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Speech by Minister Masagos Zulkifli 2023 Debate on the Motion on the Address of Thanks for the Speech of the President

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

Topic(s): Children & Families, Financial Assistance & Social Support, Residential & Shelter Support


Working Together to Keep Social Mobility Alive Across Generations

Introduction 

1.          Madam Deputy Speaker, Across the world, social mobility has been a challenging issue. Many advanced societies have faced wage stagnation. Some youth in other countries do not believe they will be better off than their parents. In addition, many wonder if they can achieve their aspirations, or they will be kept in the social class they were born into. 

2.          In countries where this hope has disappeared, the “have-nots” tussle with the “haves”, there is a loss of unity, and society is fractured, weakened. And when the absence of upward mobility is overlaid with racial or religious fault lines, the social fabric frays quickly. We must not let this fate befall us.

3.          In Singapore, we have kept social mobility alive across generations. This remains our promise. We want to build a country where there will always be opportunities for families to better their circumstances. And where their children have hope of a better and brighter future.

Key features of our society

4.          Let me share key features of our society, and what we need to do to sustain social mobility.

5.          First, Government policies as enablers. Governments must always prioritise, invest in, and preserve the social foundations of societies to provide a fair chance for everyone to move up in society. They must address the under-provision of at least three public goods: education, healthcare, and housing. Society must accept policies that even out disparities to help address disadvantages families may face.

6.          Over decades, we have built a strong foundation in Singapore. We provide families with access to affordable education, housing, and healthcare. Enabling Singaporeans to pursue their aspirations and realise their potential. Coupled with Government efforts to make Singapore attractive for investments, we enjoy economic growth and create good jobs for Singaporeans. Together, these have helped to uplift generations of Singaporeans.

7.          These fundamentals continue to undergird our strategy today. We continue to make significant investments into public education, affordable housing, and quality healthcare. It is why Singaporeans continue to sit shoulder to shoulder – and all can access quality healthcare at our public hospitals and their children attend school together. Sustaining these policies across generations is no easy feat. But we have managed to maintain the provision and quality of these goods on an even keel without ballooning social expenditures, that ultimately the taxpaying public has to pay for. 

8.          Second, a strong sense of personal agency, and industrious work ethic. For countries to be successful, its people must be earnest in pursuing their aspirations and work hard to earn their success. From the day Singapore was independent, we understood that no one owes us a living. We had to work hard to get where we are today. This ethos is deeply embedded in our psyche. Singaporeans know this and respect those who have earned their success and similarly want to work hard to do well for themselves, their families, and communities. It is this spirit that will propel this country forward amidst headwinds. 

9.          Third, those who have done well giving back to society. We have seen this in Singapore’s early years where philanthropists and businesses raised funds and set up hospitals and schools. The community contributed to those in need among them. As our country prospered, we saw more individuals and companies giving back to society and uplifting others. 

10.          We must keep this spirit of giving back alive. Giving back to society is a key ingredient of our country’s success, where those who have done well acknowledge the role society has played in enabling the person to succeed and find ways to benefit others, and help others succeed too. As I said five years ago, this is how meritocracy can be moral: when the successful demonstrate a sense of duty to society, when they share the fruits of success with others. 

11.          And importantly, we all must work together for the common good. We must never underestimate the power of working together. When different entities can come together and work in sync towards a common goal, we can achieve a great deal. It is this quality – of private, people, and public sectors working together that helped us pull through during the pandemic, and remain united. Not pulling in different directions and ultimately undermining society itself. 

Uplifting families in need 

12.          Madam Deputy Speaker, we must harness these qualities and work together to tackle the issue of social mobility and to uplift those in need in our society.

13.          The Government will strengthen our policies to uplift lower-income families. First, we will give all children a good start in life. We are convinced by evidence that investments in the early years build a strong foundation in our children’s lives. This is why we have invested significantly in affordable and quality preschools. We are also providing more intensive support to support mother and child early on in life, through KidSTART. We do not wait for families to come forward. Instead, we reach out to parents as early as during the mother’s pregnancy. And work with a team of healthcare and social service professionals, volunteers, and community partners, to support these children to give them strong chances early in life. This prevents disparities in the early years from snowballing into greater disparities down the road. Since we started KidSTART in 2016, over 6,000 children have benefitted.   

14.          We will intensify our efforts to start children from lower-income families on the right path. We will scale up KidSTART nation-wide by 2026 and continue to facilitate priority enrolment for children from lower-income families in Anchor Operator Preschools and MOE Kindergartens. Investing in the early years is not just good science, it is also fiscally prudent. It gives us the best chance of setting children up for success, and is more effective than tackling issues downstream.

15.          Second, we will provide more support to families. Over the years, this Government has strengthened social safety nets. We have provided transfers and subsidies, and targeted assistance to those who need them most. We have designed schemes to keep people in employment and ensure wage growth.

16.          But we can do more. We will be proactive because we know we need to identify issues early before they snowball into larger issues. So that one thing does not lead to another, a health issue does not become an unemployment issue of another family member, which in turn affects their children’s education. We will also ensure that lower-income families get the help that they need quickly and easily.  Ultimately, we want families to achieve stability, self-reliance and social mobility or the 3 “S”es.

17.          To do so, we will ensure our services are family-centric and easily accessible. This is what ComLink sets out to achieve, by providing wraparound support for families with children living in rental flats. ComLink is another programme that does not wait for families to come forward to get help. A befriender proactively reaches out to families to understand their various needs and aspirations, and works with them to develop goals and action plans. Government agencies and community partners stand behind the befriender and work on the back-end to coordinate suitable services and programmes for the families. 

18.          From four pilot towns in 2019, we have expanded ComLink islandwide to 21 ComLink communities, each supported by a Social Service Office. We are further integrating social programmes under ComLink, such as KidSTART, UPLIFT Community Network and Project Dian@M 3, so that families receive support from a single touchpoint. 

19.          To make it easier for families to receive the support they need, we introduced scheme bundles so that lower-income families on ComCare assistance can access other assistances easily. As data is shared on the back-end, families can receive assistance without submitting the same information to different agencies. We will ensure that our social services are comprehensive, convenient, and coordinated so that families can get the help they need quickly and easily. 

20.          Third, we will reinforce and support the personal agency of families who wish to improve their circumstances. Many families want to secure a better future for their family and are taking active steps to uplift themselves and their children. During our ForwardSG engagements, some have suggested that we should find ways to encourage families who take positive steps such as securing stable employment and ensuring that their children attend preschool, but to do so in a manner that does not erode their sense of self-reliance and personal agency. When such families put in the effort, we know they are on the road to making progress in their lives. And as part of our social compact, it is good and right that we recognise such efforts. So, we are studying how to do this in a bigger way, under ComLink. 

21.          Fourth, we want more social service partners across society to uplift communities across Singapore. Uplifting those in need goes beyond social services agencies. It involves businesses, community partners, neighbours, and volunteers. It involves all of us. We need partners to share their resources and know-how and distribute their social capital to uplift those who have less. 

22.          We want to harness the best of organisations to address the needs of communities, in innovative ways. This means leveraging organisations’ assets, expertise, and networks to enhance opportunities for lower-income families. For instance, organisations can run mentorship programmes in their workplaces, widening the horizons of youth from less privileged backgrounds, and inspiring them to work towards a brighter future.

23.          Businesses have an important role to play. It is timely then that many businesses are moving beyond traditional CSR, to weaving social impact into their very core. They know that their success is tied to the success of Singapore. Recognising their responsibility to the wider community, they are reshaping their businesses. Businesses know they are a better and more attractive company when they put equal emphasis on ESG – Environment, Social and Governance. They fulfill their social responsibilities from how they look after their employees, hire inclusively, to how they harness their businesses to make a positive impact on the community.  We need businesses to lead the charge and role model the ways in which they uplift communities. We will guide businesses in better measuring and expanding their social impact. We will celebrate and recognise businesses and other partners, in this Year of Celebrating Social Service Partners. 

24.          We recognise that philanthropists, foundations, and other entities like family offices also want to do good. We have extended our tax deduction rate of 250% for donations until end-2026. The Government will also do more to help private capital and family offices maximise their philanthropic impact. 

25.          In our efforts, we must also tap on the best minds and translate the best research into practice to make a tangible impact. I’m glad that many academics, researchers, and institutes of higher learning have taken a keen interest in and are actively working to strengthen and support our families. From evaluating programmes that seek to ensure every child gets a good start in life, to examining ways we can enhance family resilience, so that our families can bounce back after setbacks. We must tap on the wealth of knowledge and expertise at these IHLs to better and more effectively uplift our communities. For example, drawing on its know-how in early childhood education and social work, the Singapore University of Social Sciences worked with ECDA to launch a training programme to equip KidSTART practitioners with the knowledge and skills to better support the development of children from lower-income families. We will strengthen our collaboration with academics and IHLs to improve policies, social work practices, and the delivery of services to meet evolving social needs in Singapore. In my speech at the President’s Address debate in 2018 I called for a Singapore brand of meritocracy. Today, I call on our IHLs, academics, and researchers to conduct original research and build up a robust body of knowledge of social science that applies to our context, one that is Made for Singapore. 

Working together and in sync for sustained impact 

26.          Madam Deputy Speaker, no Government can sustain social mobility by its efforts alone. Everyone has a role to play in supporting those in need. As part of our refreshed social compact, we must find ways to benefit others and help others succeed, and do well together. Individuals, families, and our society will be better for it. This is how an inclusive and caring society is built - by the hands of its people. 

27.          We will achieve much more when we work together than going in alone. To better support families, we must join hands across society: businesses, social service agencies, community partners, volunteers, and the Government working hand-in-glove.  

28.          Over the past few years, we have expended significant efforts to organise ourselves better to support families, coordinating our collective efforts under ComLink. I recall a family receiving five bags of rice from five different well-meaning social service agencies and corporates, which the family had no need for. Our hope is that with ComLink, community resources can better harnessed to fulfill real needs.

29.          What this could look like is: in each ComLink community, a volunteer befriender works with families to refer them to services, such as career coaches to help them secure a job, and nearby preschools and after-school programmes provided by the community to support the education of their children. Companies step in to provide mentorship and internship opportunities to the youth to nurture and grow their aspirations.  

30.          I have seen a glimpse of what is possible in ComLink@Jurong West, where UOL-Pan Pacific Hotels Group provides opportunities for children from lower-income families to access their facilities and enrichment classes. Through NUS students stepping forward as ComLink befrienders to journey with families.

31.          Rather than each of us going at it alone and duplicating efforts, let us synergise our various efforts into an effective national movement to better support families in need. Let us cast our nets wider beyond our own sectors and work together in common cause to uplift those in need. Let us work together to keep social mobility alive in Singapore.  

Forging a brighter future for the Malay/Muslim community

(Refer to Annex for the English translation)

32.          Madam Deputy Speaker, in Malay please.

33.          Singapura mesti kekal menjadi sebuah negara di mana peluang terus terbuka kepada keluarga-keluarga untuk mempertingkatkan kehidupan mereka. Sebuah negara di mana mereka boleh memenuhi aspirasi mereka untuk menjaminkan masa depan yang lebih cerah bagi anak-anak mereka. Dan di mana rakyat yakin dengan sistem meritokrasi yang sesuai untuk Singapura. Untuk mencapai matlamat ini, kita memerlukan gandingan yang kukuh merentasi sektor, di mana setiap pihak memainkan peranan masing-masing: Pemerintah membangunkan dasar-dasar yang membantu rakyat untuk maju, masyarakat memanfaatkan sumber-sumber yang ada untuk memenuhi keperluannya, dan para sukarelawan menyumbang kemahiran dan bakat bagi mempertingkat kehidupan masyarakat di sekeliling mereka. 

34.          Tanda kompak sosial yang kukuh adalah apabila individu-individu yang telah berjaya, kembali menabur budi kepada masyarakat. Kami menghargai usaha badanbadan Melayu/Islam kita atau MMO yang telah lama memainkan peranan penting dalam mempertingkatkan masyarakat. Ramai anggota karyawan masyarakat Melayu/Islam kita kini juga tampil untuk berkhidmat dan menyumbang kepada mereka yang kurang bernasib baik. Contohnya, rangkaian Peguam@M3 menghimpunkan para peguam, karyawan dan individu yang terlatih dalam bidang undang-undang untuk menganjurkan ceramah guaman, bengkel Permohonan Surat Berkekalan (LPA), dan klinik guaman percuma (pro bono) kepada masyarakat. Dalam masa lapang mereka, sekumpulan askar pula menjadi  mentor kepada pelajar di ITE College East melalui Projek ‘Pathfinder’ dan mendampingi para belia selaku “role model”. Persatuan Karyawan Penjagaan Kesihatan Islam (MHPA) pula bekerjasama dengan M3@Bandar untuk membawa program-program dan bengkel-bengkel kesihatan ke  kawasan perumahan, untuk lebih dimanfaatkan masyarakat. 

35.          Salah satu ciri-ciri yang kita boleh banggakan sebagai satu masyarakat adalah kemajuan yang dicapai selama ini, dengan masyarakat dan Pemerintah bersamasama berganding bahu, menggembleng idea dan tenaga untuk mempertingkatkan masyarakat. Badan bantu-diri MENDAKI menjadi model yang mahu dipelajari oleh banyak pihak di luar negara. Ia ditubuhkan empat puluh tahun lalu oleh para pemimpin masyarakat, yang waktu itu prihatin akan prestasi pendidikan anak-anak Melayu. Mereka beriltizam untuk membantu anak-anak Melayu mencapai potensi masingmasing dan berjaya. MENDAKI kini kekal relevan kerana ia masih melandaskan pendidikan untuk meningkatkan kemajuan masyarakat. MENDAKI berjaya menggerakkan tenaga dan semangat para sukarelawan untuk menjayakan program-program seperti Skim Tuisyen MENDAKI dan KelasMatematika, bagi para pelajar di pelbagai peringkat usia. Para sukarelawan MENDAKI memahami resam dan budaya masyarakat kita, lantas berjaya monyokong usaha Pemerintah meningkatkan tahap pendidikan masyarakat Melayu/Islam seiring dengan masyarakat lain. Kini, sembilan puluh sembilan peratus daripada setiap kohort pelajar Melayu berjaya menamatkan sekurang-kurangnya sepuluh tahun pendidikan. Ini pencapaian yang sangat bermakna, kerana pendidikan selama sepuluh tahun ini adalah asas yang membolehkan kita melanjutkan pelajaran ke peringkat pos-menengah dan membolehkan kita memperbaharui kemahiran sepanjang hayat. Saya berbesar hati dengan kemajuan yang dicapai masyarakat Melayu/Islam berkat kesedaran yang tinggi tentang nilai pendidikan, kerja keras dan usaha rapat semua pihak. Marilah kita teruskan usaha untuk membantu anak-anak kita mencapai potensi mereka. 

36.          Kini, kami perlu mengambil iktibar dari penemuan baru dari kajian dan sains. Kajian menunjukkan bahawa peringkat awal amatlah penting bagi pembangunan kanak-kanak. Lantas, salah satu aspek penting dalam strategi kami untuk mengekalkan mobiliti sosial di Singapura adalah dalam pembangunan awal kanak-kanak. Kita mesti memastikan kanak-kanak didaftarkan di prasekolah pada sekitar usia tiga tahun. Kami sedang melipatgandakan usaha ini dalam membantu keluarga-keluarga yang mempunyai anak-anak kecil melalui Projek Dian@M3, dan memberi keutamaan untuk mendaftar bagi kanak-kanak daripada keluarga berpendapatan rendah dalam prasekolah pengendali utama dan tadika MOE. Dutaduta Projek Dian telah mula melawat keluarga-keluarga tersebut dua minggu sekali, mendampingi keluarga untuk membaca bersama anak-anak mereka, serta menyokong para ibu bapa dalam pembangunan anak-anak mereka. 

37.          Dekad demi dekad, masyarakat Melayu/Islam telah mencatat kemajuan yang menggalakkan dalam pelbagai bidang. Ini termasuk mencapai kemantapan (stability), kemandirian (self-reliance) dan kemajuan ( social mobility), sambil terus giat menyumbang kepada masyarakat dan negara. Sedang kita berdepan dengan cabaran-cabaran baru dan masyarakat yang kian berubah, kita akan terus bekerja rapat dengan para pemimpin masyarakat, badan-badan Melayu/Islam, dan para sukarelawan kita. Ini demi mempererat masyarakat untuk sama-sama mengejar kecemerlangan dan mempertingkat kehidupan mereka yang kurang bernasib baik. Saya yakin bahawa masyarakat Melayu/Islam kita berada dalam kedudukan yang baik untuk terus mengorak langkah dan mengukir masa depan yang lebih cerah, sebagai sebuah Masyarakat Gemilang. 

Conclusion 

38.          Madam Deputy Speaker, let me conclude. 

39.          We must be a society where Singaporeans will always have opportunities to forge a better life for themselves, regardless of their starting position. We must draw on the strengths of individuals and families, the social capital within our communities, and resources from the public, people, and private sectors to realise this vision. 

40.          I know we can. Because we are Singaporeans. Ahead of the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birthday, let me share a quote which I think is evergreen, though he said it in 1965. He said: “Ten years from now, it will be better than now. Today, it is immensely better than it was ten years ago. It is better, even, than last year. And it is ours, provided we’ve got enough sense to be together, and nobody can keep an industrious people to work and fight for its future.” 

41.          Thank you. 

Annex A - English Translation of Malay Speech