Saturday, 4 January 2020

Singapore Together movement: 4G leaders want to partner citizens in more areas

Range of issues the Govt hopes to work with people on is virtually endless, says Indranee Rajah
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2020

Six months after the fourth-generation political leaders launched a new movement to get citizens to help shape policies in areas such as work-life harmony and recycling, they want to do more.

A Citizens' Workgroup is being set up to explore ways to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and a Community Link-Uplift collaboration is being launched for residents and others to better support children from low-income families.

At an interview with local media on Monday, Second Minister for Education and Finance Indranee Rajah said the range of topics that the Government hopes to work with people on "is virtually endless". Even contentious issues will not be taboo, she said when asked if the Government would partner people on issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights, and Housing Board leases.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said such issues have already been discussed and the Government's forays into new approaches could provide new ways to "solve certain challenges and build consensus".

The two ministers, who are key members of the ruling People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) leadership team, were giving an update on SG Together, which was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in June last year.

Since then, various ministers have spoken about how their ministries plan to work with people on issues as diverse as housing, the digital economy and education.

Ms Indranee said this represents an evolution of the way the Government has been doing things, and will become part and parcel of the way it engages with citizens.

"Going forward... everything that we do that impacts on citizens, and depending on the nature of the things, will involve some form of citizen engagement," she added.

"The 4G leaders are very conscious of the fact that it is not just about being in government. You are elected by the people...(and) Singaporeans must have the ability to have a say and shape our future."

By bringing people together, said Mr Lee, the Government also hopes to create opportunities for groups with different viewpoints to talk and try to find win-win ways forward. This can help to prevent the kind of polarisation that has happened in many countries, where people with different interests have pulled society apart, he added.

"We do this to also harness the energy and the collective wisdom of the community. Government won't have all the solutions and won't be able to solve every problem on its own with increasing difficulties and challenges ahead of us."

Working with Singaporeans and community groups has also changed the Government's viewpoints and approaches to certain issues, both ministers said. For instance, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) had asked to partner a network of non-governmental organisations helping the homeless.

Mr Lee said: "Working with partners, we changed our mindset. We have improved our processes and we have adopted new ideas."

Engagement sessions with social service agencies also informed the new approach of the Ministry of Education and the MSF towards helping disadvantaged children by better coordinating the available social services, said Ms Indranee.

Some initiatives under SG Together could also translate into measures in this year's Budget. The RecycleRight Citizens' Workgroup has resulted in four pilot projects which will be formalised early this year, while the Citizens' Panel on Work-Life Harmony has concluded with 17 recommendations that the Government will respond to early this year.

"Not all of the ideas are going to be able to be translated into Budget measures. But the ones that can and the ones that are relevant and timely, we will," said Ms Indranee.

As to how the Government will measure the success of SG Together, she said: "When it becomes an automatic reflex action that whenever we want to do things, agencies' first thought will be: How can we get people's input and participation in this?

"On the other hand, when the citizenry wants to do something, their first thought is: How can we work together with others and the Government to make this happen?"

Govt does not have monopoly on ideas, can tap collective wisdom to find solutions, says Indranee, Desmond Lee
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2020

When a couple separate, things can become complicated for their children, especially if they are of school-going age.

One parent usually keeps the flat. The other may put up temporarily with friends or relatives, shuttling from one home to another across different parts of the island. The children are split up between them.

This problem is exacerbated for lower-income families in rental flats as a divorcing parent has to wait for approval from the Housing Board to rent another flat under the Public Rental Scheme.

The child may miss school for a long period of time because he now lives far away from his school and has no one to take him to school. The child could end up lagging behind his peers, which worsens the inequality gap.

The Government recognises that it would not have all the solutions to address complex challenges such as inequality, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.

"(But if we) harness the energy and the collective wisdom of the community, we can get a lot more viewpoints and ideas, and implement them together," he told reporters on Monday, when he and Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah gave updates on the new citizen engagement initiative, Singapore Together.

Ms Indranee drew on the above example of the school-going child to flesh out how the Singapore Together movement represents a change in how the Government works with its partners.

The Government has worked with community groups by giving funding, but they typically worked in silos. "(Now), the Government is using its convening power, or its coordinating power, in partnership with groups out there," said Ms Indranee. This can catalyse an effective, more holistic solution, said Ms Indranee, who leads the inter-agency Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce (Uplift) set up in 2018, which aims to help children from disadvantaged homes level up.

In the case of the child, HDB and the Social Service Offices may be able to step in to find alternative housing for his parent located near his school. Other efforts to help him catch up with his peers can also be corralled.

Uplift can work with his school, charities and neighbours in his estate to sustain the efforts, she said.

It can look for a friend or neighbour who can help to take the child to school, for instance, or tap its network of partners to find out if there are any alternative solutions at the local level.

Another example of a citizen-led initiative that embodies the spirit of the Singapore Together movement is the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) network that the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) launched last July with various groups helping the homeless in Singapore, said Mr Lee.

Many of them are homeless due to complex challenges such as relationship problems and financial issues, but some may be hesitant to seek help from government agencies.

Since 2017, Mr Lee and MSF officers have joined community groups on their regular night walks where volunteers befriend and offer help to the homeless.

With community partners as trusted intermediaries, more rough sleepers could be convinced to seek help from various government agencies, added Mr Lee. Through PEERS, MSF has engaged 160 rough sleepers and helped 65 of them find long-term housing. Another 37 have been moved to interim accommodation, MSF added.

The Government does not have "a monopoly on ideas", said Ms Indranee, "and ideas should come from people too. Because people are the beneficiaries of these ideas... Singaporeans must have the ability to have a say in, and shape, our future".

Citizens' panel a chance to air views, hear from others
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2020

When part-time lecturer Noor Lyna Zainuddin got together with 57 other citizens last year to brainstorm what more could be done to help Singaporeans achieve work-life harmony, she was taking part in a process to involve the community in collective thinking and action.

The concept of a citizens' panel, invented by American political scientist Ned Crosby, is one of the new ways public agencies are engaging Singaporeans under SG Together.

Ms Noor Lyna, 34, told reporters that the experience, over four Saturdays late last year, was "very mentally tiring" but "well worth it". "By the third session, we were ready to kill each other," she said of the discussions that went into a report.

The panellists, who included employers, freelancers, parents and caregivers, eventually agreed on some solutions to improve work-life balance. At the end of the sessions, they submitted 17 recommendations, like having companies specify flexi-work arrangements in contracts. The Government will respond to them early this year.

Ms Noor Lyna, who had quit her job in aviation after she realised it left her no time for her two daughters, said: "Opportunities like this allow you to speak to people, clarify doubts and get your voice heard."

Another new way of engaging people, the RecycleRight Citizens' Workgroup, had brought together 48 people to look at how to improve the rate of household recycling.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said the Government is committed to trying out different ways of working with people who may have different desires to shape Singapore.

Such models will have different levels of intensity to cater to how much people want to participate, and can involve public consultations and dialogues to gather feedback, or working with people and sharing data with them to come up with solutions to particular problems and to implement the policies.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah added that the Government has no set formula. She said: "We are experimenting in a measured, thoughtful way, but also ready to seize an opportunity as and when it presents itself."

Both ministers acknowledged that not all views can be taken on board. Mr Lee said: "Ultimately... there needs to be one outcome or a group of outcomes and inevitably, some people, some organisations, even some agencies may feel disappointed that their solutions were not adopted."

The process should be open so that trade-offs can be discussed, and once a decision is made, people will move collectively, he added.

When a charity helping the homeless said 'no' to Minister Desmond Lee
Minister had to earn trust of charity helping homeless
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2020

In March 2018, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) reached out to the Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) with a request. Its minister, Mr Desmond Lee, wanted to accompany CWS on its regular night walks, where volunteers would befriend and distribute food to the homeless.

"But we were very bold, we told the minister, 'No, thank you', " said Mr Thomas Tan, chairman of the night missions committee at CWS.

What CWS feared, Mr Tan told reporters on Monday, was that the authorities would come "swooping in" to forcibly remove these homeless people from the streets. This would undo the years of work CWS had spent on gaining their trust since its homeless programme started in 2014.

"(If that happened), then nobody would want to talk to CWS again. Our first loyalty is to the rough sleepers - they have entrusted their lives to us," said Mr Tan, 67.

Mr Lee saw where it was coming from. He asked if CWS could arrange for a get-together with some of its homeless beneficiaries, and about 30 turned up in late July 2018, said Mr Tan.

The meeting went well, said Mr Tan. Mr Lee, together with officers from the MSF and Housing Board (HDB), spoke to the homeless and were attentive when listening to their problems, taking down details and following up promptly.

"He gave us the confidence that this was a man that we could trust," Mr Tan said.

In August 2018, Mr Lee and officers from the MSF began accompanying CWS on its night walks, which gave them a better understanding of the challenges faced by the homeless.

CWS' fears of forced removal of rough sleepers also proved to be unfounded, and it eventually became part of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) network, which was launched last July to bring together the MSF and 25 other government agencies and community partners to help the homeless.

Now that ministries and agencies such as MSF and HDB have been given the mandate to work with groups like CWS on homelessness, the agencies have become more responsive, said Mr Tan.

Over the past three months, CWS has managed to put more than 30 rough sleepers into permanent housing, up from just a handful over the same period in the past.

"Without praising (Mr Lee) too much, for my area of helping the poor and the homeless, this is the man for the job," Mr Tan said.

4G leaders will partner Singaporeans in policymaking: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat

Singapore Together: Redefining the national conversation

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