SPEECH BY MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS & MINISTER FOR LAW MR K SHANMUGAM, AT THE LAUNCH OF THE RED CROSS JUNIOR CLUB & PROJECT C.A.R.E.,
ON 20 APR 2018, AT OUR TAMPINES HUB
I’m pleased to be at this event, to launch Red Cross Junior Club and Project C.A.R.E.
This Red Cross Junior, is an expansion of the Red Cross movement, looking at children aged 5 to 6. Really, get our young children to have that humanitarian spirit. Teach them to help each other, care for each other.
And I’m glad to see the partnership that Red Cross Junior has with Kidz Meadow, which is an AMP outfit – to develop Project C.A.R.E., as a two-year, comprehensive, activity-based curriculum.
It covers three areas: (a) Caring for the elderly, (b) Caring for the differently abled and (c) Caring for safety. And you saw the skits, hopefully through this programme over two years, these young kids will recognise that there are differences in people’s physical attributes, they will appreciate and care for the elderly, and they can be equipped with life skills, like First Aid.
If we instil in our young people a respect for diversity, empathy, and resilience, and help lay the foundation for a gracious society that is united and cares for the less fortunate.
So I really commend AMP, MERCU, Kidz Meadow, Singapore Red Cross, and their partners, for putting together this, and investing effort in the next generation. Those are the seeds that we have to work on.
There is a very powerful symbolism that we often overlook in this. Red Cross, AMP, the two started out from two different religions – though now many of the services are not religion-based – of course Red Cross is no longer religion-based, and launched by a Minister who is a practicing Hindu.
That is a very powerful symbolism in Singapore. It’s powerful, but it’s also real. And it doesn’t strike us, but it is unique.
DANGER OF INEQUALITY
And why did I agree to come to this programme? Because, there are two levels to it. One, how we help our children grow into strong, nurturing individuals. That in itself is important.
But there is a second, even deeper, more important reason. Which is – how it empowers our children, gives them new experiences, makes them confident. In a way, each of these children, each child, will grow up empowered. And it helps tackle one of the key issues that faces our society today, and that’s inequality.
So bear with me while I say a few words about inequality. It is one of the most serious issues that we face, in addition to ageing, and some of the other issues we have talked about.
I would like to refer to what the Prime Minister has said in Parliament recently. Mitigating income inequality, ensuring social mobility and enhancing social integration, are critical for us.
And I quote him: “If we fail – if widening income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interests at the expense of others – our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither.”
Very strong words. We can’t survive if we don’t deal with this inequality.
And if you want, you look at the effects of inequality in other countries.
In the US, many of you would have heard of the Rust Belt, people lose their jobs often because of globalisation. Globalisation is good overall – but try telling that to the person who has lost his job. And society and the government must help the people who have been affected. Activist economic and social policies are necessary.
But trust is broken – when they who have lost their jobs, see that the winners and the elite seem to be taking most of the benefits, the top 1% or the top 5%, and seem to be controlling the government.
We are often told in Singapore – what needs to be done to get trust, that we have lost trust etc. – various people tell us, outside Singapore and inside Singapore. Most of their suggestions are based on methods which have been tried in the US, UK, the West and have failed or are failing.
So they are too ideological to see that. We have done well over 50 years by ignoring that sort of advice, and keeping the focus on what really matters to people.
What does matter to our people? No corruption – clean government, clean administration. Jobs. A government that truly cares for the people, has the people’s interests, works hard for the people, is on the ground, understanding and having strong linkages with the population. Working hard for the people who need jobs, who do an honest day’s work, to look after their families, thinking ahead to secure the economic future of this country.
Housing matters, security matters, healthcare matters, services and administration in terms of competence matters, for every one of you and everyone out there, for people to be able to fulfil their aspirations, maximise their potential, in a free and secure environment.
We have done that and that is why, over 50 years, people have kept their trust. But it doesn’t mean that it will continue. Trust has to be continuously earned. And for those who suggest that trust in Singapore is broken – they should go and do some homework.
Look at the figures, on trust in the Singapore Government, on trust in institutions. Look at the trust in the Police, more than 90% confidence. Look at trust in the SAF, trust in the civil service, look at trust in the political leadership. And then compare it, you take any Western country, you won’t go beyond 30%, mostly. It’s anywhere between 70 to 90%, more than 90% for Singapore, and people tell us trust is broken.
But no room for complacency. Trust has to be continuously earned. And can be easily lost.
RUST BELT & BREXIT
Look at the Rust Belt states in the US. They flipped from Blue to Red. Why? the largest increases in the Republican vote – they were completely Democratic – they became Republican.
Once known as the Manufacturing Belt, the focus of America’s industrial development. But some few decades ago, jobs moved overseas – cheaper, because overseas. Economy declined, factories closed, stores and schools closed, talent went to other cities. Gulf developed between the Rust Belt, other areas – discontent, disaffection, disillusionment.
Growing sense among the people in the Rust Belt that the political elites were alienated from the Rust Belt, people had been left behind, the world moved on. And so they are angry, and you go and preach to them about globalisation, they are going to say some rude things to you. Because you’re not taking care of them. We have to take care of people, that is how you maintain trust. Not by some of this nonsense that we read sometimes.
On trust – just as one example, I want to refer to a New York Times article, on the state of public schools in the US. And that’s why these things matter here, these kindergartens. Only one example, of the kinds of things that have led to a loss of trust. But this is the way to lose trust.
This New York Times article was on the state of public schools in the United States. How poor, and how badly run, public schools are. Let me give you a few quotes, from teachers:
“The antiquated myth of the noble, yet poor, teacher must go. I am passionate about my subject and my students. I am not passionate about living pay check to pay check.”
Another quote: “My third-grade students are in a mobile classroom that is basically a trailer. That’s 25 students in a classroom the size of a hotel room. All of the bathrooms are still in the main building, so my 8- and 9-year-olds have to walk outside unattended unless we stop class to take group bathroom breaks. Teachers are being made out to be lazy, incompetent and greedy, but school board members, district administrators and superintendents make the most money, while the rest of us are fighting for their crumbs. I’ve been ready to strike for over a year.”
That’s the state of schools in the richest country in the world. You see meanwhile the Wall Street people make millions of dollars, and then when things go wrong, they get bailed out. It had to be done during the Great Financial Crisis, but you can understand people’s anger and the cynicism. Because the system is seen to be looking after the better-off, the well-off. Privatising profit, socialising loss.
The same picture in the UK – Brexit. According to many analysts, inequality was a significant driver of Brexit. Britain happens to be one of the most unequal of all developed countries in the world.
Surveys showed that the top 10% of households owned nearly 45% of the country’s total private wealth. And the poorest 1% owned 0.05% of the wealth.
62% of those with household income of less than £20,000 voted to leave the EU. 35% of those whose household income was above £60,000 voted to leave.
Country is clearly split along socio-economic lines. So you can understand that those who wanted to leave are frustrated with the system, they no longer believed in the Government, or the society, or the system.
CHALLENGES OF DEALING WITH INEQUALITY
For us, we have long been aware of the dangers of inequality. As early as 1961, 57 years ago, Dr Goh Keng Swee warned about the risk that groups of elites might create an environment that would favour one community at the expense of another.
In a Nanyang University journal, he said: “In advanced societies, it is not so much open nepotism that is to be feared, but the insidious ‘old boy’ type whereby no illegalities are committed, but in which the pinnacles of power, influence and wealth are the reserve of those born into the right families. In underdeveloped countries, the matter could be more serious. A system may arise in which the dominant majority, whether of families, clans or even entire communities, arrogates to itself not only the openings to the seats of power, but also the avenues by which individuals can fit themselves out for such positions of power. The dominant majority is thus able to point out that those outside of the charmed circle just do not have the necessary qualifications to be admitted to the elite group. Thus many able and aspiring people are denied the opportunity for the full use of their abilities…”
Very important quote, I often remind myself about this. We are very small. If we allow that, our society will fracture, and trust will be completely broken.
So the risks are there, but it does not make it any easier to deal with inequality. A small economy has to remain open, we have to be open to globalisation. And the effects of globalisation are more pronounced in cities, because the cities are the epicentre of jobs and trade, where the skilled and unskilled work and live together. for the skilled and talented, their returns are magnified.
For as our country matures and the economy develops, it will be increasingly challenging to deal with inequality. In a small country like Singapore, where the richest good-class bungalow and the poorest rental flat are no more than 15 minutes away from each other, maximum. Inequality can be clearly seen by all. So inequality, if allowed to grow, will destroy our social cohesion in the long run.
And we have never shied away from what needs to be done, to help the disadvantaged progress upwards in society. Transfers to lower-income groups, for example Workfare Income Supplement, healthcare subsidies, education bursaries, Skills Future where billions are being spent to ensure that Singaporeans continue to upskill, substantial housing subsidies – which have helped lower-income families to move from rental flats to modest home ownership, to bigger homes.
Multiple lines of assistance have helped to reduce inequality. So the Gini coefficient in Singapore fell from 0.470 in 2006 to 0.458 in 2016. You take into account taxes and transfers; it falls to 0.402.
We have also tried to ensure social mobility. If you look at a 2015 study: Among those born to lower-income parents in the US, only 7.5% make it to the top 20%. UK, only 9%. In Singapore, 14% make it from the bottom to the top 20%.
Done relatively well. But we have to do more. We have announced that in the coming years, we will go upstream in providing assistance in the preschool years. Government will double its annual spending on the preschool sector to $1.7 billion by 2022. 40,000 more childcare places by 2022, and there will be a total of 50 MOE kindergartens, again by 2023.
Why are we focusing upstream? Why am I saying this here, at a kindergarten event? Progress has to be based on ability and talent, rather than class, privilege, or wealth. This approach has worked for us; the principle of meritocracy remains relevant.
But increasingly, the starting points are different for those born into families of different backgrounds. At the point of birth, there is already a gap. That gap widens, because of the differences in the families. And inequality will manifest itself in many intangible ways. In the networks and influence. In the extra developmental opportunities. The more time spent by poorer families in meeting basic needs. There is an opportunity cost to this.
Therefore, the preschool years are crucial. The best chance that the Government has to give our children a good start – Government can never substitute for what parents can do –Government can give a good start and a decent chance for the children to succeed, and help close the inequality gap.
The philosophy has got to be: give a helping hand to those who need it, while preserving the ingredients of Singapore’s success – education, hard work, discipline, integrity.
Never take away, take from Singaporeans the motivation to do better for themselves, to succeed. Focus should be on lifting up others, not penalising those who have done well.
Our approach, therefore – keep the overall tax burden low, but use the revenue we have in a fair and progressive way, target the support for the lower- and middle-income group, while keeping government expenditure lean, low.
As the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, we must ensure that everyone who puts in the effort, runs the race, gets something at the end of it. But if the same few people keep winning, eventually the rest will believe the system is flawed, and they will stop participating.
So we need to believe that meritocracy actually works. It’s not just a concept. Our people must believe that based on efforts and talent, they can progress, that there is social mobility.
We have to look at inequality, we have to make meritocracy work well – it doesn’t always work well, we must acknowledge that. Fresh challenges have to be met, and while we dismiss crazy suggestions, we have to be open to all suggestions and analyse them and be open to implementing those that do make sense, even if in the past, we dismissed them.
We have to make sure that Singapore will always be a country with a fair and just system, equal opportunities for all, where people work hard and achieve their dreams.
It is in this context that I say your efforts – Red Cross, MERCU, AMP, Kidz Meadow – your efforts are vital. Because it is not just Government top-down, it has got to be organic and community-centred as well. It has got to be multiple points. Every organisation, everyone, every community, by coming together, can help fight inequality.
Make each one of those children bright, confident, go as far as they are able to, maximise their aspirations and talents, and be good citizens. One section of society cannot do well, if the rest are not doing at least reasonably well. We are all in a small boat – the same small boat.
So congratulations on the launch of Red Cross Junior and Project C.A.R.E., and to all the children, parents and grandparents who have gathered here today, enjoy your adventure ahead!
Thank you very much.