Friday, 6 April 2012

"No Singaporean Left Behind" - Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2012

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam speaks at Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2012
NUS Newshub, 5 Apr 2012

The government's most important mission is to build and sustain an inclusive Singapore. To achieve this, this year's budget and work across several ministries have focused increasingly on how to make a significant leap in the living standards for Singaporeans. Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance and Minister for Manpower, underscored these points at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum (KRMF) themed "No Singaporean Left Behind" on 4 April.

"The government plays its role, particularly in redistribution and ensuring that we can grow as an economy and grow well. It is about everyone playing a part - businesses, employers and Singaporeans to help each other take responsibility for their families. It does not mean my family and me moving up only but it is about how we can move up together," said Mr Tharman to the more than 200-strong audience composed mainly of undergraduates.

During the lively forum discussion, Mr Tharman answered questions on a range of topics including implementing affirmative action to deal with social inequality, increasing opportunities for Singaporeans, maintaining trust between the ruling party and the electorate, tackling the anxieties of the middle-class, as well as addressing the impact of high property prices on middle and low-income Singaporeans.

On the issue of how realistic or idealistic that no Singaporean be left behind, Mr Tharman said that no society could achieve this perfectly. He shared about how efforts by him and his grassroots volunteers have led to a change in attitude among Singaporeans who find the system unsuitable or even unfair.

"When you try and help them and when they see a group of individuals who really want to help them, they themselves rise to the opportunity," said Mr Tharman.

Held annually, the KRMF aims to promote political awareness among Singapore undergraduates and foster their interest on issues of social and economic importance. It is organised by the NUS Students' Political Association.

'Not handouts but a culture of responsibility'
Tharman says systemwide help can have negative effects
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2012

THE key to a strong, inclusive society is not extending benefits to more and more disadvantaged groups but keeping alive a culture where everyone strives to do better and is rewarded for hard work, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last night.

He was speaking on the topic of 'No Singaporean left behind' at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum to some 200 National University of Singapore (NUS) students.

During a lively 90-minute question-and-answer session, several students pressed Mr Tharman for more government help for disadvantaged groups.

Responding, he said: 'I think culture is very important and you will not create a stronger society where people keep moving up when it's all about Government providing benefits for every disadvantaged group. You create a stronger society when at its core, you have a culture of responsibility.'

An auditorium in NUS' new University Town was the setting for the exchange between undergraduates and the Cabinet member at the forefront of the Government's push to build an inclusive society.

Students lobbed questions on a wide range of issues, from race and politics to property prices and competition from foreigners for jobs. Mr Tharman quipped that he waited in vain for an unimportant question. He said the questions posed showed the forum participants had been thinking hard about the issues.

Mr Walid Jumblatt, 26, a master's student in political science, asked if the Government would consider affirmative action for Malays, who are lagging behind the Chinese and Indians. Another student wanted more help for single mothers.

Mr Tharman cited the experience of other countries in making his case that extending across-the-board help to disadvantaged groups can have unintended, negative effects.

While affirmative action is 'not a crazy idea', he warned that when implemented systemwide in a country, it can end up disadvantaging the very people it is meant to serve.

That happens because the drive of the group so favoured 'tends to ebb over time'. Such policies also affect how others perceive them.

Mr Tharman said that among his Malay friends who are doing well, the last thing they want is affirmative action. What they want, instead, is a fair society in which people rise based on merit.

The DPM also cited the benefits given to single mothers in the United States, Britain and several European countries, as another example of well-intentioned moves having ill effects.

In Britain, single mothers now enjoy more benefits than wedded mothers. And in the US, more children were born out of wedlock than in wedlock last year.

Mr Tharman made clear that as far as he was concerned, when single mothers seek help, they and their children should receive it.

His point, though, was this: 'We have to be very careful about introducing new rules that are across the system, new welfare benefits, because we do want to preserve a society where people value the family unit.'

The Finance Minister, who also oversees the Manpower portfolio, emphasised that Singapore has not done badly at all in raising its people's incomes and standard of living. Real median income, for example, is today three times what it was in 1980, he said.

In response to a student's question on whether it was even realistic, in the face of growing inequality, to speak of a society where no Singaporean would be left behind, Mr Tharman said no society could achieve this perfectly.

At the same time, he had seen for himself how his efforts to help, and those of his grassroots volunteers, caused even those who had given up to change their attitudes.

'People who end up in a hole and lose spirit and feel that there's no point even trying, (they think) 'the system is not suitable for me or even unfair'. When you try and help them and when they see a group of individuals who really want to help them, they themselves rise to the opportunity,' he said.

Draw lessons from the 'Taiwan story'
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2012

SINGAPORE risks becoming a 'Taiwan story' and will lose its competitive edge globally if it closes its doors to foreign talent, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam last night.

He cited a recent survey on talent migration in Taiwan that shows the stark consequences on the wages of its people from pursuing a closed-door policy against foreigners.

At the same time, its best and brightest were leaving the island, particularly for China as well as the United States and other countries.

As a result, the nominal income of the average Taiwanese has flattened for more than a decade, according to the survey done by the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Worse, when inflation is taken into account, the real income of the Taiwanese has declined significantly, he said.

This holds lessons for Singapore.

Mr Tharman noted that many Singaporeans want to work in the best enterprises and in competitive teams. An increasing proportion of the most capable Singaporeans are also striking out overseas.

So, he said, 'if you don't provide opportunities in Singapore for enterprises to be global class and highly competitive, and for Singaporeans to work in the best teams, we will lose more of our Singaporeans, and we will be a Taiwan story'.

Mr Tharman, who is the Finance as well as the Manpower Minister, made the point when replying to an alumnus at a forum organised by the NUS Students' Political Association.

Mr Lim Chuan Yang, 30, who works in an event management company, had asked if there were too many foreign graduates in Singapore. He noted that many of these foreigners were asking for much lower wages, which in turn depressed the wages of local graduates like himself.

Mr Tharman, in his reply, also stressed that by staying open, Singapore can distinguish itself economically from other countries.

Locking out foreigners would make it hard for the country to compete. 'We would be shooting ourselves in the foot,' he said.

He explained that most of Singapore's economy is part of a global market and it competes with other economies for a slice of the global pie.

'So even if we don't have foreigners here, you are still competing with foreigners somewhere else. The question then is how you strengthen the team in Singapore, in a way that benefits Singaporeans?' he said.

At the same time, Singapore cannot just accept whoever that comes 'because our objective is to improve opportunities for Singaporeans in the end'.

And as Singapore slows the inflow of foreigners and tightens the conditions for employment passes, the country needs to ensure that it 'brings in foreigners to strengthen the team - but make sure that Singaporeans have opportunities', he said.

The approach, he added, includes 'nurturing Singaporeans so that they can rise, in seniority and responsibility, in each sector of the economy'.

Maintaining a relationship of trust between Govt and people

WITH a rising sense of cynicism about the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), how can the Government sustain a level of trust with its people?

This question was posed by political science student Hong Wee Kiat, 24, at a dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam last night.

Replying, Mr Tharman said the political situation in Singapore so far has been unusual, with the People's Action Party (PAP) getting a large percentage of votes in every election it won.

The question is how the party evolves, as well as how Singaporeans evolve in their political thinking, he added.

'I think it's important for us to retain a relationship of trust between whoever is the elected government and the people. Not everybody voted for the Government, but you got to keep up the system where not everything is subject to contention all year round because it leads to a loss of common focus in society,' he said.

Mr Tharman also said it was just as important to maintain a situation where politicians and political leaders are trusted.

This would not happen naturally, he noted.

As society moves forward, people become more educated, and the rate of progress slows down, as it has in Singapore. As such, there would be more questioning voices and a greater desire for alternatives. How the PAP responds to the change is important, said Mr Tharman, who in his usual frank manner admitted his party has made missteps.

'We took our incumbency too much for granted in the past and we were also too in your face.'

The solution would be for the PAP to engage with the people 'a lot more', take nothing for granted and win Singaporeans over by giving them more say, he said.

'I feel if you can keep up a system where people have a stake and more say, they feel they have a role to make things better. Then the situation of trust between the Government and the people will be better preserved.

'Singapore will be better for it,' he added.


'Middle-class people who are mid-career, engineers, accountants, people who are working at a range of service occupations... but they feel they are not progressing enough.

Devising a scheme of continuous education for mid-career professionals is an important challenge and I feel it's an area we can do a lot more, and we can do a lot better than other societies.'

Mr Tharman's response to a question from political science student Darryl Lee, 22, on middle-class worries over education opportunities and job security


'You need to be a society where customers treat blue-collar workers with respect, and that requires some attitudinal changes. A society where a mother is quite happy when the daughter says that I'm going out with a waiter...

'We've got to be a society which regards the blue-collar worker as core to your workforce, pays them better, respects them, grows them in their careers.'

Mr Tharman when asked how Singapore can find enough people to do the jobs that are considered 'less favourable'.

We're not in happy part of housing cycle, Tharman admits
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2012

PROPERTY prices have risen faster than incomes in recent years because demand shot up even as housing supply lagged behind.

'We're not in a very happy part of the cycle,' said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam last night at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.

Engineering doctoral student Yvonne Ho, 33, had asked him about the impact of high property prices on middle- and low-income Singaporeans.

Mr Tharman assured her that, despite earlier being 'behind the curve in the supply of housing', the Government was now taking active measures to cool the property market through a significant increase of units in the public Build-To-Order and private markets.

However, this will take time, as property prices move in cycles and no country can control its property market entirely to achieve steady growth. Singapore's approach is to 'keep leaning against the wind' each time the property market heats up.

At the same time, Mr Tharman, who is also Finance and Manpower Minister, maintained that the Government's broader housing policy was right as it encouraged people to own their homes, stay in their jobs and gain from asset enhancement.

The Government currently gives grants to help low-income families buy Housing Board flats.

Mr Tharman explained that, to avoid wealth disparity, the lower-income group should be helped to own property assets, rather than pay rent all their lives on other people's property.

This way, Singapore will avoid the problem elsewhere where 'the bottom 30 per cent are basically not sharing in any form of asset appreciation', which is enjoyed only by the higher-income group.

Going beyond the numbers, Mr Tharman painted the housing strategy as part of a larger social culture.

'Our strategy is not about homes per se. Our strategy is about homes, jobs and skills.'

He noted that home owners held very different attitudes towards their jobs from renters. 'They take a long-term view. They try every way of staying at a job.'

And such an attitude, he added, would usually be passed on to subsequent generations.

As for the timing of the Government's housing and other measures, Mr Tharman dismissed what he called the 'urban myth' that these had been prompted by last year's General Election (GE).

While he admitted that some housing measures had been stepped up after sentiments expressed during the GE, he rejected a suggestion from another participant that the themes of inclusiveness in this year's Budget were a response to the election.

He cited programmes on which the Government had been working intensively for several years before: Workfare income supplements for low-wage workers, training schemes for older workers, more Medifund for the needy, and various financial lifelines under the ComCare.

'Not everything starts and ends with the GE2011. And, quite frankly, this has been an oversold story,' he said.

On entering the housing market, Mr Tharman concluded with a piece of advice to Ms Ho: 'Wait a little bit.'

Keeping chances alive, keeping social mobility up
This is an edited extract from a talk by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum on Wednesday.
The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2012

IF YOU look at this year's Budget, and what we have been doing in the last few years, you can see what our most important mission as Government is: to build and sustain an Inclusive Singapore. It is not a one-time job. It is continuous work for any society, certainly for us in Singapore, but it is also our major project.

At first glance, you'd think it is about social policy. But it is also economic policy. It is about growing in a way that helps everyone do better and have a better life. It is about growing the pie so that all Singaporeans can have a fair share of a larger pie.

We are stepping up social policies, aimed especially at helping the elderly, those with disabilities and the poor. But it is also about social policies that encourage aspirations, that ensure we do not lose our drive as a society. That is critical for growth and growing the pie.

So we have to keep thinking that way. Think of the social consequences of economic policies, think of the economic consequences of social policy.

It is about many initiatives, but all focused on how we can achieve the next lift in Singaporeans' living standards, and ensure that everyone feels that he or she has a fair chance of doing well in life regardless of where they start from.

We have two major challenges.

The first is taking care of our elderly and giving them a greater sense of economic security in their retirement years. They do not want to be too big a burden on their children. That includes the middle-income group, and in this year's Budget we extended significant subsidies to them in health care.

The second challenge is to keep our social compact. Economic inequalities are increasing around the world and in Singapore. We have to find a way to contain that, and keep our social compact. The key solution is to keep social mobility going.

We have to find every way to keep that going in each successive generation, so everyone who starts off with a disadvantage has a way of moving up, and we don't get disadvantage repeating itself across generations.

We cannot avoid the fact that in every society there are advantages that come with being better-off or having better-educated parents. But we want to do more to help other kids to level up and aspire. Do more to make sure that your chances in life are not all determined at birth, and how well you do does not depend on where you start from. Do more to ensure that we keep chances alive, so that we have churn and movement in society, within each generation. In our education system, that too is an important responsibility.

We are starting upstream, when the kids are young, so that difficulties and problems do not build up. Problems downstream are always much harder to tackle.

So we are starting early, to help kids who need speech therapy, spot those with learning difficulties and train specialists to help them. We are giving those from lower-income backgrounds more opportunity to discover their strengths and gain confidence.

It is many things, not just financial assistance but also opportunities. Opportunities to develop leadership abilities, with special programmes funded through Edusave; for overseas study trips through the Opportunity Fund; to develop strengths through the arts and sports, which we are placing more emphasis on in every school. And at the core of it all, good teachers in all our schools, to help bring out the potential in every child.

A lot of this is also taking place in neighbourhoods, through the initiatives of volunteers. It's quite inspiring. I see it in my own constituency and elsewhere. Young people coming forward, people in their 50s are coming forward, taking the initiative to develop and run community schemes, once and often twice a week. Many different ways to help children gain confidence, give them exposure to things that better-off kids take for granted, and help spark off something in themselves.

We are catering to different ways of learning, and that too is important for mobility. The Normal Technical stream is evolving in very interesting ways in several schools, with more attachments outside the school. Some people learn better when they are doing things. It's not just the manual skills they pick up. Their minds are ticking, and they learn how a system operates. I think we can move further in this direction, to reduce the emphasis on one particular form of learning and assessment, which is largely academic.

We are also investing a lot more to help people once they have entered the workforce, so that everyone can keep learning something, keep improving and upskilling, and can move up. It is not just about basic skills, but investing in advanced skills, in every job - in restaurants and hotels, in manufacturing and in our other industries. It goes hand-in- hand with re-instilling pride in blue-collar jobs, giving them more respect and rewarding them better.

We also want to provide better support for middle-income Singaporeans, many of whom work in PME (professionals, managers, executives) jobs. They are not poor, but they want to progress and not stagnate in their careers. Many switch jobs at mid-career, and need to pick up a new set of knowledge and skills. Devising schemes of continuous education to help our mid-career professionals is an important priority for the future.

I think we will be able to do this well in Singapore. Provide the support and training opportunities, in the workplace and outside, so that this is truly a learning nation - where everyone keeps improving their skills, sees their pay improve over time, and also know that they are part of a team at work and with a whole set of fellow citizens who keep improving.

So both at school and in the workforce, we want to do more to keep mobility up. It's a challenge in every country, as societies becomes more settled. We have to do all we can do keep spreading opportunities from young, so that everyone knows they have a real chance to move up through their efforts.

But ultimately, it is not just about new schemes and programmes in themselves. We have to keep up the spirit of aspiring, that makes Singapore what it is. I'll give you an example from among my colleagues at the Ministry of Finance: a young officer, Mastura Manap. Her father is a lorry driver, her mother a homemaker. Mastura started off at East View Primary. She then went to Tanjong Katong Girls' School (TKGS) - she had her eye on it from the time she was six, when she had an older neighbour who went to TKGS, and decided that she wanted to wear the green uniform like her. She made good friends there and next at Nanyang Junior College, friends that Mastura says made her think more about herself and what she wanted to do. She went on to the National University of Singapore, got first-class honours in Sociology, then to do a master's degree at NUS, got an award for the best graduate thesis, and was the valedictorian for her year.

Of her three siblings, one has graduated from university, another is still in university, and the youngest is in a junior college. I asked her how they all managed this. Mastura told me said that, from young, their parents kept telling them to 'study hard so that you will have a better life than us'. She and her siblings grew up 'always wanting to get good results, and get the Edusave bursary which was like really a huge bonus'.

It's a spirit we all recognise. Nothing holds us back.

It's the spirit that has made Singapore, and how we got to this point. How the average citizen's income has gone up by three times in the last 30 years in real terms, ie adjusted for inflation, and how living standards have caught up with those in several developed countries. It's what we must keep supporting and encouraging through every way, because it's what really keeps an inclusive society going.

Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum 2012 - The Kent Ridge Common

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