from the many speeches of our pioneers, we relied on our strong work ethic and that drove economic growth for Singapore – creating employment for the masses, leading to broad-based improvements in living standards.
  • A rising tide had lifted all boats. And in one generation we leaped from third world to first world.
  • The sight of foundering welfare systems in the west, which were originally set up to address devastations of the Great Depression and World War Two, served as a cautionary tale to our leaders to safeguard against the erosion of our work ethic and the need for sustainability.
  • We had to find practical solutions to our problems of growth and development in our own context, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 1960, even before our independence.
  • Nevertheless, the world was changing. And we too needed to adapt in order to ensure that our people were adequately protected.

11 Today, our social compact continues to be one where

  • The Government creates the conditions for economic growth and an enabling environment for Singaporeans to flourish.
  • Strong families support the building of resilient individuals, where people work hard and strive to do the best for themselves and their families. Families are at the core of society, and our first line of support – playing a part in caring and supporting one another through the ups and downs of life.
  • And a caring society where the community plays an active role in supporting those with less.

Together, they form the foundation of our social compact.

12 This approach has largely served us well in the first fifty years of our independence.

  • We uplifted an entire population in just one generation.
  • With a literacy rate close to 100%, in education, about 9 in 10 Singaporean children would have entered P1 with at least three years in preschool, with about 97% progressing to post-secondary education. In the first 10 years of formal school, the government would have spent about $130,000 on each child.
  • Around 90% of Singaporeans own their homes, including the bottom 20%.
  • Even among the advanced economies, we are one of the few where those in the middle have seen large increases of incomes in the past 20 years where median wages went up by 65 per cent in real terms – that means even after accounting for rises in the cost of living.
  • We achieved these outcomes without having to go down the paths of other advanced countries which had to heavily tax their populations to finance their burgeoning social systems. In Singapore, we keep our taxes low for a substantial majority of our population, so that workers can take home more of what they earned, while at the same time achieving effective and good outcomes for our citizens.

13 Notwithstanding this, we will face a very different social landscape over the next fifty years, with new challenges that were different from what our forefathers faced.

  • Our population has been ageing and will continue to age. There will be fewer working individuals supporting a larger base of elderly, and this will continue to grow. This would put a further strain on our resources.
  • Next, on inequality – a wicked problem that many societies, over the centuries, have tried to eliminate but to no avail. Some economists argue that having some inequality might be good, to spur economic competition. On the other hand, we have seen how inequality, when left unchecked, have resulted in fractures and the loss of cohesion in some societies, where a permanent underclass is left behind while the rest progress, because those who have done well do not give back.
  • In Singapore, we are not immune to such risks, and the tendencies of society to gravitate towards inequality.
  • While our social and economic strategies have uplifted broad segments of our population in the past, our current and future challenge would be to ensure that even those at the bottom continue to progress upwards alongside the rest of the society on a moving escalator.
  • We must tackle inequality on a lasting basis by keeping opportunities alive for everyone, regardless of how difficult it might be to do so.

14 To do this well, we will need to continually renew the spirit of our social compact in the work that we do.

15 First, to strengthen and nurture strong families in Singapore.

  • When family bonds are strong, they are an important source of support for us.
  • The Government supports families through our policies and programmes to support and keep them strong as much as we can.
  • Businesses and the people sector also complement our efforts. This is where our new Families for Life Council initiative comes in. They will coordinate in-community assets to build strong and resilient families.

16 Second, enabling individuals to build resilience from young by giving them the best possible start in life, and by enabling our citizens to be resilient to a disruptive economy through continuous skills training.

  • We have made big strides in upgrading our preschool system. But we will need to put in double effort to ensure that children from lower-income families can access the full benefits of a quality preschool experience. This is where our KidSTART volunteers and Preschool Outreach Agencies come in.
  • Where individuals fall upon difficult times, we want to enable them to bounce back quickly as possible and where needed, we provide temporary financial support and provide training.

17 Third, we will continue building a caring society with a strong sense of mutual help and giving-back.

  • This means that we all keep a lookout for those around us – friends, neighbours, or even strangers – and extend any help that we can to those in need or those not as fortunate as us.
  • Over the past ten years, the number of volunteers with the Government’s community and welfare services have actually increased by about 20%. This is an encouraging sign that we are becoming more caring as a society.
  • We need Singaporeans who have done well for themselves to give back for the betterment of society. By helping to uplift those who are disadvantaged or are facing challenges in life by investing their time, talents and resources. When the successful give back, only then can we pass the ethical muster of a good and moral society.
  • We will continue to strengthen the treasured partnerships and capabilities of our social services agencies or SSAs, a key part of our social compact. They play a major role in helping us uplift the lives of many, which is even more crucial as social issues grow in complexity and scale.
  • Donations for charitable causes also form a very large part of our social compact. During Financial Year 2019, ComChest collected more than $58million in donations, these go towards our SSAs and the running of social services. Even during the onset of the pandemic, ComChest raised almost $30 million in donations to finance the Invictus Fund and Courage Fund. These were new initiatives to support our SSAs to continue providing services through the crisis, as well as individuals affected by COVID-19. This is testament of a good and working social compact, where the prosperous give back because they are generous and want to do so through their own will, rather than legally but forcefully taken from them through high taxes to achieve the same outcomes.

18 Finally, our volunteers and partners who are here with us today. You exemplify what it means to be a caring society, and show us how we can achieve much more together. I would like to highlight a few today.

  • Mr Tan Joo Chiang Mark and Mrs Vivien Tan a husband and wife team. They are receiving the Friends of MSF Award for going the extra mile to support probationers, for almost 40 years.
  • Amongst our Outstanding Volunteer Award recipients are Dr June Goh and Ms Laura Hwang, both who have contributed greatly to women’s development in Singapore.
  • Ms Chia Yong Yong and Dr Kenneth Poon are receiving the Outstanding Volunteer Award as well, for their extensive efforts to improve the lives of persons with disabilities and making Singapore a more inclusive society.
  • It is also our honour to present Mr Lim Hock Heng and Dr Anamah Tan with our Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award.
  • Mr Lim has been a dedicated volunteer with MSF since 1975. He helps MSF reach out to youth offenders, and continues to actively volunteer with us – at 70 years old!
  • Dr Tan has devoted her life to women’s progress, advocating tirelessly to advance the status of women in Singapore over the last 40 years.
  • We are deeply grateful to all our award recipients.

19 MSF is here to nurture and build lives together with you.

  • Without your passion and dedication, we would not be able to provide as strong a support to those who require it.
  • All of you here touched many lives and our society is in a better place because of you.


20 Let me conclude.

21 1965 forced us out of a plentiful hinterland, into independence fraught with crisis. We were an economy that held great promise because of our hard-working people, but lacked the natural resources. A currency of a fledgling country that had little reserves but only good principles to earn credibility and trust at the starting line. Racial riots. Few of many baptisms of fire that our pioneers had to go through.

22 Yet here we are today. A beautiful, green and prosperous city state, as if all these crises and tribulations never occurred.

23 In 1965 our pioneers painted our city with a picture of hope and promised that our mudflats will become a metropolis. 2020 was a global crisis that Singapore had never encountered. Nor the world. But our pioneers have enabled for us to start 2021 anew with so much more than they had. A united people of the most diverse country in the world, reliable reserves and enviable infrastructure to name a few. The crisis of 1965 should give us the confidence that our crisis in 2020 too brings with it renewed hope. But we must also remember, and never forget, to work towards emerging from this crisis not only stronger, but also kinder and more caring. Let’s work together so that those whom we serve, can continue to count on us.

24 My heartiest congratulations once again to all our award winners.

  • Your family and friends here today have much to be proud of.
  • I wish all of us a fulfilling 2021.

Thank you.