Speech by Ms Carrie Tan Huimin, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the President’s Address 2020
Mr Speaker Sir, I would first like to declare my interest as Founder and Strategic Advisor of IPC Charity Daughters Of Tomorrow.
I rise in support of the motion to thank the President for her Address.
There are 3 key questions I would like to raise for this House to consider, and also for our citizens to reflect on and contribute their views to in the coming months and years, to help shape our policies.
My first question is, how do we maintain the fighting spirit of our people, maintain our unity, even as the loss of jobs puts increased pressures on families, and make people feel like they have to compete for resources?
I think that the best way to do this is to change the way we think about welfare and social assistance. We need to first acknowledge that there could be biased assumptions in our current notion and perceptions of deservingness.
We projected our GDP to shrink by 5 to 7% in 2020. Our unemployment rate is at 2.9 %. We will need to provide strong social support to those hit hard. But this will require our social policies to be more generous. It also gives us an opportunity to evolve the existing narrative and notion of welfare recipients beyond having to be “deserving” and “needy”. COVID-19 has shown us that anyone can fall onto hard times. With global trade and economy being so volatile, we can now clearly see that willingness to work is not the main factor that makes someone seek help. More often than not, people seek welfare because of many forces outside of their control.
Speaker, allow me to make a point in Mandarin.
比如就业补助计划的特别援助金 – 许多低薪人士因为保健储蓄户口还有欠款，拿不到援助，感到十分灰心。
While we support those who have lost their jobs with the usual practicalities of upskilling and employment matching, it is imperative that we uphold their dignity. We must maintain their self-esteem. We must upkeep their morale.
DPM Heng affirmed this in his speech on Monday. If so, let’s remove this shame of people feeling that if they resort to welfare, this shame, that it’s because they didn’t try hard enough. If Covid-19 cannot convince us to be more compassionate in the way we help and support our people, what else can?
When Minister Masagos made an announcement on 7 August, that there would be automatic renewal of Comcare for those whose support was due to end in the current quarter, I was delighted. This is a good start. We can make more of such improvements, help reduce the anxiety, stress and erosion of self-esteem that affects many recipients of support. As my colleague Mr Seah Kian Peng also advocated – let’s err on the side of being kind.
I am certain our social assistance policies were designed to get people out of poverty, not keep them poor.
But did we inevitably create a perverse incentive for people to stay poor, because the system forces them to show us how needy they are before we help them?
The human spirit is intangible, but it is so important to preserve, especially in such difficult times. The cost to rebuild it is far too high.
My charity Daughters Of Tomorrow was set up to help low-income women from challenged families rebuild their confidence in order to step back into the workforce. We intervene at the right time with the right measures. We support them without judging them. We incentivise effort. We reward progress. All these help us rebuild the spirits and revive the potential of hundreds of women. We put them and their family back on their feet.
I urge this House to re-think our social assistance approach, from a “needs-based approach” to a “growth-based approach”.
For a start, I recommend that we shift our language to stop referring these families as “needy” families, and instead address them as “challenged families” to kickstart a mindset shift in society.
It might sound like semantics but the choice of words can remove unhelpful labels and refocus our social assistance approach towards removing the barriers faced by these families who struggled.
I also urge the relevant Ministries to create funding for individuals and social service agencies that rewards effort and progress. We should reward individuals and families for making progress. We should also reward social service workers for successfully enabling these families. I believe we can change the vicious cycle, to a virtuous cycle. With compassion, empathy, and the correct KPIs, we can the lift plight and spirits of our people, one person, one family at a time.
My second question is, how do we rebuild our economy, to ensure equity while balancing fiscal sustainability?
I believe that the solution lies in harnessing the potential of women, and allow their talents and wisdom to shine, by reducing work-care conflict.
During the general elections, I made a promise to my constituents that I would look after sandwiched generation families and ease their stresses and burdens. I am a self-confessed millennial woman guilty of not choosing marriage and children, not because I do not wish to, but because I am hesitant to.
I grew up watching my mother be a tireless and self-sacrificing full-time home-maker. This gave me the unchangeable impression that a mother is someone who willingly takes on all chores in the household related to cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the health and happiness of everyone in the family. As a 38 year old woman with a career I find immense fulfilment in, there is no way I could see myself being a mother the same way mine was while continuing to advance in my professional and personal aspirations.
Despite more and more women graduating from university with a degree, we still face the pressures and penalties that come with being a wife and a mother. All over the world, once a woman bears children and stays home to rear them for a few years, there is little chance that her income can catch up with the level she otherwise could have gotten. When her parents get old, again she may have to give up her job to look after them, especially if they are in ill health. This then means she ends up poor in her old age, because she has not made enough income during her productive years to ensure she can retire well. According to research by AWARE, women earn close to $550,000 less than their male counterparts, over the course of a standard 40 year career.
As we already know, the low fertility rate in Singapore has serious implications for our society. Less people working means shrinking tax base, while we face rising healthcare costs due to our aging population.
So far, measures such as the Baby Bonus scheme have not been effective in improving outcomes, as our birth rate remains far lower than our replacement rate at 1.14 in 2018, the lowest in 8 years.
I beg the House to consider that the root causes of women’s decision to delay marriage and childbirth have more to do with quality of life, made worse by financial sacrifice.
Lack of caregiving support, opportunity costs in career for women, as well as the increased stress in their lives are all barriers to women having more babies.
As my colleague Mr Louis Ng has spoke passionately about, if we do not remove these barriers, we have little hope of reversing the trend of low birth rate. The strategies I urge this House to consider and debate in the coming months are:
(i) valuing unpaid care work of women
(ii) legislating adequate workplace policies to support working caregivers and facilitate easier re-entry back to work
(iii) reducing the burden of care on women with upstream gender and care education in our schools.
I look forward to discussing and debating these strategies in future sittings.
We need Ministry of Manpower, Social & Family Development, Health, and Finance as well as domain experts from civil society working in gender as well as care sectors to come together.
We need to ensure that the complex interconnections among employment, care-giving, domestic labour, healthcare and retirement adequacy are considered holistically from a woman’s life journey approach.
Madam President mentioned in her speech: We need more innovation in the ways we transform our economy, and to create new livelihoods for our people.
I believe, if the government also works also with social innovators and entrepreneurs, to focus on enabling women, we could see the rise of a Care Economy that creates economic activity and new jobs for our citizens, both men and women, while serving the care needs of our aging population.
The third and final question that Singapore needs to address is this: How do we cater for the aspirations of the younger generation, while meeting the desire of the older generation for social cohesion, peace and stability?
To do this, we first need to step out beyond ideologies, theories and frameworks, away from emails and keyboards, and into people’s lives, to understand how they truly feel, and why they feel the way they do. My colleague Ms Yeo Wan Ling spoke about knowing people for their stories behind faces, behind their challenges.
Related to gender and poverty, is a larger conversation about discrimination in our society. For those of us who are privileged, whether by race, class, gender or education, we may not always notice that it exists. However, for those without such privileges, I have come to understand that it is ever present, seeping into daily life. Are we making enough and intentional effort to get to know their stories?
Mr Patrick Tay spoke about hiring biases. Similar to Mr Louis Ng, some of the instances I’ve seen in my work at DOT are the following:
Discrimination is real to minority communities, not just in daily life and social interactions, but also from people in positions of power over their lives.
Recently, due to several notable incidents, our racial and religious harmony has been tested. Minority communities have spoken up again, with some in the majority listening with an understanding ear, but some not. As I’m learning right now, sometimes I say and do things that come across as hurtful to our minority communities. Even if I didn’t intend to, I may have hurt someone. In the past, I know that I’ve held and maybe even perpetuated some of these biases without knowing it, but I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and be better.
I’d like to extend an invitation to people like me – who are privileged in some ways, to expand our empathy to our minority communities and begin really listening to what they say, and how they feel.
I invite all of us to reflect on what are the biases that we’ve inherited from the society around us? And how do such biases affect the way we speak to and treat our friends and fellow countrymen and women who are in the minority? Did we behave in ways that have been insensitive and unmindful, that we should remedy?
Outside of these, I would also like to extend a challenge to those who are passionate about working on these topics. Can we make our activism and advocacy more accessible? Can we explain concepts like micro-aggressions and intersectionality to our elders? Can we include our parents and grandparents in these discussions about equality and justice?
I encourage our youths and others who are passionate to step up on these issues, not just on social media, but also in real life. Real life is where we build strong relationships. And we need strong relationships in order to have these difficult conversations. I am happy to share my experience from Daughters Of Tomorrow in empathy education with anyone keen to do this work.
At the leadership level, I believe that the government can loosen OB markers, and practise more tolerance. There are those who may not have the finesse to talk about such topics with the level of sensitivity that is ideal. There are those who are well-informed and well-researched, but may sometimes be hindered by passion and inexperience.
I see and I empathise that our leaders bear the weight of Singapore on their shoulders.
They bear the burden of protecting us, protecting our security, our stability.
They have dedicated much of their lives and uncountable sleepless nights for the good of our country. It is a heavy cross to bear, but there is no need to bear it alone. The youths of today are passionate because they care so much for Singapore. Many have good ideas and many are capable. It is now our cross to bear too.
I have confidence that if we balance circumspection from the youths, with guidance and mentorship from the old, we will find a sweet spot.
A sweet spot of unity, cohesion and shared purpose together, across generations.
I look forward to an awakening and participation of our people that stems from compassion and empathy, and future discourse that roots itself in mutual respect.
I look forward to enabling young people to step forward, to take on the mantle of nation-building work. I urge the House for magnanimity and forbearance towards the young and the dissenting, while we figure things out together in all our messiness and diversity as one people, as we evolve a new social compact for Singapore, together.
Thank you Speaker Sir, I reaffirm my support for the motion.
Watch the speech here