Sunday 28 October 2012

New goals, new ideas

Ahead of a reorganisation that affects two ministries and creates a new one, Goh Chin Lian talks to the three ministers who will be helming them and finds out their plans and priorities
The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2012

CHAN CHUN SING: Providing help, building families

MR CHAN Chun Sing will never forget the three families who turned up to ask for help at his Meet-the-People Sessions.

One of them earned just $2,000 a month, but managed to raise three children. Another had double that income, of $4,000 to $5,000, and had no children.

But it was the third, a family that earned $16,000 and had two children, who complained the most, saying the Government was not doing enough to help them.

The incident, says Mr Chan, illustrates the rising expectations that Singaporeans have and the challenge that policymakers face as they try to work out who should get more help.

"It's not an easy question to answer and we will have to find the answer as a society going forward," he says.

It is also a challenge Mr Chan's new ministry, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), will have to grapple with as it streamlines its responsibilities to focus more on policies affecting Singaporean families.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) will be renamed the MSF and pass on its youth and sports portfolios to the newly created Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

That will give Mr Chan's ministry more time and space to look at longer-term challenges such as meeting the needs of singles when they age in 20 years' time and finding ways to tap the energies of healthy elderly people to serve other senior citizens.

At an hour-long interview at the MCYS headquarters in Toa Payoh this week, the Acting Minister laid out the priorities for his new ministry.

One of them will be to strengthen the social safety net - which will require the ministry to factor in Singaporeans' changing expectations. Another is to improve the delivery of social services, and a third is to strengthen families.

Mr Chan notes that it is no longer only those at the bottom of the ladder who need help. Those in the middle are starting to feel unsettled by the growing income gap too. "They wonder whether they can meet their aspirations because of the people at the top end," he says.

"The question for us is, as a society, to what extent we can actually help this group of people beyond the people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale."

As economic cycles become shorter and more volatile, people are also more likely to be in and out of jobs, he observes. They will have to relearn their skills at a much faster rate as well.

"If I use my mother as an example, she was a machine operator, stamping metal plates. She did that for at least 30 years."

With just one set of skills, notes Mr Chan, his mother, a divorcee, was able to raise him and his sister single-handedly.

But no longer.

The churn in jobs and the instability of people's incomes today pose a serious challenge and could even disrupt the way children are brought up and their education.

Another concern for Mr Chan is Singapore's changing demographics: More people are staying single, marrying later, having fewer children and living longer.

As he looks into the next 10 to 15 years, he foresees a shrinking of the support that extended families can now give in raising children and caring for sick relatives.

"So that is where you see us... not just building the nursing homes, which are institutional care, but growing the community care sector and the home care services," he says.

Strengthening elderly care services in the community and at home will allow people to grow old in familiar settings, he explains.

Longevity will pose another challenge as people in their 80s and 90s will be increasingly cared for by those in their 50s and 60s.

But Mr Chan also sees these healthy retirees as a source of volunteers and helpers to beef up the delivery of social services at the local level, as is being done in Japan.

Singapore is now trying out this idea: Lions Befrienders, for instance, is getting the old to befriend the old, while a seniors' activity centre in Choa Chu Kang pays elderly folk a stipend to run activities.

As for the larger challenge of strengthening families, Mr Chan thinks measures should be targeted at people's four life stages: when they are young, when they marry, when they have children and when they are maintaining a family.

He believes that a central plank of the efforts - besides helping couples with housing, health care, childcare and education - should be to inculcate from young values for marriage, parenthood and family. "If we bring up our children appreciating the joy of a family, then I think when they grow up, chances are that they will also aspire to have their own family," he says.

It means getting people not to see their career as an obstacle to starting a family, helping them to appreciate the joy of parenthood, and maintaining healthy relationships between parents and teenagers. Such values can be transmitted through schools and the media, he says, especially as children may not live with their grandparents and parents may be working. Positive role models are also needed, he adds.

The 43-year-old says his own values were shaped by his family and the people he met. Watching Hong Kong sword-fighting drama serials and movies helped, he quips.

The former army chief married his colleague in Mindef in 1997 at the age of 28 - the median age then. They have three children, aged 11, three and one.

Recalling their decision to wed and have children, he cites a senior's advice: "He told me that there's never a perfect time to get married or to have a child... The perfect time is when you have the commitment to overcome life's challenges with your partner. "But through the whole journey, you find a new sense of joy and purpose beyond just the pursuit of material well-being for yourself."

YAACOB IBRAHIM: Connecting with people better

A PALM-SIZE Apple TV sits in the house of Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, and is a source of entertainment for the family. The device gives his two children round-the-clock access to blockbuster movies and content from around the world.

But this easy access also worries the minister who will oversee the reconfigured portfolio of Communications and Information: Singaporeans, he says, could end up bypassing local media content and losing touch with Singapore along with an understanding of its challenges and its neighbourhood.

"Local content is critical for a sense of who we are, how we connect as a people and nation. It also allows us to shape the continuing conversation about the Singapore identity of the future."

His concern over engaging Singaporeans' attention also extends to making sure that their Government's voice can be heard amid the chatter of countless news sources that are available online.

That is one priority that the newly reorganised Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) has set, its chief revealed in an interview this week with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.

MCI is replacing the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, which will yield its arts and heritage portfolios to the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Dr Yaacob expects this reorganisation to give his ministry "greater bandwidth" to focus on a media landscape that has been transformed by the Internet, along with its current responsibilities of overseeing public communications and promoting Singapore's infocommunications, media and design sectors.

To boost local media content, Dr Yaacob is banking on recently approved funding of $630 million for public service broadcast programmes over five years. There are also schemes to support scriptwriters.

He says the current standard of local programmes is good, citing Chinese TV documentaries, but he believes they can be better if there is more diversity of content.

The MCI is also looking further into how best to engage the online community better so that the Government's voice is also heard.

The impact of the Internet on governance was an issue he had discussed with technology companies. "We all have to adapt and the Government has to be in the game," he says.

But with many issues on the radar such as new platforms and media converging, he admits, "it is not always possible to have a full idea of what's happening".

"But that's the nature of technology and a globalised world. It's our job to ride the wave and make sense for our people. We need to continue to look at ways to not just support industry growth, but also how to empower consumers and decide on the values we want to safeguard as a society."

And besides explaining issues, he adds: "We must also listen better - not just online views but the quieter majority.

"We have to keep discussions going on issues that affect us, and ensure that concerns of all stakeholders get factored into policy early and addressed throughout implementation. Then, we build the sense of trust and belonging."

For now, being "in the game" has meant setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts and websites for most ministries. In May, the website also launched a section called "Factually", which aims to dispel common misperceptions of government policies by giving explanations on hot topics like the national reserves, certificates of entitlement (COEs) and procurement processes.

Most political office holders have also taken to engaging the online community through their own Facebook pages.

But to ensure key government messages get reflected in all media, from the newspapers and TV to the Internet, a chief of government communications - Institute of Policy Studies director Janadas Devan - was appointed in July.

His job will also involve coordinating public communications, building up new capabilities so that information is available "in different shapes and sizes" for Singaporeans from all walks of life.

And while the MCI wants to grow the Internet so it can contribute to Singapore's economy, it also wants to bring people together as a nation through healthy exchanges of views, Dr Yaacob says.

Although his idea of a community-driven Internet code of conduct was panned by bloggers and netizens, he thinks that the conversation should continue about the outcomes that people want.

"I don't see the need for more regulation," he says. "What we really want is to encourage people to have their own understanding or guidelines on what is acceptable - to be civil, to be courteous. Everyone - website administrators, forum moderators, and netizens - has a role."

A rational discourse where people can disagree in a civil manner should also extend to comments on government policies, he adds.

"As individuals, there are inevitably different perspectives. So you can write to vary or disagree. And at the same time the Government has the right to reply... so that the wider community gets the complete picture," he says. "I think what we want is for Singaporeans to be able to discuss rationally and make informed decisions."

And even as people are free to express their opinions, accuracy and verification of facts are important, he stresses.

His ministry intends to continue to engage people to be more discerning about what they read online. "If you ask me, a small dose of scepticism is very healthy for all of us," he says.

Dr Yaacob indicates that he was also heartened when many "responsible voices" in the online community spoke up against former union executive Amy Cheong's racist Facebook posting about Malay weddings.

"I think that's a good sign that the online community feels it has an important role on its part to be responsible, civil and courteous."

LAWRENCE WONG: Forging S'porean soul through arts

THE first time the young Lawrence Wong heard a symphony orchestra live was at a concert in the United States, when he was a university student. He sat there, enraptured by the experience.

"It was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the one that goes da-da- da-da," recalls Mr Wong, now 39, intoning its famous four opening notes.

"I had heard it before, but I'd never heard it live and played in that kind of setting. There's something magical about it."

He was similarly held in wonder when he stepped into an art museum for the first time on a summer holiday trip, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "I had never been to an art museum when I was growing up in Singapore at that time.

"Words cannot describe how you feel when you see works of good art that sort of uplift you and transcend you from where you are," he gushes.

As a member of the generation that grew up in Singapore in the 1980s, Mr Wong's limited exposure to the arts was not unusual.

The arts scene here, however, has blossomed since, and the incoming chief of the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) intends to make the most of it when he assumes the post as its Acting Minister next Thursday.

At an interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, the former civil servant of nearly 15 years laid out his aims: to inspire Singaporeans through arts and sports, build a stronger society, and promote caring and giving among citizens.

The unifying purpose of the new ministry, he says, is to appeal to Singaporeans at "a higher plane", one that touches on the "soul of a nation".

These aims reflect the Government's recognition of Singaporeans' desires.

"It's about quality of life. It's about providing inspiration. It's about seeking fulfilment at a higher level," he says.

He believes such trends have implications for the arts, for instance.

"We've reached a stage where we've achieved a certain vibrancy in our arts sector compared with, say, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago," he observes, citing the Esplanade's recent 10th anniversary celebrations as an example.

"Going forward, we have to think a lot harder about how we can forge or create Singaporean art that forges the Singaporean soul and attaches Singaporeans to this country."

Mr Wong readily admits that defining Singaporean art will not be an easy task, but he has in mind one characteristic he believes it should have: It roots Singaporeans to their national identity and appeals to outsiders at the same time.

"It's not just something we're proud of, but it's also something that can be appealing and can attract people to Singapore."

Mr Wong offers an example: a recent arts project by Lasalle College of the Arts that explored relations between Singaporeans and foreigners through a video documentary, a play and an interactive art installation.

Called Singapore Portraits, it toured heartland areas like Marine Parade and Boon Lay this month. For their show, students had gone round Singapore extracting soil samples and logging variations in temperature at different locales, and also interviewed Singaporeans for their views on foreigners and the Singaporean identity.

The effort impressed Mr Wong. He says that as an artist in Singapore, "you imbibe the spirit, you grew up here, you have your memories here and it will come out in the performances or in the works that you do".

He also believes nurturing the arts will take several hands. So while the Government can fund arts infrastructure, he says it has to partner companies, community groups and arts practitioners.

The incoming minister, together with his new team of permanent and deputy secretaries, has already been meeting them to find out their aspirations.

From what he has seen so far, there is no lack of motivation and desire among artists, as well as those in sports and youth, to volunteer their time and skills to do social good, such as reaching out to children with special needs.

Mr Wong hopes to support them and even pool their efforts to create a larger impact.

He also assures the groups he meets that "high arts" will not be sidelined in the pursuit of "community arts" to foster national identity and social cohesion.

But how will his stated national and societal objectives jive with controversial contemporary art?

"Well, that's part of the process," he replies. "Controversial doesn't mean it cannot contribute to the process of us as a society maturing and engaging in some of these issues."

The Singapore Portraits project, he points out, dealt with a sensitive issue about identity and local-foreign relationships, and "it was very well done".

Controversial art, he notes, can offer artists an opportunity to engage people in a conversation on a particularly sensitive issue.

But, he is quick to add, the artist should also consider society's readiness for boundaries to be pushed and not seek to be overly provocative. "If that's all the artist thinks about, then it would potentially create a backlash from society and then it may actually inadvertently reduce the space in which the artist can work."

In the end, he surmises, whether a piece of work is controversial or not is not the real issue.

"It's about developing a process of engagement and communication which can actually bring about a maturing of society and help us develop a stronger sense of confidence about who we are and also, over time, develop a sense of national identity."

Changing with the times

New ministries from Thursday

Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY)
- At the helm: Acting Minister Lawrence Wong 
- Priorities: Build a cohesive society, and deepen the sense of identity and belonging to Singapore. Portfolios include the arts, heritage and sports.

Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)
- At the helm: Acting Minister Chan Chun Sing 
- Priorities: Strengthen families, social safety nets and social service delivery.

Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)
- At the helm: Minister Yaacob Ibrahim 
- Priorities: Focus more sharply on communication and information in an age of social media and a more active citizenry.

Some changes in the past


Ministry of Culture

Set up to create a sense of national identity and racial harmony and to combat communism, it was helmed by Mr S. Rajaratnam.

In 1965, it was merged with the Ministry of Social Affairs to form the Ministry of Culture and Social Affairs, but was split again in 1968.

It was dissolved in 1985, with its portfolios going to the new Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Ministry of Community Development (MCD), which was expanded from the Social Affairs Ministry.


Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs

The Ministry of Interior and Defence was split into two ministries, with Dr Goh Keng Swee overseeing defence and Dr Wong Lin Ken in charge of home affairs.


Ministry of Information and the Arts

Helmed by Acting Minister George Yeo, it absorbed the MCI's information portfolio and MCD's cultural portfolio.


Ministry of Manpower

The revamped Labour Ministry was helmed by then Labour Minister Lee Boon Yang to develop and coordinate national manpower strategy.


Ministry of Communications and Information Technology

The Communications Ministry was expanded to cover communications and IT. In 2001, its IT and telecommunications portfolios were transferred to the Ministry of Information and the Arts.


Ministry of Community Development and Sports

MCD was reorganised as MCDS and renamed in recognition of the importance of sports in nation-building and community bonding.


Ministry of Transport

Revamped from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, it was headed by Mr Yeo Cheow Tong.


Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources

The Environment Ministry was renamed to better reflect its expanded role in managing water resources.


Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports

MCDS was renamed MCYS with a key task of reaching the post-Independence generation.

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