Speech by Ms Carrie Tan, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2021
Mr Speaker sir, 2020 was a tumultuous year for all. Through our nation’s first ever circuit-breaker and almost a year of job losses across many sectors, we’ve pulled through, thanks to the multiple Budgets and support provided by the Government.
We know from looking back on the 2008 financial crisis and what happened in the United States and other democracies around the world, that the most concerning effects of major economic downturns, are political and social. Inequalities worsened by the financial crisis led to fertile ground for populist movements and more pronounced political and social division.
We cannot be naïve in thinking that Singapore can be spared.
While it is critical that we innovate and invest in transforming our economy, to keep Singapore relevant in globally, the Government also has an imperative to help our people recover, psychologically and socially, from the impact of a large scale crisis.
What is the state of well-being of our people, amidst this historic disruption to lives and livelihoods? We are lucky for a Government that has cushioned us well. But is it really sufficient for only a national care hotline to support our people through what is worldwide the worst global recession since the Great Depression?
At the same time that we ramp up investments and efforts to drive industry transformation, re-skilling, career shifts, etc, we need to be mindful that not everyone can catch up so easily to this “turbo-charged” momentum. Are those amongst us who are least resourced able to catch up?
Last week, an opinion piece in the Straits Times talked about “tightening class circles”. The writer, Grace Ho, discussed network diversity, and the side effects of meritocracy. While it was a necessary and effective foundation to build Singapore society on for the past decades, it is not perfect, and we now need to address the side effects. According to a survey commissioned by my esteemed colleague Dr Janil Puthucheary, class segregation and class division is emerging as the biggest fault line in Singapore. A fault line that threatens our social cohesion and national unity. This is likely to be made worse by the effects of the COVID recession.
And yet, we face the challenge of balancing Support with Prudence. How do we lift up the most vulnerable, during and beyond the current crisis, while conserving our country’s reserves? That is a critical question that our Budget needs to address.
I believe the answer lies in the word “Optimizing”. In other words, we need to, “Spend Less, yet Achieve More”. And I know, it sounds easier said than done.
ESM Goh spoke years ago about individual action, by those who have more, to reach back and help others behind us to climb the ladder. And it is wisdom that is still relevant today.
When I was a child, I remember being told by adults whenever I was given a treat or a snack, to share it with others. My mom or dad would always tell me to offer it to someone else first. “Jie Jie, Aunty, Uncle would you like to share this with me?” And this refrain became a habit even now as an adult for me.
The virtue of sharing many of us learnt as children, needs to be “Turbo-charged” with the Government’s will and support, so that there is a national strategy for Sharing & Optimization.
Because “Sharing Is Caring”, we can achieve better outcomes with less resources. But how do we share? And what do we share? I would like to propose sharing in 3 key areas of care:
We can optimize public rental housing, by sharing.
We can optimize the workforce, by sharing.
We can optimize care and potential of the most vulnerable amongst us, by sharing.
My honourable colleagues, Ms Tin Pei Ling spoke about the potential of seniors. And Ms Ng Ling Ling spoke about the potential of our persons with disabilities. I would like to propose that we can also optimize the potential of our low income and rental housing community.
First, on public rental housing. We have an amazing public housing system to tap on, to optimize social outcomes for the poorest families. Currently, rental flat residents face social stigma, poor living conditions, and lack of care resources. Barriers that prevent them from breaking out of poverty.
And yet, we have an opportunity that the aging society has given us, that is, an increasing number of isolated elderly in purchased flats. Ms Ng Ling Ling spoke about this earlier. In 2019, there were almost 67,600 people above the age of 65 living alone, with 86% of them wishing to live in the same flats that they raised their families in.
Such homes owned by the elderly living alone may be under-utilised, as some rooms go unused. The elderly who live alone are more likely to be socially isolated and at increased risk of adverse health outcomes.
At the same time, almost 10% of all rental households have more than 4 members and many have caregiving needs that cannot be fulfilled by existing care channels.
A simple solution then exists, to encourage more elderly homeowners to share their living space, by renting out their spare rooms to low-income families at appropriate rates subsidised by the HDB.
Low-income families can then live in better environments, with care support for the young. And elderly living alone will no longer be alone, and have social interaction on a daily basis. Such a housing sharing strategy will help to mitigate class silos, and reduce the need to build more. I call this the “Share to Care” strategy.
Second, our workforce. Against the backdrop of falling birth rates, Singapore faces a workforce crisis in the coming decades. Burn-out and stress ranks high amongst working age Singaporeans, making Singapore top the ranks in an international study for stressed-out Generation Z.
A recent study showed that Gen Z makes up 24% of the workforce and Millennials 50%. Mental health struggles and declining local workforce due to low birth rate amongst these two generations is putting us in the path of a human capital crisis. We need to take this seriously. What can we do?
I suggest we look into the Sharing of Care:
I will speak more about these Sharing of Care strategies during the Committee of Supply debates.
Lastly, our Careforce, what is a careforce? It is a whole sector of people who work in caring for our underserved communities.
I am very thankful and encouraged by the Budget announcement that the 250% IPC tax-deductions for donations will be extended to end 2023. I’m also very grateful to DPM for initiating the $20m Change for Charity grant to encourage those who can afford to spend, to spend towards charity. Such encouragement certainly goes a long way to increase the pool of financial resources being channelled to the most vulnerable.
However, beyond distributing cash support directly in the form of support schemes, I would like to encourage the government to further develop our Capacity for Care.
In the current Budget, $11bn have been allocated for structural economic policies in the COVID Resilience Package, with another $24bn committed over the next 3 years. Much of it focuses on equipping businesses and workers for industry transformations and future-ready capabilities. What seems to be missing, is an investment in preparing and professionalising the work of Care amongst the Social Services sector.
I have some suggestions to build a more effective social safety net and strengthen the trampoline for the vulnerable. Beyond surviving, we need to set them up to thrive. ComLink is a good start. We need our social services sector to consist of experts who are skilled at discovering and building up the strengths and assets of underserved communities. So that we can avoid in the future heading down the slippery slope of a welfare state.
I seek the DPM to share the $11bn COVID Resilience Budget with our Careforce, the social services sector to make this happen. We need to share our resources towards Care and to capacity build Care. I will speak more about this again during the Committee of Supply debates.
In conclusion, Speaker Sir, I would like to emphasize the importance of Care for our people, at the same time that forces beyond our control compel us to drive our people harder.
The tragic case of the foreign domestic worker Ms Phaing Ngaih Don suffering abuse that led to her death. It makes us question ourselves – how might we have prevented it? It shows that we have a long way to go, in paying attention to the people who work around us, who care for those around us. Some of these people are in precariously vulnerable circumstances. How are they being cared for?
In our busyness and eagerness to keep Singapore relevant and competitive for survival, are we paying sufficient attention to the care and well-being of people? Not just our own people but also those who enable us, the silent everyday heroes and heroines including our foreign domestic workers and our migrant workers.
Whilst the support packages in the Budget are helpful to reduce some day-to-day burdens of Singaporeans, we need to innovate and invest in transforming our social support structures, in order to achieve more with less, in the long run.
Sharing is more sustainable.
Sharing builds trust.
Sharing fosters bonding and social cohesion.
We must create Sharing policies in the system, sooner rather than later, to Care Better. More than ever, we need to put Sharing on steroids, with budget allocated to build capacity into our system, and to create better long-term outcomes for the vulnerable and the underserved. In doing so, we then have hope of bridging the gap.
Some of the ideas I suggested may seem daunting and fraught with challenges, and for this, we need courage, trust and collaboration.
Although some extent of inequality is inevitable in modern economies and societies, the least we can do and we certainly CAN, and we certainly MUST, minimize it. Our identity as a country, as Singaporeans, must go beyond being the strongest, the fittest and the fastest in economic terms.
“The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” Perhaps by slowing down to take better care of the weakest and to enable them better, it can take us further.
Our national unity counts on it. Our identity as Singaporeans, count on it, if we are indeed to emerge Stronger Together. And with that I support the Budget.
Watch the speech here.