Delivered in Parliament 2 September 2020
It has been more than seven weeks since Polling Day, and over two months since the commencement of Phase II. Like all Singaporeans, our team has been adjusting to a ‘new normal’ in the age of Covid, while getting to know our residents and communities in Sengkang and Buangkok. Once again, we are touched that voters have taken a leap of faith in the Workers’ Party, and are grateful for the opportunity to work together with everyone to make our home a better one for all.
In between setting up Sengkang Town Council and conducting our groundwork, we have also been privileged to receive warm welcomes from residents into their homes, into their preschools, senior activity centres, and other parts of their community, and also from the various agencies and teams who work tirelessly to serve the residents of Sengkang. Our friendships and partnerships have only just begun.
Achieving Our Dreams Together
Today, I’d like to talk about the Singapore that we hope to build together. In the last two months, set against the difficult backdrop of the Covid pandemic, I have seen much evidence of an ‘Engaged Singaporean’, contrasting against the ‘Ugly Singaporean’ label that we unfortunately sometimes hear being applied. We have been struck time and again by the experience of seeing residents from all ages and all walks of life banding together, looking out for one another, coming together to look after the more vulnerable amongst us, so that no one is left behind. Being engaged in our community is a now value that Singaporeans hold dear, and they expect this of the government too.
We are also seeing the Engaged Singapore in the emergence of a more discerning electorate. I often find myself being asked challenging questions about the Workers’ Party team, about our work, and our policy proposals. Deeper, more thought-provoking questions are being asked of us, of society, and of the Government’s policies.
These two trends taken together mean that we must step up our own engagement with all levels of our community, and keep discussing with and involving everyone in deciding Singapore’s future. We must recognise that everyone has something to add to the conversation, and there is no one way to do it. Instead of solely relying on highly structured Singapore Conversations and Emerging Stronger Conversations, and government-mandated or approved schemes, we should also look to more informal forums such as coffeeshop walks which the Workers’ Party team has been doing. We have found that the informal nature of these have a frankness, directness and immediacy which has been invaluable in shaping our understanding of the issues.
Our ground up movements can begin with a small spark, and do not have to be only possible under the People’s Association and other ‘designated enablers’. Indeed, we have already seen some of these initiatives on the ground, with residents chipping in to start community gardens and small projects to look out for their neighbours. We hope to add to this by organising our own hackathons and town halls within Buangkok and Sengkang, and working in close partnership with various organisations and bodies on the ground to ensure that residents feel a greater sense of community and ownership.
The Government too, must play its part by fostering an environment which enables a more Engaged Singapore, from our youth, workers and enterprises. Instead of solely thinking about competition between groups, we must learn how to come together to find shared interests and resources, while also at the same time disagreeing respectfully when differences arise. In this way, we can foster a stronger sense of solidarity, be it inter-generational, inter-societal or even inter-regional.
This is not just about creating new schemes, another task force – indeed, the Addenda to the President’s Address for the Opening of the 14th Parliament alone contains mention of around 12 maps and masterplans, 24 committees, task forces and networks, 32 centres and agencies, 32 schemes and programmes, and 24 funds, packages and grants. It is no wonder that people and enterprises are confused and often end up feeling demoralised and helpless when faced with a problem.
While we acknowledge that Singapore faces complex issues, and appreciate that the government and its agencies are working to address problems faced by Singaporeans, surely there can be scope to simplify these grants, plans, policies and initiatives. This would ensure that we do not have expend too many resources on just keeping a proper track of them all. It would also make for a much better, user-centric experience. Indeed, my colleague Leon Perera has previously spoken about the need for a unified portal for residents and companies to transact with government and have better access to schemes that they are eligible for. This streamlining would also aid in tracking how effective and productive they are.
A Singapore For All
With this, I am glad that we all agree on a Singapore For All, and that the Government has committed to strengthening social mobility and a society of opportunities for all.
Change these days seems much faster. This has been made worse by the ongoing pandemic, which has exposed our weak points and hit vulnerable members of our society harder. The number of residents who are struggling and require assistance appears to be increasing, and we believe that this will worsen.
To respond adequately, we must be willing to review some previously accepted norms and principles. It is a good start that we are now – like many other developed economies – finally recognising the limits and even failure of meritocracy.
We must not let blind reliance on what meritocracy can achieve turn us into a harsh and unforgiving society where the vulnerable are blamed for their plight, for not being hardworking or talented enough to strive for a better life for themselves and their families. The expansion of programmes such as KidsSTART and the increase in MOE Kindergartens is a good first step.
However many programmes and task forces that we have, I believe that the real danger facing us is the PERCEPTION of lack of social mobility and the presence of elitism. When I worked with my university’s access schemes to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to top universities, we found that it was often a lack of belief and confidence that held many of these students back. Often, they showed great potential, but it would never cross their minds to even put in an application, as they felt they stood no chance.
Even for those that do apply and succeed, this perception can also persist. I remember once speaking to a volunteer who came from a underprivileged background. After obtaining a polytechnic diploma, he was successful in gaining a place to read law at one of our local universities and was about to start a training contract with a prestigious firm. When asked if he was a sterling example of our meritocracy, he replied firmly that he was an example instead of tokenism.
This reluctance to ‘lean in’ is based on a certain perception of meritocracy and society’s ossification, and something that we have to urgently address. One way is to encourage more existing university students and members of professions to take an active role in speaking to and mentoring the next generation of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds early on. They would be available to encourage them, to discuss their concerns and to guide these students through the recruitment or application process, and thus demystify some of the pre-existing notions that these students may have.
Other ways of doing so include smaller class sizes that the Workers’ Party has been calling for, and deeper engagement between different schools beyond the ‘bonding’ activities currently planned. We must remember that engagement is always two ways, and there are always many things that we can learn from segments of society that are different from us.
A Sustainable Future
Next, I would like to touch on sustainability. I would like to declare that I work for an MNC active in the global supply chain for natural resources, and we have done much work in the sustainability sphere over the last few years.
It is good that we now have a ministry for sustainability and the environment. Climate change and environmental issues are important, but sustainability goes beyond this. We must also ensure that Singapore is socially, economically and demographically sustainable.
Madam President and many ministers have spoken about the need to strengthen our Singaporean identity. This is a key factor in ensuring the sustainability of a harmonious society. Instead of berating Singaporeans for being xenophobic, we should instead really listen to their concerns and try to understand why they feel this way. We should also continue to involve more segments of our society, engage with them, and empower them to take the lead in building our Singaporean identity and future, while at the same time involve more in integrating and welcoming newcomers.
Economically, the Covid pandemic has focussed the world’s attention on global supply chains and their vulnerability. It is good that the government now plans to strengthen our food and essential supply chain security, to ensure that we are not so much at the mercy of global forces that are mainly beyond our control.
But the shock to supply chains goes beyond just food and consumption – it has severe repercussions for the structure of our economy. It is a commonly held view now that the recovery from the pandemic, together with increasingly complex geopolitical tensions, will further accentuate shifts from truly global supply chains to concentrating manufacturing and production being moved to the continents or regions of end consumers. Trade patterns will correspondingly be affected, and Singapore needs to be ready.
To deal with this and remain sustainable, our economy must therefore become more nimble, and our education system needs to encourage inquisitive exploration and less rote learning, in order to produce a workforce that is able to adapt to disruptive new horizons and opportunities.
Environmental sustainability does not just have to mean costs and compliance. Like my colleagues, I instead see many opportunities for Singapore here. Some potential growth areas can include our move towards Industry and Supply Chain 4.0 by harnessing new technologies such as blockchain and Internet of Things (IOT), to develop expertise in not just helping companies and industries digitalise, but to use such technologies to commit to a completely sustainable supply chain from source to final product. Such expertise can be developed by our enterprises and exported to other economies in the region, as we set the gold standard for what true sustainability means.
Similarly, I am pleased to hear of a stronger commitment to green financing and green tech, which would definitely benefit the environment. This too, can be growth areas for our economy going forward. However, there remains a large gap between enterprises, and access to green financing and technology remains challenging for SMEs. This is also reflected in green bonds forming just 1.4% (or $6 billion out of the total market size of $420 billion) of Singapore’s total corporate debt market.
Awareness of green issues too should start from a young age. We should look to the example set by the tiny town of Ii in Finland, which has managed to reduce its carbon emissions by half between 2007-2015. There, older students become green ambassadors and are responsible for guiding their younger schoolmates towards green and sustainable practices. As an added sweetener, if the school is successful in reducing its bills due to successful green practices, students are given unfettered freedom to decide what to spend the savings on. It is this type of youth and community-led projects that we hope to be able to implement in Sengkang.
Our changing social fabric and demographics have accentuated the challenges facing our care infrastructure. Having to adapt and thrive in a post-pandemic world has made it all the more important that we cohesively tackle these head-on. Failure to do so would lead to widening health inequalities and increasing burdens on households already struggling to get by. We must ensure that our care systems keep pace with evolving demands, and that carers, especially those who undertake unpaid care and domestic work, are more visible and supported.
The pressing problems faced by an ageing Singapore must first be tackled by further integrating our social, health and informal care systems. This would enable more seamless support for our growing elderly population, and people with long-term conditions who require care and support. This means joining up hospital and community-based services, for physical, mental and social care needs. We would see greater efficiencies by breaking down barriers between services, and focusing on growing our ability to provide care in our homes and communities. As care needs are complex, a fully integrated system would also result in less confusion and stress amongst family members struggling to cobble together a care plan for vulnerable loved ones.
There should also be room for more innovative care solutions and infrastructure, such as situating elder and childcare centres within the same facilities, which has the added benefit of facilitating inter-generational exchanges and solidarity, while tackling the pandemic of loneliness.
We must also consider our informal carers and integrate them into our care delivery system. These are unpaid workers and unsung heroes, like my mother, who have devoted their entire lives to providing care for those who need it, be they elderly parents, children, grandchildren, or family and friends who have special needs. Their contributions to our society are equal to any other wage-earning job, but are unequally measured in traditional indicators of growth or value.
Yet, informal and unpaid carers often end up being vulnerable themselves, as their care responsibilities often have a detrimental impact on their own physical, mental and economic well-being.
We know that Singapore is not unique in that unpaid work fall disproportionately on women. In addition, in the most vulnerable segments of our society, children may also be called upon to undertake domestic labour by being solely responsible for the care of younger siblings and doing housework, often at the expense of their own education and childhood.
Yet the magnitude of the issue is unclear, and we do not have a good idea of how this has been trending.
We must therefore measure unpaid work to make it visible. Such an approach immediately recognises this work as being of tremendous value to our society, and will be a first step in changing how we think about such work and in understanding the profile of these workers. Having better visibility and measures of unpaid work also means that it is easier for our policies to pay more attention to inequality.
In many countries such as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, time use surveys are now a key part of their national statistics systems, and these are conducted regularly. The US does an American Time Use Survey every year since 2003. In Europe, these surveys have been conducted since the 1970s and have continued with relative frequency across the region.
It is significant that Singapore does not conduct such time use surveys. Regular measurements immediately recognise the work as being of value to our society.
It also gives us an idea on how our policies have implicit effects on such unpaid workers, and how effective other policies are in addressing the problems they face. Indeed, countries such as Finland and New Zealand have made concerted efforts in measuring the scale of unpaid work, which has resulted in policies that address the gender differential, for example by providing adequate paternity leave.
Mr Speaker, it is time for us to tackle this head-on so that we may understand more fully the full scale of the issue, and to thus take steps to mitigate the impact on our personal, social and economic fabric.
I support the motion.