How to build a stronger and more cohesive society amidst the pandemic


By Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam

My fellow Singaporeans,

In this fifth Ministerial broadcast, I will talk about the challenges we face as a society, and how we must work together to strengthen our social compact in the years to come.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the stakes. The fall in incomes around the world is expected to be the most severe in the last 100 years. But this is not just an economic recession. It has the makings of a profound social crisis, in one country after another.

We are already seeing this happen elsewhere. It did not begin with the pandemic. Social divisions were already growing in these countries. But they are now getting even wider. Job and income losses have hit some groups much harder than others. Children without well-off parents are falling behind, with their schooling disrupted and little done to help them. All this is sharpening feelings of helplessness, and the sense that the system is stacked against those who are already disadvantaged. And it is bringing long-standing perceptions of racial injustice to a boiling point.
Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn. But we must absolutely defy the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation, and the despair that is taking hold in many other countries. Never think these trends cannot take hold in Singapore. There are many societies which used to be cohesive, but are now fragmenting, both in the West and in Asia. No society remains cohesive simply because it used to be.

The economic dangers we now face compel us to fortify our society, and reinforce the strengths that we have developed over many years.

Strengthening our Social Compact

We will redouble efforts to strengthen our social compact. First, we will ensure everyone has full opportunity to do well for themselves, through education, skills, and good jobs. Second, we will boost support for those who start life at a disadvantage, so that we keep social mobility alive in Singapore, and lessen inequalities over time.
And third, we must all play a role to strengthen our culture of solidarity, so we know we have each other to depend on, in good times and bad. Every individual must put in the effort to achieve their fullest potential. But we must also take responsibility collectively, to help people bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks, and make sure no Singaporean is left behind. We are doing this through government policies to help those with less, at every stage of life, as well as through citizen-led initiatives and communities of care that are growing in every neighbourhood. As PM said in his opening broadcast, in Singapore no one will be left to walk his journey alone.

Tackling Unemployment

Our first priority today is to save jobs, and to help Singaporeans who do lose their jobs to bounce back into work. This is not just an economic issue, but a social priority. We will do all we can to prevent people from being out of work for long, so they can stand on their own feet and retain their sense of dignity. Good jobs are also at the heart of our whole approach to building a cohesive society and tempering inequalities.

The National Jobs Council is moving full speed ahead. We will secure the 100,000 jobs and training places targeted by the SGUnited Jobs and Skills package that DPM Heng Swee Keat introduced.

The reality of the matter is that we face strong headwinds. As long as grave uncertainty hangs over the global economy, and trade and travel are down, new job openings in Singapore will very likely be fewer than job losses. So if we leave things to market forces, unemployment will rise significantly over the next year, or even beyond that if Covid-19 remains a threat.

We are therefore working with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships during this down period, so they get real work opportunities and get paid, and pick up skills while waiting for permanent jobs to open up. The Government is heavily subsidising these opportunities. It gives people far greater benefit when Government provides support this way. No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long.
The public sector will also bring forward hiring for future jobs, in areas such as healthcare, early childhood development, education and social services. It will step up recruitment especially in sectors which earlier had difficulty finding enough Singaporeans to fill up the positions.

We have faced conditions of high unemployment before, but we are in a much stronger position to address the challenge today. Twice before, unemployment rose well beyond 6 per cent – In the late 60s, when the British began pulling out their forces, and in the mid-80s, when we suffered a major recession. Our economy is much better diversified today. Our people are far more skilled. And the trust and confidence that investors have in Singapore is much stronger, as Minister Chan Chun Sing explained in the last Ministerial broadcast.

Helping our Middle-Aged and Mature Workers

However, our labour force is much older today than in the late 60s when the British began pulling out, and in the mid-80s recession. In those times, less than 30 per cent of our labour force was 40 years or older. Today, the proportion is 60 per cent, double what it was before. And many of today’s workers are in fact 50 years or older.

This is why we are making a concerted effort to help our middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers. Most of those in their 50s and 60s did not go beyond secondary school. They had much fewer educational opportunities than today’s younger generation. But they are a hard-working and vigorous generation, who have accumulated valuable skills and experience over the years, and still have many good years ahead of them. We will spare no effort to help them carry on with their careers in the most productive jobs they can do, so that they can continue to provide for their families and contribute to Singapore.

The Government will give employers extra support when they hire middle-aged and older Singaporeans. We will also scale up the new Mid-Career Pathways programme in the months to come, so they get opportunities to work at companies and public sector agencies, and can prepare for more permanent jobs in future.

This is, and must be, a national effort. And it needs new thinking among employers, to give middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers a fair chance to prove themselves. Employers need to reorient their management philosophies, and their HR and talent management practices.

No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be ‘too old’ to hire. And no one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as ‘overqualified’. We will work closely with the business associations to bring all employers into this national effort. MOM will also watch companies’ hiring practices to ensure they comply with the Fair Consideration Framework.

If it becomes the norm to hire mid-career Singaporeans and train them for new jobs, everyone is better off. Our workers will be able to build on their skills and experience and we will have a more capable and motivated workforce, with a strong Singaporean core, that every employer can rely on.

The Future of Jobs Begins Now

We are also investing heavily in reskilling and upskilling the majority of Singaporeans who still have jobs. Many occupations are being transformed by the digital revolution and other technological advances. We have been preparing for this for several years.

But Covid-19 is fast-forwarding the changes. When we talk of the jobs of the future, therefore, it is not some far-off or hypothetical possibility. The future begins now.

That is why we have expanded training opportunities in every sector and every job, through the Next Bound of SkillsFuture, like here at e2i.

Everyone should have the courage to re-gear to stay on track, and make the effort to acquire new skills at regular points in your careers, possibly even learning whole new disciplines. Please take on the challenge.

Keeping Social Mobility Alive

These efforts will not only give Singaporeans good jobs, but also help with social mobility. When everyone keeps learning throughout life, they can advance through the skills and mastery they acquire rather than grades earned long ago in school. We are progressively developing this meritocracy of life.

But good schools are critical to social mobility too.

Social mobility is what Singapore has been about, and how we have transformed our society since the 1960s. Generations of children from humble backgrounds have moved up in life, through education, and by working hard in their jobs and businesses. Even today, Singaporeans who grow up in lower income families have a better chance of moving up the income ladder than those in most other advanced countries.

We must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort.
However, there is nothing natural or pre-ordained about social mobility. Every successful country has in fact found that it gets more difficult to sustain this with time. Parents who themselves had higher education or who have become better off are investing more in their children, and moving them further ahead of the rest.
It therefore requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools, and dedicated networks of community support to keep social mobility alive.

We are investing a lot more into equalising opportunities when children are young. We are expanding KidSTART, to help lower income families and their children in the earliest years, which are critical to their development. And we have upgraded the preschool profession, and set up the National Institute of Early Childhood Development to raise standards. So whichever preschool your child goes to, he or she will have a good start.

We are also investing more in our schools, to make sure that every student who needs extra support will get it. During the recent circuit-breaker, our teachers made great effort to help students from poorer homes and those at risk, to ensure they did not fall behind.

But it is also an ongoing, broader effort. MOE has been allocating extra resources to schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will give them even more support in the coming years, by hiring more teachers, allied educators, student welfare officers, and teacher-counsellors. They will strengthen the school teams that support students who are doing less well in primary schools, and our UPLIFT efforts to help those at risk. And they will help students to go as far as they can through the Full Subject-Based Banding system in secondary schools.
Minister Ong Ye Kung is also accelerating plans to equip all secondary school students with a personal laptop or tablet for learning. They will each have their own device by next year, seven years ahead of the original target.
When you add up all we are doing, starting from the earliest years of childhood, we are making a determined effort to keep Singapore a place where every individual can do well, regardless of their starting points.

Building a Stronger Culture of Solidarity

Finally, we must strengthen our culture of solidarity, and provide Singaporeans with greater assurance of assistance when they meet with difficulties in life.

We must remain a society where self-effort is rewarded, and each one of us takes pride in achieving something in life. But we also need, more than we did in the earlier years, a strong spirit of selflessness and solidarity, looking out for the vulnerable, and supporting each other. Not because we are obliged to do so, but because it makes us a better society together.

We have seen this solidarity in action in the Covid-19 crisis. Singaporeans from all walks of life have come forward to support those who were most affected by the crisis, including by serving on the frontlines.

These community efforts have complemented the Government’s social support schemes to help Singaporeans through the crisis. They are schemes responding to today’s crisis, but they are also part of a broader re-orientation in our social policies, that began well before Covid-19, and will outlast it. We are working systematically to provide greater support for lower and middle-income Singaporeans and to build a fair and just society.

We will strengthen these policies in the coming years. No one can tell what world will emerge when Covid-19 is over, or whether it has entered a long period of economic stagnation as many fear. But we will do all we can to make ours a more cohesive society, and do it in ways that can be sustained into the next generation. And we must all do our utmost to avoid the rifts and fractures that we see developing in many other societies.

The Government has increased subsidies for lower and middle-income families in education, housing and healthcare, including CHAS. We are also boosting Silver Support, to help our poorer retirees.

But very importantly, we continue to strengthen support for our lower income Singaporeans at work. Through Workfare and the Special Employment Credit, the Government pays as much as 40% on top of the wages that employers pay older lower-income workers.

We are also making progress in uplifting our lowest paid workers, and will go further. Through the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), our cleaners, security officers and landscape workers have seen their wages increase by 30% in real terms over the last 5 years. That is not the end of it. Progressive Wages are not a one-off, but a ladder for continuing improvement.

In time, we want every sector to have Progressive Wages, with this clear ladder of skills, better jobs, and better wages for those with lower pay. Minister Josephine Teo at MOM is working actively with the tripartite partners on this. They will bring in the industry associations, to work out schemes that can be practically adopted in the different industries.

Likewise, we want to provide lower-income Singaporeans in short-term contract work with opportunities to get more stable jobs, better protection and the chance to progress in their careers.

These measures will bring meaningful and continuing improvements in pay and conditions for our lower-income workers. It may lead to a small rise in the cost of services that we all pay for. But it is a small price for us to pay for better jobs and income security for those who need it most, and a fair society.

Our Confidence in the Future

Ultimately, the greatest confidence we get in our future as Singaporeans comes from our social compact. Our social strategies are aimed at strengthening this compact that holds us together. But the compact is about all of us, and goes much deeper than Government policies.

It is about the compact of self-effort and selflessness that we must strengthen in our culture. It is about the networks and initiatives that we saw spring up in this Covid-19 crisis. About the interest we take in each other, at workplaces and in the community, because we all make up the fabric of Singapore. About respecting every individual regardless of their job, and respecting their effort to overcome setbacks and make the best they can of life.

And it is about how we draw closer to each other, regardless of race, religion or social background.
It is how we journey together. A forward-looking, spirited and more cohesive society.

Cover photo credit: Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash