If the nation succeeds in effecting these shifts, it can secure a stronger social compact – for both the current and future generations to come, DPM Lawrence Wong shared.
Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong has laid out five key shifts that the country will embark on as part of its new social compact in Singapore's next stage of nation-building.
Speaking at the Debate on President's Address in Parliament on Monday (17 April 2023), the DPM shared: "As President highlighted in her speech, this new session of Parliament is happening at an important milestone of our history, indeed of world history. After three years of the Covid crisis, we now confront other formidable challenges. But as we have seen again and again in our history, we can find opportunities in every crisis, and move quickly to take advantage of them.
"There are stark realities facing Singapore and the wider world. From war in Europe, to deepening big power rivalry in our part of the world, we all feel a palpable sense of danger — danger not just to the economy, but also to an open and stable global order."
In view of these realities, the DPM acknowledged Singaporeans' worries about the "unexpected twists and turns that may lie ahead", with interest rates, and rising prices and bills, impacting their livelihoods.
Elaborating, he added that besides tackling the cost of living, sustaining growth will be more challenging, thus the need to redouble efforts in attracting investments and talent; and creating good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans. "We will have to intensify the pace of restructuring and transformation to stay ahead of the competition."
"All this will not be easy. But COVID-19 has shown that Singaporeans have what it takes — the grit and resolve to overcome tough challenges. The odds may appear stacked against us. But we can turn challenges into opportunity. With pride in our history, and strength from our unity, we can forge ahead with confidence. So I say: do not fear; never lose heart. We will build on our strong foundations. But we must also have the courage to change where change is needed."
This is where the Forward Singapore exercise comes to play, through which policies are reviewed across all areas.
A look at the five key shifts: What do they entail?
With the above in mind, the key shifts the DPM shared about are namely:
- A new approach to skills,
- A new definition of success,
- A new approach to social support,
- A new approach to caring for seniors, and
- A renewed commitment to one another — less about "I" and "me", more about "us" and "we".
A new approach to skills
On this, the DPM first shared the following efforts dedicated to the younger years:
- A scale-up on the KidSTART programme nationwide, to reach out to more lower-income parents, and to close the early gaps in our children’s lives.
- Stepping up the provision of MOE kindergartens and government-funded preschools. He shared: "Enrolment in preschool at ages five to six is already near universal. But the attendance rate of children from lower-income families can still be improved. At ages three to four especially, more children from such families can also benefit from enrolling in preschool. So we will study how to strengthen their participation in these early years of development, so that we can give the children in these families the best possible start in life."
The DPM highlighted a "deeper challenge" in the education system, citing a concept of meritocracy that "remains too narrow." "Many feel caught in a rat race from a young age – under pressure to get the best grades, get into what they perceive to be the best schools, so that they can get the best university places. Many parents, too, are anxious about their children’s future. Some go to great lengths to maximise their children’s chances to get into perceived brand-name schools, even preschools.
In encouraging a move away from these tendencies, he noted "significant moves" implemented in the education system - the removal of PSLE T-scores, and the replacement of streams in secondary schools with full subject-based banding. "We hope these moves will go some way to remove the stressors in our education system. But more importantly, we hope they will signal to all in society that we are serious about refreshing our system. And I hope our society too – every man, woman, and child; young and old; rich or poor – all of us will be serious about refreshing our mindsets about schools and grades. It is not possible to change something that has become so ingrained in our nature by government decree.
"We must be the change we want to see in our society. Every Singaporean must want to give themselves – and their children – more breathing space to discover and develop their diverse talents, and to maximise their potential."
In that vein, he stressed the need for a key mindset shift to recognise that formal education early in life is not the endpoint of meritocracy. "Far from it. Our refreshed meritocracy must be a continuous one, with learning opportunities, milestones, and ladders at multiple junctures. All must have the chance to try again, do better, and move forward in life, years after leaving school."
This led to a point on lifelong learning, of which he shared about a plan to strengthen SkillsFuture, with an aim to reduce the costs, and lower the barriers to training. This will involve collaboration with industry partners on effective training programmes, including work-based learning options. These courses, he shared, will have to be better curated and vetted, so that they translate into meaningful employment outcomes.
"We will discuss with tripartite partners how we can support workers to take time off to train. This will help the workers individually, but it will help businesses too. At the same time, businesses must shift their emphasis from hiring credentials to hiring skills, and invest in the development of their employees. And Singaporeans themselves must be open to change."
A new definition of success
"But what does success mean? Naturally, it means different things to different people, in different places. Yet somehow, as a society, we tend to converge around material definitions – the size of the paycheck, or the property we own.
"How can we shift our lens, and collectively adopt and embrace wider definitions of success? After all, success is really for each one of us to define. There is no model answer to follow. We should not feel pressured to compare with others, or to conform to preconceived notions. The Japanese talk about discovering your ikigai – something that gives you a sense of purpose and joy. We should strive to be a meritocracy where everyone can be the best possible version of themselves; and where there are many ways for diverse talents to contribute and earn respect in our society."
Thus, a shift in mindsets is necessary - but that alone will not effect societal change, DPM Wong pointed out. "It is not enough to say we will celebrate a variety of professions. Our economic structures, remuneration, and career prospects in various professions must also be consistent with what we value."
In driving these, the Government is considering ways to narrow the wage gap across professions, such as by further professionalising skilled trades such as electricians and plumbers.
On a broader term, it also involves giving ITE and polytechnic graduates stronger assurance that their wages and career prospects will not be too far below their university-going peers, and will not be permanently conscribed to be below.
"They don’t have to succumb to a paper chase to secure a good salary and a viable career path. They can excel in the professions that they have trained in and have the aptitude for, be it hospitality, infocomm, social services, or others. There are many ways to make a difference, many talents to nurture, and many forms of contributions to reward."
On that point, he reiterated efforts in place to uplift lower-wage workers, by increasing wages, setting out a skills ladder, and providing opportunities to upgrade – through Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.
Rounding this section up, DPM Wong stressed: "Here I have a plea to all: For a new definition of success to become a reality, all of us – as consumers – must be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services we consume. We must recognise the important work that our fellow citizens undertake to keep our society going, and do our part to uplift and boost their wage prospects.
"I know this is not an easy ask, given the rising cost of living. But we will do our best to manage the pace of change, and to help everyone, especially our lower- and middle-income families, adjust to this new environment. I might add too: All will gain when even the most vulnerable amongst us become better off. We will become a better people, a more just and more equal society."
A new approach to social support
On this front, the DPM acknowledged a need to relook at the approach to social support: how to assure both the broad middle and the vulnerable that they can meet their needs in life, and not fall by the wayside or be left behind.
For the vulnerable, this involves a gradual shift from social assistance to social empowerment, such as through the Fresh Start Housing Scheme for second-timer lower-income families, which the Government is looking to expand to cover more forms of social support. This, for example, could mean providing additional financial help to vulnerable families who do their part to help themselves, such as staying gainfully employed and sending their children to preschool regularly.
There will also be considerations on further support for persons with disabilities, in particular to reduce the financial burden on parents of children attending special education schools and care centres.
"Equally important is to empower persons with disabilities when they reach adulthood. We will involve and enable them to contribute to society. The onus is on all of us to find ways to affirm the dignity of our differently-abled citizens and enable them to realise their full potential."
Apart from this, the Government is looking into further support for displaced workers, noting that automatic unemployment benefits "can and have often led to negative outcomes elsewhere", as displaced workers who receive generous benefits "find it more attractive to stay unemployed rather than to get back into the workforce."
In addressing this, the Government is aiming to design a support scheme that provides assurance but avoids these negative outcomes: a targeted re-employment scheme that will reduce the strain on displaced workers to make ends meet, while still encouraging them to continue with their upskilling and job search.
A new approach to caring for seniors
Coming to this approach, DPM Wong noted that efforts as part of this have to go beyond physical health. This will involve investments in infrastructure, such as:
- Building more community care apartments
- Expanding the network of active ageing centres
- Improving access to home-based care services
- Working with community partners to prevent loneliness and social isolation.
Additionally, it will involve possible enhancements to current CPF schemes to better support our seniors, including those nearing retirement who have less runway to work and save.
A new emphasis on collective responsibility
Onto the final part, DPM Wong shared: "Now, let me move on to something that underlies our refreshed social compact: we need to be less about ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, more about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’. It was our sense of collective responsibility that saw us through the pandemic, and it is the same sense of collective responsibility that will carry us through our next bound.
"A social compact is not just about what Government will do for the people; it is also about what Singaporeans will do for one another. So our refreshed social compact is not just about the Government doing more, and Singaporeans depending more on the Government. Rather, it is about the Government, businesses, unions, workers, the community, and civil society all doing their part for fellow Singaporeans. It is about all of us coming together, to forge a society of opportunities and assurance for everyone."
What does this mean, and what does it involve? Excerpts on what the DPM shared include:
- Nurturing a broader culture of philanthropy and volunteerism: where we take responsibility for each other, and especially to help those with less. This goes beyond money: it includes investing time and effort in nurturing others – from mentoring the young to providing those from disadvantaged circumstances with access to networks and opportunities.
- Creating more opportunities for Singaporeans to partner the Government and one another in policymaking and co-creation – such as through co-designing and shaping neighbourhoods, and more avenues and platforms for youths to come up with policy ideas.
"Becoming the best home is also very much about the intangibles – among them, embracing a more holistic way of life. Be it working out flexible work arrangements; treating ourselves and one another with greater kindness and compassion; knowing that good mental health is a key part of good health overall; or creating a conducive environment for Singaporeans to start and nurture families.
"We made some moves in the Budget this year, such as increasing paternity leave, and we will consider what more can be done."
Thank you for reading our story! If you have any feedback, feel free to let us know — take our 2023 Readers' Survey here.
Photo: MCI YouTube