Full speech by Muhd Faisal Manap, MP for Aljunied GRC in the Debate on President’s Address 2014 (26th May 2014)
Integrated Social Services
Madam Speaker, speaking as someone who worked in the social service sector, I am glad for the changes that are taking place today.
It is good that the government is seeking to create a social service network to put 95 per cent of where needy residents live or work within 2km of a Social Service Office or a Family Service Centre. Though I wonder where do the remaining 5 per cent live on our dense and compact island that put them outside the 2km.
In any case, we are seeing today an unprecedented integration of social service provision, with better coordination between diverse government departments in different ministries and volunteer welfare organisations, and tools being developed such as the national social service map and database.
When the Minister responded to questions and calls to consider setting up a poverty line to guide policy making with the Kueh Lapis graph showing multiple lines of assistance provided by the government to needy and vulnerable Singapore, he has also set in my mind and in many Singaporeans’ mind a very real image that there is now a social safety net in place.
Is the social safety net doing its job? Is the social safety net performing to help Singaporeans pick themselves up after a fall? Is the social safety net pulling families out of the poverty trap? How do we know that the temporary poor are indeed temporarily poor and are moving up the government’s different scales of help closer to median income self-sufficiency?
Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister may be right to say that there are no dead poor in Singapore because no one here lives under the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.50 a day. But as he acknowledges, there are the relatively poor and the temporary poor. These are Singaporeans who are experiencing a fraction of the standard of living enjoyed by the average Singaporean. We need to know whether the government’s multiple lines of assistance, the social safety net, is helping them and whether the overall situation is improving year on year.
Social Protection Framework
I would like to propose the government adopt the International Labour Organisation’s Social Protection framework to track the work and performance of our social safety nets. As defined by the ILO, the Social Protection approach calls for a “fair and inclusive globalization” involving an “integrated set of social policies designed to guarantee income security and access to essential social services for all, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups and protecting and empowering people across the life cycle”. You will see that this already describes the government’s work-in-progress of integrating the social services as part of providing Singaporeans security and inclusive growth.
Conceptually, the Social Protection approach offers a two-dimensional social protection staircase (see Figure 1). The horizontal coverage, which is the Social Protection Floor, guarantees access to essential healthcare for all, income security for children, assistance to vulnerable groups, and income security for the elderly and disabled. The vertical dimension provides more comprehensive social protection coverage building on the Floor, such as state pension funds, employment insurance and comprehensive health insurance. The objective is to empower the households to become self-reliant and climb the staircase to higher income and higher levels of protection.
The merit of the government’s Kueh Lapis approach is that it demonstrates the principle of calibrating assistance to the adequate level to prevent dependency, free riding and abuse of the social protection system. It shows that the four essential guarantees of social protection can be tiered to provide different levels of assistance necessary to help people climb up and achieve social mobility and better social protection. This helps to preserve our work ethic and the independence and dignity of families in being able to provide for themselves. In recognition of this, we believe the floor of the Social Protection Framework should be differentiated into three steps in further elaboration of the protection staircase.
Three Protection Steps
I would like to propose three Social Protection Steps be established and systematically pegged at 30, 50 and 80% of the annual median monthly household income per member rounded up to the nearest fifty. Based on the 2013 median monthly household income per member of $2,247, this would be $700, $1,150 and $1,800 respectively. Figure 2 shows the Steps and the income ranges for 2014. It is notable that the current ComCare and CHAS eligibility income caps are similar and this is perhaps not coincidental.
I propose the Government consider publishing an annual State of Social Protection report to give an account of the status of vulnerable groups based on the Steps and to track the progress made. The Minister for Social and Family Development could present them at the Budget as a key component of the government’s inclusive growth approach. Key statistics on how many people, families, elderly and children are in the three Steps, how many received government assistance and how many progressed on the three Steps should be published. This is important for several reasons.
The annual State of Social Protection report will make the Government accountable to the public on the progress being made in helping the vulnerable groups become self-sufficient and self-reliant and achieve higher levels of social protections. Current mentions of utilization rate of ComCare assistance is not a proper measure of the objective of ComCare to help needy Singaporeans become self-reliant if they are capable of doing so. The Government needs to account to the public on the performance of its assistance programs.
The statistics contained in the report will serve as the basis for key performance indicators (KPIs) for evaluation, with which the Government can evaluate its assistance programs in an objective manner and can use to set targets to achieve. An important set of KPIs is the percentage of total resident households making up each Step. If progress is being made to address vulnerability and reduce poverty, then the percentage of households making up the Steps, especially for Steps 1 and 2, should show decline in percentages year to year and over medium terms of five years. If over the next five years, the percentage of households making up Step 1 continues to fluctuate around my estimate of 19%, then we would know there is a need to evaluate the package of assistance schemes aimed at addressing the most needy of households, such as the Public Assistance and ComCare schemes.
Realistic long-term targets can also be set in light of international experience. Across OECD countries, the average poverty rate, meaning the percentage of population earning less than half of median income corresponding to both Social Protection Steps 1 and 2 was about 11% in the mid-2000s. We could aim to reduce the percentage of households making up Step 1 from 19% to 11% by 2030.
Annual tracking also offers an important awareness-raising tool. An inclusive society can only be achieved if well-off members of the society are aware of the problems faced by the less well-off members and know how to take action to help their compatriots. It will enhance public awareness campaigns by the non-profit sector such as the Singaporeans Against Poverty project. Such public information also serves as baseline knowledge for building up more sophisticated multidimensional measurements of poverty such as the UNDP’s Human Poverty Index (HPI).
Published tracking findings will foster better alignment and coordination among NGOs, VWOs and state agencies, as they will be relying on a common set of tracking tools to identify and service vulnerable groups. The Social Protection Steps will also enhance the use of the Social Service Net that the Government will roll out by mid-2015.
As a positive side effect, the report will also concretely track the Government’s progress in fostering a more inclusive growth through the improvement of the wages of low-income workers. As the Steps will keep moving up relative to median wages, wage stagnation among low-income workers will be made more obvious by the annual tracking of households using the Steps framework. Wage stagnation among low-income workers will appear as the increase in numbers and percentage of Step 1 and Step 2 households.
Developing a National Strategy to Address Vulnerability
Madam Speaker, last but not least, I propose the Government consider using the Social Protection Framework as the basis for public engagement and consultation to develop a national strategy to address vulnerability and reduce the relative poverty rate. When it comes to major issues such as economic development, productivity, urban planning and population policy, we have had the benefit of national strategies, roadmaps and masterplans galvanising public debate and feedback. However, because social assistance schemes are scattered across many ministries and have only recently been collected and presented by the Government as the “kueh lapis” approach, we have not had the benefit of mobilising Singaporeans to co-create a national plan to combat vulnerability and become stakeholders in the national effort.
Surely, social development and income equity are as important as economic development in the “inclusive growth” approach. With three Steps pegged to median income, the proposed Social Protection Framework is adapted to our national context of encouraging self-reliance and inclusive growth and takes into consideration the many assistance schemes already put in place by the Government. A single poverty line may well be too simple for the complex situations many needy and vulnerable Singaporeans have found themselves in. The Social Protection Framework offers a coherent basis for us to move forward to track the complex situations concretely and galvanize the vigorous debates for what the President calls constructive politics.