Strengthening our social compact for the years after COVID-19

19 Jun 2020 4 min read

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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.

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. 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.

Our first priority today is to save jobs, and to help those who lose their jobs to bounce back into work. 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. 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 Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat introduced.

Twice before, unemployment rose well beyond six 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. We are in a much stronger position to address the challenge today. Our economy is much better diversified, our people are far more skilled, and the trust and confidence that investors have in Singapore is much stronger.

But our labour force is also much older today than in those earlier years. We are therefore making a concerted effort to help our middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers. They are a hardworking 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, and is scaling up the new Mid-Career Pathways programme. But it also needs new thinking among employers, to give middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers a fair chance to prove themselves. 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’. If it becomes the norm to hire mid-career Singaporeans and train them for new jobs, both workers and employers are 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.

Social mobility is what Singapore has been about, and how we have transformed our society since the 1960s. Keeping it alive requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools, and dedicated networks of community support. We must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort.

We are investing a lot more into equalising opportunities when children are young. We are boosting support for children from lower income families through KidStart, upgrading our whole preschool profession, and providing them the best support in schools. We are hiring more professional manpower to ensure that every student who needs extra support will get it. The Ministry of Education is also accelerating plans to equip secondary school students with their own laptops or tablets for learning, so they each get it by 2021.

We are also working systematically to provide greater support for lower and middle-income Singaporeans. The Government has increased subsidies for lower and middle-income families in education, housing and healthcare, including Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS). We are also boosting Silver Support, to help our poorer retirees.

Very importantly, we continue to strengthen support for our lower income Singaporeans at work. We want every sector to have progressive wages, with a clear ladder of skills, better jobs, and better wages for those with lower pay. The Ministry of Manpower is working with tripartite partners 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 for more stable jobs, better protection and the chance to progress in their careers. These 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.

Ultimately, the greatest confidence we get in our future as Singaporeans comes from our social compact. 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.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam
People’s Action Party
19 June 2020