Delivered in Parliament on 27 July 2021
Mdm Deputy Speaker, COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis. As of today, we have been battling COVID-19 for slightly over one and a half years. Apart from the significant socio-economic challenges faced, COVID-19 has taken an unprecedented toll on our mental health, and will continue to do so during our transition to a new normal. In my speech today, I want to focus on the mental health of our students, and supporting our arts, entertainment, and recreation sectors.
The term ‘Covid fatigue’ has become part of our everyday speech. Almost everyone I speak to has experienced mental fatigue and tiredness in coping with the impact of Covid-19. As adults, we feel this acutely, be it in trying to keep businesses afloat, looking after the safety of our families, adjusting to frequent changes in restrictions, and the barrage of negative news.
But we need to pay closer attention to our younger generation. This pandemic is happening for them in their formative years, and will shape their perspective on life as they go on to become adults. Students are a group who may be especially vulnerable to the long-lasting mental health toll.
I note that the Government also acknowledges the scarring effect that school closures have on learning, and that some sense of normalcy is needed for our students. As our schools remain open, I am also glad to know that there are stringent safe management measures being adopted in our schools to prevent school-based COVID-19 transmission.
But following these measures can take its toll on students too. Co-curricular activities have sometimes been halted, celebration and orientation activities have been scaled back. Such safe distancing has led to reduced interactions with peers that are so important for the development of social skills. I’m glad to know that cca’s will resume soon.
While necessary given the current situation, the schooling experience of our students today is vastly different from what it was pre-COVID. Coupled with a more uncertain future, these circumstances may lead to unhealthy pessimism and mental health issues taking root among our students, including recent graduates.
Looking back at my educational journey, I am reminded of the extremely stressful points. We were lucky then in being able to release some of the pressure through social activities such as going to the movies with friends and meeting extended family members. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, our children have not been able to do the same. I worry about the effects that may result, given that they are already in a stressful educational environment.
In recent years, there has been increased awareness surrounding youth mental health, with mental health education being incorporated into the character and citizenship education curriculum from this year, and groups formed to raise mental health awareness and stress among youth.
These are definitely important steps in the right direction. I hope we can have more conversations on mental health among students, a topic that the President recently raised following the tragic events at River Valley High School.
Perhaps we need to reevaluate how we approach mental health in our educational institutions, incorporating some activities to deal with the impacts of COVID 19.
The Minister for Education have just shared with Members and the public the resources and capacities we have available to support our students and staff and the near-term policies MOE is implementing to address mental health issues. I hope that in addition to those policies listed by the Minister, there can be further policy options explored to improve our mental health infrastructure.
I specifically call on the relevant government agencies to look at the feasbility in 2 areas:
- Establishing another tertiary psychiatric hospital
- The implementation of a Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) for Counsellors, akin to the PCP for Social Workers and Allied Health Professionals.
Independent arts and recreation sectors
Let me also touch on our arts and recreation sectors, who share an intricate relationship with our mental health as a society. During the tough months of the circuit breaker last year, and in the past one and a half years, people from all over the world have turned to various forms of entertainment to keep themselves healthy.
The arts and recreation sectors are crucial to our mental health wellness, and it is integral we keep them alive, and survive the pandemic.
Since the pandemic started, this sector has been affected heavily, and are still facing prolonged slumps. Just as these sectors were beginning to pick up this year, recent clusters have resulted in further rounds of restrictions. Those affected include performance groups, art theatres, and even gyms, all of which provide Singaporeans with ways to unwind and destress and work on their physical health.
I appreciate the various grants the Government has introduced in Budget 2020 and 2021 to support the arts and sports sectors, I would like to seek an update on how much of these grants have been disbursed thus far.
Safe management measures have a sizable impact on the bottom lines in these sectors, as not all of these activities can be easily moved online. The prolonged slump in the arts and recreation, coupled with restrictions that continue to affect businesses and individuals, brings the long-term viability and revival of these sectors into question.
These challenging times may lead people to pivot out of these sectors, as they look for ways to survive economically. For example, in February this year, a Mr Chiya Amos penned his experience in TodayOnline.
Mr Amos worked as a conductor in opera houses prior to the pandemic, but now works with Foodpanda making deliveries. His story is admirable, as it shows his strength and resilience, but it also compels me to think if there is more that we can do for individuals like him.
There are probably many more such stories untold. It speaks to a nation-wide phenomenon where many leave these industries, including recent graduates and young adults who have spent the last few years investing their education in these areas. Our arts and recreation sectors include many independent contractors and Singaporean-owned businesses.
Uncertainty caused by the pandemic, especially that surrounding their livelihoods, will inevitably add to the toll on such business owners and potentially create long-term scarring of these sectors.
How does the government plan to work with these sectors to ensure their medium and long-term viability?
Can the government provide an update on how it is looking to partner and understand the concerns of the businesses serving the arts and recreation sectors, and help them work through the issues they face?
I recently spoke to a resident of Compassvale who started her own business partnership before the pandemic. Her father is the owner of a gym. Both of them shared with me that before the pandemic, both businesses were doing well, and that they were able to pay their workers fairly and make a profit. After the pandemic, however, they have been struggling. They’ve had to let staff go and are even considering closing their businesses.
Local enterprises are the foundation of our economy, accounting for the employment of 68% of the total workforce in Singapore in 2020. I believe we can do more to support these enterprises. For example, as my colleague mr Leon Perera suggested, we can include more businesses from these sectors in the Singapore Rediscover Voucher scheme so that they can be assisted while enabling the public to benefit from the services they provide.
The effects of COVID-19 are multifaceted. Among these are socio-economic consequences as well as psychological ones. This is a time where we need to support one another. Part of this is to make sure that assistance is going where it is needed most.
Among those who need our collective backing right now are those in the arts and recreation sectors, who are among the many SMEs that account for a significant proportion of Singapore’s employment.
More broadly, mental health issues can fester if ignored. If we are not careful, we may risk a generation of students who have to grapple with mental health issues over the longer-term.
In October last year, I spoke in this House calling for greater awareness on the importance of mental health. Awareness on the issue has since improved, with more open discussion, but more can and should be done. The mental health impact of COVID-19, which is a worldwide phenomenon, can have real implications for well-being in our society. I ask policymakers and fellow Singaporeans to continue to treat this issue with the urgency and openness it deserves.