SPEECH BY DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN,ACTING MINISTER FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, YOUTH AND SPORTS AND SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR TRADE AND INDUSTRY, AT THE COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY SITTING 2005 , 10 MARCH 2005, 5.30 PM
I would like to share my Ministry’s two key priorities over the next few years.
2 First, we need to build a caring and inclusive society, where no one is left behind. We have made a deliberate strategic decision to ride on globalisation, to run an open economy, in order to harvest every opportunity to grow our economy. The corollary of this is increased competition. This sense of competing at the highest level is what makes
3 Second, we must nurture the relationships that give us happiness, fulfilment and significance to our lives. My life is worthwhile because of my relationships with my wife, children, relatives, friends, colleagues and fellow citizens. Family, friends and colleagues give us a reason to live, work and play. Shared experiences and memories bind us to each other and to
Those in Danger of Being Left Behind
4 Let me elaborate on our first priority. Many Members, including Mr Zainudin Nordin and Dr Warren Lee, have raised concerns on the poor and needy in Singapore, and asked how they are faring. As our economy grows, restructures and matures, I know that some Singaporeans may feel left out, and be anxious about the future. The past 7 years from 1998 to 2004 have been particularly difficult for the bottom 20% of our population. Although the cost of living has not risen by much, wages for less skilled jobs have declined as a result of globalisation, recessions and the economic restructuring we are going through.
5 Some workers with a basic education face difficulty finding work despite their best efforts. There is also a group of older Singaporeans who are frail, without family support, and have little savings to live on. Similarly, while some disabled Singaporeans are gainfully employed, others still find it hard to get jobs to support themselves. We will not neglect such Singaporeans. They deserve their fair share of opportunities to build a better life for themselves.
Social Safety Net
6 We actually have a very robust social safety net of subsidies and assistance schemes. This social safety net is targeted at the bottom 20% of Singaporeans, and the scale of assistance provided to this group is considerable. If we consider a family of 4 in the bottom 20% of households, the Government’s universal subsidies for healthcare, education and housing alone already amounts to about $12,000 this year.
7 Over and above the universal subsidies, we have a fairly comprehensive range of assistance schemes tailor-made for different groups in the bottom 20%. The approach we adopt for the different groups in the bottom 20% has to be different. For those at the upper end of the band, who may have lost their jobs, we provide them interim assistance and help them get re-employed and back on their feet. There is a middle group who need some ongoing financial help to supplement their low income. We provide this, and at the same time, help their children get a good education, so that they can break out of the poverty cycle. Then there are those at the lower end of the bottom 20%, usually the frail elderly or disabled, who really cannot get a job and support themselves even if they wanted to. For them, we provide long-term help through our Public Assistance scheme. Fortunately, this is a small group, with only 2,700 households on Public Assistance as at December 2004.
8 Let me cite an example of how our social safety net helps these Singaporeans. A family of 4 approached South West CDC for assistance in September 2004. Both parents were not working and the family had problems making ends meet.
9 Theirs was a typical case at the upper bound of the bottom 20%. The family received $1,000 in assistance on top of the universal subsidies granted. The father received job search and financial assistance under the Work Assistance Programme. The two children received school fee subsidies and free textbooks. I understand that the father will be returning to work by the end of the month. He and his wife will have a combined monthly income of $1,400. The family see themselves as self-reliant now.
10 Take another case of a divorcee living with her mother and two children. She has not been able to work due to a traffic accident. Since mid-2004, the family has received financial support under the Interim Financial Assistance Scheme and the Rent and Utilities Scheme. Her older child benefits from free uniforms and textbooks. The younger child was able to go to a childcare centre because of subsidies under the Centre-Based Financial Assistance Scheme for Childcare. MUIS has also chipped in to provide additional financial assistance. All in, since September 2004, she has received about $3,800 in assistance. Over and above this, she benefits from HDB’s Public Rental Scheme where she pays less than $50 per month for her 2 room rental flat. Her family’s medical expenses were also covered under MediFund.
11 Let me give another example, this time of an elderly person living alone who we consider to be at the lower bound of the bottom 20%. She is a 69 year old childless widow, who has exhausted her savings with no family to turn to. The Government has helped her under the Public Assistance Scheme. Sunlove Neighbourhood Link provides her with free meals. She also gets food rations from SATS every alternate month, and Ang Pows from the Hong Leong and Shaw Foundations during festive seasons. In total, she receives assistance of about $4,100 a year or about $340 per month. On top of this, she benefits from financial assistance for her medical bills under Medifund and heavily subsidised housing under the Public Rental Scheme.
12 To help young low-income families avoid the poverty trap, we also have the Home Ownership Plus Education or HOPE scheme. This is a preventive scheme where the Government provides about $100,000 of assistance to help families focus their resources on their children and give them a head start. As of end-January this year, some 450 families have signed on. We intend to assist some 1,000 such families by 2007.
13 Sir, our social safety net ensures that the needy will have a roof over their heads, food on the table, access to basic medical care, a chance to seek gainful employment, and educational opportunities for their children. I asked my staff to total up the number of Government schemes to help needy Singaporeans, and they told me that all in all there are more than 50 schemes, ranging from the $260 per person per month given under the Public Assistance scheme, to the $100,000 worth of assistance under HOPE. And these do not include the various assistance schemes run by grassroots organisations and VWOs. Details of the schemes are given in Annex A which I believe were distributed earlier to Members.
Assistance, Not Welfare
14 As members can see from the Annex, our social safety net is extensive. But it is deliberately targeted in its coverage, catching only those least able to support themselves. The experience of countries with excessive welfare benefits has taught us that we must carefully calibrate how we help the needy so that we provide sufficient assistance but yet do not douse the desire to get back on their own feet and be self-reliant. To put it simply, our approach is assistance, not welfare; mutual obligation, not entitlement. No Singaporean should feel that he has a right to extract every single cent from every single scheme. Everyone must still feel a need to strive and work harder for a better life.
15 Some Members may feel that this is not a compassionate approach. But I would ask them to consider the consequences of the populist route where every citizen feels entitled to generous handouts. Many would not bother to look for work, much less upgrade their skills. The Government would have to raise taxes to fund the more generous welfare schemes. Ultimately, this is not sustainable, and the poor will be worse off.
16 Therefore, there are three fundamental principles behind our social safety net. First, we must to foster self-reliance. The social safety net must be more like a trampoline - springy enough to help people bounce back and take advantage of opportunities for a better life, so that they do not need to rely solely on the Government.
17 A second principle behind our social safety net is that of family as the first line of defence, to offer financial and emotional support.
18 Third, our social safety net must not be held up by Government alone, but by “Many Helping Hands”. Ordinary citizens, voluntary welfare organisations and grassroots organisations have crucial roles to play. The issue is not MONEY. Their compassion, dedication, sensitivity and passion cannot be matched by paid employees dishing out government dole.
19 This is not to say that we cannot do more to improve on existing assistance schemes. In fact, this is precisely why the Government has set up the ComCare Fund. Sir, let me explain the significance of the ComCare Fund which seeks to achieve four objectives:
a. First, create a sustainable pool of resources that can help needy Singaporeans, in good times or bad. ComCare is an endowment fund that the Government will grow from $500 million to $1 billion over time. This means that there will always be money set aside for those in danger of being left behind, even in years when the Government is not able to run budget surpluses.
b. Second, it will provide even more support for the lower-income group. There will be new money for new programmes. ComCare will provide up to $55 million a year for assistance schemes as a start. This is 40% more than what MCYS is projected to spend on social assistance in FY2004.
c. Third, with ComCare, we have the opportunity to streamline our social assistance schemes and deliver help more effectively. Many Members have commented that needy Singaporeans are often confused by our many social assistance schemes. The large number of schemes in the handout testify to the need to streamline the current array of schemes, make them simpler and easier-to-understand, so that anyone in need of assistance will know where to turn to for help.
d. Fourth, ComCare will give us more flexibility in providing assistance. ComCare will be administered by the CDCs, which are close to the ground. They can rely on grassroots leaders, neighbours, and volunteers in assessing who deserves assistance. They will bring their local knowledge, their hearts, and their human touch to helping needy Singaporeans.
20 My Minister of State will elaborate on the ComCare Fund in greater detail. Briefly, there will be three categories of ComCare schemes. ComCare SelfReliance will focus on helping needy families tide over temporary difficulties, say when the breadwinner loses his job or falls ill. ComCare Grow will provide focus on the development of children from needy families so that they can fulfil their maximum potential and escape the poverty trap. The third category, ComCare Enable, will assist those who need long-term support, including frail elderly living alone and persons with disabilities.
Multi-Agency Support for Ageing Issues
21 Several Members such as Mr Davinder Singh, Ms Irene Ng, and Dr Lily Neo have spoken up on issues affecting the elderly. Dr Warren Lee advocated inter-agency co-operation in tackling the challenges of our ageing population. I agree with him. Ageing issues cut across many sectors and require co-ordination among various Government agencies. This is why the Government has adopted an inter-Ministry approach in meeting the needs of older Singaporeans. This is co-ordinated through a Committee on Ageing Issues (CAI) co-chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health, Dr Balaji Sadasivan and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman. Comprising government and VWO representatives, the committee focuses on five priorities - enhance financial security of the elderly; improve employability of older workers; enable our elderly to live with their families rather than in institutional care; promote active ageing; and provide a continuum of quality healthcare and eldercare services.
22 Mr Ong Ah Heng asked how much we are spending on eldercare and if this quantum will increase with an ageing population. MCYS’ and MOH’s budget for eldercare services for FY05 translates to a total of $98 million, comprising $12 million from MCYS and $86 million from MOH. This represents an annual growth of 4.5% from $82 million in FY2001.
23 Much of MCYS’ expenditure for the elderly goes into the Eldercare Masterplan, where we fund VWOs to run a range of eldercare services. They range from developmental programmes for the healthy to services for the frail. We are currently reviewing our range of services and developing a new Eldercare Masterplan for FY2006 to FY2010 in consultation with our service providers and users.
Employment Opportunities for Older Workers
24 Mr Wee Siew Kim and Mr Sin Boon Ann talked about creating job opportunities for older Singaporeans. This is one of the CAI’s priority areas. As a start, we need to review the retirement age policy, identify employment opportunities for the elderly, promote elder-friendly work and HR practices, and explore the possibility of establishing informal industries and micro-credit as Ms Penny Low. MCYS will work with relevant partners, including MOM, to address these issues.
25 On informal industries, my Ministry will pilot a community platform where the elderly or homemakers can make a living selling their own products, crafts or service. We will also study whether the lack of micro financing is an obstacle that prevents this from taking off.
Promoting Active Ageing
26 Mr Wee Siew Kim spoke on the need to keep our elderly active. Remaining active after retirement, whether through work, volunteering, or pursuing a hobby, is important in delaying the onset of degenerative diseases typically affecting the elderly. I was impressed when I heard that Mr Tan Kok Sing, who at age 80, has led three generations of his family in skydiving from a height of 8,000 feet. Likeminded elderly like Mr Tan are an inspiration to us all, both young and old.
27 To encourage active ageing, my Ministry runs the Active Seniors Programme (ASP for short). This is a scheme that funds up to $200,000 to community groups who want to start projects that tap on the skills and experience of older Singaporeans. Over 3,000 elderly volunteers have been mobilised under ASP projects. One such project is a mentoring programme run by local NGO, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme (or RSVP for short) which engages seniors in mentoring latchkey students.
28 To encourage more and a wider variety of projects, MCYS will set aside $200,000 out of the $1 million ASP fund for small-scale projects worth $10,000 or less.
29 My Ministry will organise more elderly-focused events, starting with an Inter-Generation Bonding Family Day in June 2005, and a Sports and Mind-Games Carnival in September 2005, in addition to the Senior Citizen’s Weeks every November.
30 We will also give the elderly more reasons to be active. Some businesses offer discounts to elderly during the annual Senior Citizens’ Week. MCYS will build on this arrangement to introduce a Concessionary Card for seniors aged 65 and above. Examples of benefits could include discounts at leisure and sports facilities, shopping centres and eateries. In addition, MCYS will introduce an annual “Elder-Friendly Award” to organisations that adopt elder-friendly practices or provide elder-friendly infrastructure, services or products.
Helping Persons with Disabilities
31 Sir, let me now turn to another priority group for the Ministry – persons with disabilities. Dr Chong Weng Chiew have asked for more to be done for them.
32 MCYS has two principles governing our approach to supporting persons with disabilities. First, we seek to integrate them more closely into mainstream society. Second, we want to maximise the potential of those with disabilities, especially young children, so they can be as independent as possible. My Ministry will raise its spending on disability-related programmes by one-third to $39 million in FY 05.
Enhancing Integration into Society
33 Integration with society, means giving people with disabilities more opportunities for gainful employment, and to live like everyone else. We have taken significant steps to make Singapore more disabled-friendly. Last year, the Government announced that by 2006, all existing MRT stations would be retrofitted and be accessible to all, including persons using wheelchairs. The pace of the Lift Upgrading Programme will also be speeded up. It will now be completed within 10 years.
34 To help the disabled cope with school or work, MCYS launched the means-tested Assistive Technology Fund (ATF) in 2003. This provides subsidies for assistive technology that can help those with disabilities read from computer screens, type, and so on. Jia Yong, a Secondary 3 student, who has muscular dystrophy was one of the beneficiaries. Through the ATF, he was able to acquire assistive technology which enabled him to keep up with schoolwork. Nonetheless, while some have benefited from the ATF scheme, we have also received feedback that the scheme should be more flexible and generous so that more persons with disabilities can benefit from it.
35 We will be enhancing the ATF in four ways. First, we will allow pre-school children to benefit from the ATF, in addition to schooling children and working adults. Second, we will increase the subsidy level for all beneficiaries of the ATF by 15 percentage points. For households earning less than $300 per person, their subsidy will increase from 75% to 90%. Third, we will make it easier for the disabled to apply for the ATF. In the past, the disabled could only apply through 6 ATF assessment centres. They can now apply for it through any VWO or hospital. Fourth, some disabled require specialised assessment and assistance in using assistive devices. The Society of the Physically Disabled, with the support of NCSS, has set up a Specialised Assistive Technology Centre to do this. All these enhancements to the ATF will benefit an estimated 1,150 persons with disabilities, up to 2007.
36 Mr Sin Boon Ann called for improving the employment prospects of those with disabilities. Here, we have focused our effort on job placement, vocational assessment and training. As at December 2004, Bizlink (a non-profit organisation that does job placements for persons with disabilities) managed to place about 56% of the disabled who were looking for jobs.
37 We are now looking into employment testbeds, which involve a VWO partnering an employer to specially design a job that is suitable for the disabled. This complements the national job redesign programme led by NTUC. In a pilot employment testbed started in June 2004, the Association of Persons with Special Needs (APSN) worked with Training Master Workforce Institute to successfully place 60% of its clients in cleaning jobs. With the success of this testbed, we will be targeting to launch two more employment testbeds in 2005.
Maximising Potential of Children with Disabilities
38 International studies have shown that early intervention programmes have a significant impact on helping children with disabilities maximise their potential. However, despite Government subsidies for early intervention (or EIPIC) centres, it can still cost a parent up to $400 a month to send a child to an EIPIC centre.
39 This is why we are liberalising the use of Baby Bonus for early intervention programmes. This will unlock up to $24,000 per child to be used for early intervention programmes. This means that more parents can afford to give their children with disabilities specialised attention and guidance early in life, when it will do the most good. This will take effect from this July. I will touch on other aspects of the Baby Bonus later.
Caring for Caregivers
40 Dr Lily Neo, Mr Sin Boon Ann talked about caregivers. Many of those with disabilities, as well as many elderly, rely on dedicated caregivers to meet their daily needs. MCYS recognises that the labour of love undertaken by caregivers is often difficult and unrecognised. They deserve our support and admiration. MCYS will do more by providing caregivers with information, training and emotional support.
41 To help ease the burden and pain which caregivers frequently encounter, MCYS will introduce ‘Care Coordinators’ as a pilot project at 10 eldercare facilities across the island. The care coordinator will provide information on services that can support the caregiver, assist in referral, and provide counselling for the caregiver if necessary. The care coordinator will arrange for training and develop caregiver support programmes to enhance the well-being of caregivers. If this service proves to be useful to caregivers, we will look into extending it nationwide.
42 Caregivers of persons with disabilities would be happy to note that a Disability Information and Resource Centre (DIRC), began operations on 1 March this year. The DIRC will make it easier for caregivers to get information and guidance on how to help those who are disabled. There will be a hotline service and face to face consultation services. The DIRC will ease the burden for caregivers by helping with referrals to the most appropriate services offered by hospitals, VWOs, CDCs, or other agencies and grassroots organisations.
43 Ensuring that caregivers take care of themselves is important in maintaining their personal well-being. To raise awareness of the importance of home-based care giving and to publicise other forms of caregiver support, my ministry will earmark an annual budget of $400,000 to fund sustained public education programmes for caregivers.
44 Sir, caregivers are usually the family members of those who are frail. But families are not just about caregiving. I am sure all of us cherish our families as our greatest source of joy, friendship, emotional satisfaction and moral support. Our families mould us, define our values, and give our lives meaning.
45 But family life and work all clamour for our attention. We need to constantly remind ourselves of what is truly important as we pursue our ephemeral, unpredictable and fragile lives.
46 To support families at a practical level, the Government has introduced various pro-family measures such as a 5-day work week in the civil service, childcare leave, additional maternity leave as well as funding for initiatives that promote work life balance.
47 Financial incentives, such as the Baby Bonus, form part of the pro-family package that I have mentioned. Mr Sin Boon Ann asked if such monetary incentives have brought about an improvement in birth rates, and whether we have given equal emphasis to promoting strong family bonds.
48 I would like to reassure Mr Sin that we have been working with the people and private sectors to actively promote strong family bonds. We conduct marriage support and enrichment programmes, parent-child bonding initiatives as well as training on parenting skills and intergenerational bonding activities. Initiatives such as School Family Education and the “School Social Work To Empower Pupils to Utilise their Potential” programme (or STEP-UP), which have been set up in 144 schools, help parents update their parenting skills while equipping their children with life skills. That said, a strong family works only as an act of will and commitment. The key foundation must ultimately be love, respect and communication. The Government and community can only provide a supporting environment.
Further Enhancements to Baby Bonus Scheme
49 On the effectiveness of the Baby Bonus and other monetary schemes, I want to reiterate this point: The decision to have children is and must stem from a couple’s values and beliefs in family, and not from any incentives. The Government’s financial support is not meant to ‘buy’ more children.
50 But we know that the cost of raising a child remains a key consideration for many couples. So the Baby Bonus was conceived as a way to defray the costs of raising children. The Baby Bonus has a two-tier grant structure. The first-tier is a direct cash gift of $3,000 each for the first and second child, and $6,000 each for the third and fourth child. The second-tier is a co-savings component over 6 years where Government matches parents’ co-savings dollar for dollar, up to a maximum amount.
51 In response to feedback, MCYS will be adjusting the Baby Bonus scheme to make it more flexible. Currently, the Baby Bonus co-savings can be used to pay the fees of MCYS-licensed childcare centres and MOE-registered kindergartens. We will now allow parents to use their Baby Bonus co-savings to purchase MediShield or MediShield-equivalent healthcare insurance for their children from December 2005. This will give parents greater peace of mind over unexpected medical bills, should their children suffer from prolonged illnesses.
52 We will also be more flexible in how we award the matching grant. Currently, if parents miss out on contributing in any co-savings period, they “miss out” on the Government’s matching grant. Going forward, we will change the scheme such that parents can “top up” the co-savings up to a maximum of $6,000 for the second child and $12,000 each for the third and fourth child any time within the six year period for which the account is valid. With this flexibility, families facing temporary setbacks, such as the loss of a job, would be able to save in later years even if they could not afford to in earlier years. Parents can expect to enjoy this flexibility from July 2005.
53 We will also make it more convenient for parents to benefit from the Baby Bonus. At the moment, parents have to fill in an application form for the Baby Bonus cash gift, and make a trip down to a POSB branch to open a co-savings account. Now, we will introduce a one-stop, opt-out system for both the cash gift and the Baby Bonus co-savings, all at the point of birth registration. We are targeting to do this by December 2005.
Further Enhancements to Adoption Leave Scheme
54 Adoption Leave was introduced as part of last year’s pro-family package to allow adoptive mothers to care for their newborn, aged 6 months and below. Adoptive mothers are eligible for Adoption Leave of up to 4 weeks if their employers voluntarily grant it. The leave can be granted upon legal completion of the adoption process or in the case of a foreign born child, when he or she becomes a citizen.
55 In response to feedback, my Ministry will now allow adoptive mothers to apply for Adoption Leave at a much earlier point in the adoption process. With the change, adoptive mothers will be able to apply for Adoption Leave when the Court appoints MCYS as Guardian-Ad-Litem, or when adoptive mothers are issued with a Dependant’s Pass, in the case of a foreign child. This means adoptive mothers will be able to take the leave not long after they start the adoption process. This would be about 4 to 7 months earlier than under current rules.
Many Helping Hands
56 Families, being the first line of support, are just one of the “Many Helping Hands” holding up our social safety net. Other major partners are the people sector and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (or VWOs). They play a vital role in helping the less fortunate, especially in the direct delivery of services. They feel, know and understand the problems faced by the less fortunate much better than any Government agency can.
57 We need our VWOs to be professional and innovative. Many VWOs rely on donations from the public to fund their good work. We need to encourage the people sector to look beyond donations, to adopt a sustainable business model, so that they can continue their good work in good times and bad. One of the ways to do this is through social enterprise, something Ms Penny Low had spoken about.
58 Social enterprises are essentially businesses with a social mission. Their surpluses are re-invested in social causes, rather than to maximise the owners’ gains. A local example is Project Air-RAP, set up by Bizlink, where persons with disabilities provide ticket revenue accounting services for airlines. Profits are channelled back to Bizlink to benefit persons with disabilities.
59 To support social enterprises, MCYS set up the Social Enterprise Fund a year and a half ago. It provides seed capital for start-up social enterprises. To date, we have awarded about $3.6 million to support 38 projects. From these, 31 have started operations. We have also linked them up with more established businessmen and social enterprises.
60 These are just infant steps. We want to do more. Like Ms Penny Low, various people and organisations have given us suggestions, such as having a co-ordinating body, raising awareness especially in our universities and polytechnics, sharing best practices, having networking and mentoring programmes, and so on. We will look into all these suggestions as we continue to nurture this sector and strengthen our “Many Helping Hands” approach.
END OF PART I