Caring for elders and inspiring the young

Speech by Tin Pei Ling, Member of Parliament in the Marine Parade GRC for the debate on President’s Address 2014

Mdm Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important debate over the direction and commitment for Singapore’s next lap.

The President in his address articulated the key thrusts and underpinning values of the government, and he painted a picture of what I will describe as our Singapore Dream. He clearly described the 6 areas that the Government has pledged to focus on, to offer better opportunities and enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans. Clearly, the address is about building a Singaporeans’ Singapore.

The President’s address is timely, as we approach a significant juncture of our history – Singapore’s 50th National Day next year. It is an important debate for the 12th Parliament and the Government to address the concerns and aspirations of Singaporeans and chart the way forward to create the Singapore of Tomorrow. In other words, we are here to discuss what our Singapore Dream is and what we must do to achieve it.

I would like to make my modest contributions in three areas: How we should take care of our elderly; how we can inspire our young; and how we will advance as a community.

Taking Care of Our Elderly

A successful society is not simply defined by the strength of its economy, the height of its skyscrapers or the achievements of its most capable members. It is not one in which its citizens focused solely on pushing ahead, with a winner-takes-all attitude.

No, a successful society is one that takes care of its elderly and vulnerable, and one that draws strength from solidarity. It is about bringing everyone along, moving ahead together and sharing in the fruits of our success. A successful society is inclusive and compassionate, in its policies and in its spirit.

I am pleased that the Government’s policies demonstrate that Singapore is moving towards building such a successful society.

The Ministry of Health has made successive, significant moves in improving the care of our old and vulnerable. It has enhanced healthcare affordability through, for example, enhanced senior’s mobility and enabling fund, Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) and enhanced outpatient subsidies, on top of the 3M framework. MediShield Life will be coming online next year. The MOH had pledged to keep the premiums affordable for Singaporeans and this clearly signals that the government is taking on more of the risks. The MOH has also pledged to increase healthcare capacity and manpower to address the increasing healthcare demands resulting from an aging population. It has and it should also pay attention to ensuring the mental well-being of our elderly through efforts to heighten awareness of age-related conditions such as dementia, and to build social infrastructures and networks to provide high touch care and support. All these moves will go a long way in assuring Singaporeans that aging is not gloom and doom.

While the Government has moved to provide quality healthcare and strong safety nets for our Singaporeans, especially our elderly, it is extremely important that the implementation and communication (“the last mile”) are done well. The majority of our elderly and pioneers today belong to a generation who had limited education as Singapore went through tough times. Many may also have lost their family members for various reasons and are now living alone, depending on themselves. Hence, it is imperative that we help our elderly to navigate the complex and seemingly daunting healthcare system, so that they can seek the treatment they need without fear. What is the point of having these wonderful measures/ packages if the beneficiaries do not know of them and how to benefit from them?

I must also applaud the Government for the Pioneer Generation Package, which is highly focused on healthcare – a top concern amongst elderly Singaporeans. The generous package honours a generation who have given so much for Singapore, but who have gotten back so little in comparison. The Pioneer Generation, despite their selfless contributions to Singapore, do not have a legal claim on the benefits offered in the package. But we have a moral duty to thank them, honour them and take care of them. The package does this, and signals our desire for Singapore to be a better society.

But more has to be done to communicate the Pioneer Generation Package. Many inside and outside this chamber have spoken about this, and I trust that the MOH will step up in its communications. We, politicians, community leaders and other Singaporeans, should also do what we can to reach out and help elderly and vulnerable Singaporeans, some of whom may be tucked away in their homes or preoccupied with their immediate needs.

I would also like to repeat my call to introduce more flexibility for the Medisave payout of the package. Specifically, that it can be converted into cash in some years, to give our pioneers more autonomy to decide whether the money is better used for healthcare or other pressing living needs. To encourage prudence, this option can be capped, at say 5 times. Fiscally, the budget should remain pretty much the same, but practically, our elderly pioneers will have an additional help resource to use in times of need.

Many people are worried about growing old. Apart from concerns over losing physical and mental strength, there is a real concern over retirement adequacy.

The CPF is our main device to ensure retirement adequacy in Singapore; it has served us well and should continue to stay. Recent media coverage and Minister for Manpower’s blog post have explained how CPF works and why certain restrictions are necessary. I am grateful for the explanation that the Minimum Sum is necessary to ensure that Singaporeans have enough for their old age. Many members have spoken on this yesterday and I will not belabour this point. Nonetheless, I would like to echo my support for the review of the CPF system. I urge the Government to evaluate the feasibility of guaranteeing a higher rate of return on our CPF monies, so that it can better withstand inflation and ensure Singaporeans’ CPF monies will be well above the Minimum Sum.

I also urge the Government to make the rules governing the use of CPF money more flexible, so as to allow mature Singaporeans genuinely in dire straits to take care of their immediate needs, such as HDB mortgages and children’s education.

Such a move is in line with a more compassionate society. Does it mean a higher risk that some Singaporeans will not have enough in their old age? Maybe, but I believe that such cases are in the minority, and the reality is that these Singaporeans are in desperate need for help and we need to help them reach life buoys as they try so hard to paddle ashore on their own.

Inspiring Our Young

The Pioneer Generation laid the foundations for modern Singapore. The young will pave the way for the Singapore of tomorrow. As such, I am glad that the President focused so much on our young in his Address, and I strongly agree with his statement that “We will enable young Singaporeans to fulfil their potential, pursue their dreams, and follow their interests in diverse fields.”

It will be extremely challenging to fulfil this promise. Already today, there are concerns about providing enough job opportunities for PMETs, and equipping Singaporeans with the right skills to fill such jobs.

The future world that the young will operate in will be even more competitive. It will be full of smart, well-educated and ambitious young men and women, many of them in Asia, driven to do whatever it takes to succeed. The future world will also be characterised by rapid change, as new technological developments push corporations to innovate or die, and propel societies to adapt or wither.

Our education system must prepare our young for such a competitive, fast-changing world. Our system therefore has to teach our young to have multi-disciplinary skills, to be versatile and adaptable. We must equip our young with skills of the future, in a world where work will be transformed and enabled by technology.

To date, our education system has done well. It has evolved over the past decades – from one-size-fit-all in the Colonial days to post world-war 2’s “10 years programme” to the “survival driven education” in the 50s and 60s to “quality education” in the 80s to the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” in the 90s and that continues to be relevant today. Because of our rigorously designed education system, Singapore has been able to nurture generations of knowledgeable and skilled Singaporeans. Singapore has also been able to capitalise on our talented human resource to transform our nation from Third World to First within a lifetime.

We must now evolve our education system once more, to keep it relevant to the economy and to the future. The April edition of The Economist carried an article titled “Coding in Schools, A is for Algorithm”. It discussed how computer coding – a fundamental in understanding and designing technology – is proliferating schools in many countries. For instance, computer science is slated to become part of England’s primary-school curriculum this September.

The article further noted that “Many other places are beefing up computer-science teaching, too. Israel was an early adopter, updating its high-school syllabus a decade ago; New Zealand and some German states recently did the same. Australia and Denmark are now following suit.”

These countries are taking steps to prepare their children and youths for the future. We must do the same. I am not saying that teaching coding is definitely the way to go; but it is important that our education planners adopt a future oriented attitude in curriculum development.

The consequences are dire for our young if our education does not match the needs of the economy. The case of Europe is a grim warning for us. Last year, I had the chance to discuss this subject with some European officials, who are deeply concerned about the Continent’s high youth unemployment. About 1 in 4 young people in Europe cannot find a job. That’s about 5.5 million young people in Europe out of work. In some EU member countries, youth unemployment rate can reach more than 50%.

However, at the same time there are about 2.5 million job vacancies with no one to fill them. Why? Because there is a mismatch of skills and lack of practical hands-on experience. There is a demand for labour in jobs requiring STEM knowledge (i.e. Scientific, Technical, Engineering and Mathematical knowledge). However, many young Europeans are not educated in these areas and despite having a degree are finding it difficult to secure a proper job. Many end up in temporary jobs.

The officers I met were concerned not only with the immediate impact on the young people’s well-being but also with the risks of long term scarring. They worry about an entire generation of young European people unable to find work for months or maybe years at a stretch, watching their contemporaries in other countries move far ahead while they stay static, feeling lost and depressed, and losing drive and hope during the prime years of their lives.

We must not allow Singapore to get into such a situation. We must enable our young people to have meaningful employment and to be empowered to support themselves and their families. We need to prepare our youth for diverse job opportunities, avoid ever letting them experience the despair of wasted youth, of losing hope in the prime years of their lives.

Of course, it is not enough to have an education system that only equips the most capable students to succeed. Our system must ensure that all young Singaporeans, with their different aptitudes and starting points, can have the best chance of succeeding in life. In this vein, I feel very heartened by the President’s statements – that “we will keep pathways upwards open to all Singaporeans, regardless of background or family circumstances” that “Singapore must remain a nation of opportunities for all. Those who do not succeed at first should have a second chance, indeed must always have the chance to try again.” I look forward to the Ministry of Education’s new initiatives to do this.

It is not enough for education to be solely about preparing students for the future economy. It must also nurture in our young critical thinking skills, resilience and adaptability, lifelong learning habits and values that will stand them well throughout their lives. Most importantly, it must inspire them to greatness –to want to make things better; to want to do more for the community, the nation or even the world; to be inspired to take Singapore to ever greater heights.

We must support and nurture our youth, for it is young Singaporeans who will carry forward and fulfil the hopes and dreams of Singapore. We must never allow young Singaporeans to ever share the pessimism that youths in other developed countries feel – a finding in an Ipsos Mori study published last month.

Advancing as One

We must create a Singapore that provides not only many opportunities but also more comprehensive safety nets; one which enables Singaporeans to explore the world and succeed in different ventures, and also provides a safe, comfortable home. As we approach our 50th Year of Independence, I dream of a Singapore that is competitive yet compassionate, successful yet inclusive.

That means, Meritocracy must stay. Without meritocracy, we risk making way for cronyism, favouritism, and discrimination – all that we as Singaporeans have clearly rejected. We can invest more in those who start off further behind, and we can create more pathways and entry points. But we must also not hold talented Singaporeans back, to fulfil some misguided sense of social fairness. Instead, we have to allow Singaporeans with talent and grit to get ahead, and pull our nation ahead.

However, our meritocracy must be tempered with compassion and a sense of community. We cannot be a careless and care-less meritocracy. We cannot be careless in the way we implement meritocracy such that our system ends up exacerbating inequality and breeding politics of envy or worse, class war between the haves and have-nots. We cannot be care-less and end up with a Singapore society that is cold, fragmented and brittle. We must be a society where there is mutual respect and camaraderie among all Singaporeans, where successful Singaporeans feel for and will help less successful citizens, and where all of us share a common cause to build Singapore together.

Our Government policies must shift to put in place the framework for this better Singapore. I am glad that the President’s Address has articulated a strong message of coming policy changes to improve Singapore for Singaporeans. But true change requires also a change in the spirit of our nation. It requires all Singaporeans to believe in our Singapore Dream, and commit to creating the miracle that is Singapore again and again.

Although Singapore is almost passing the half-century mark, ours is still a young nation, full of promise. As we approach our 50th year, let us give our wholehearted support to the President’s call, to take pride in what we have achieved, and “pledge ourselves anew to build a better, brighter Singapore.”

With this, I support the motion.