SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam: Keeping social mobility alive and strengthening Singapore’s social compact in a post-COVID-19 world

On Wednesday (17 June), Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivered the fifth national ministerial broadcast on securing Singapore’s future in a post-COVID-19 world, which focused on the government’s plans to strengthen the “social compact” in Singapore in the coming years.

Mr Shanmugaratnam stressed that the fall in income around the world is expected to be the most severe in the last 100 years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however the problem goes beyond an economic recession into a profound social crisis as well.

He said, “Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn but we must absolutely defy the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation and the despair that has taken hold in many other countries.”

He went on to say that one way to “fortify” society is to to ensure that everyone has full opportunities to go well for themselves while booting support to keep social mobility alive in Singapore and lessen inequalities over time.

Creating more job opportunities for Singaporeans

Mr Shanmugaratnam, who is also chairman of the National Jobs council said that the council is “moving full speed ahead” to secure 100,000 jobs and training places targeted by the SG United jobs and skills package announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat recently.

He lamented, “As long as grave uncertainty hangs over the global economy, and trade and travel are down, new job openings in Singapore will very likely be fewer than job losses. So if we leave things to market forces, unemployment will rise significantly over the next year or even beyond that if COVID-19 remains a threat.”

He explained that the council is working with companies in different sectors to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships during this economic downturn so that they can have real paid work opportunity and pick up new skills white waiting for permanent jobs to open up.

Mr Shanmugaratnam said that the government is “heavily subsidising” these opportunities, adding, “No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long.”

He added, “The public sector will also bring forward hiring for future jobs in areas such as healthcare, early childhood development, education, and social services. It will step up recruitment especially in sectors which earlier had difficulty finding enough Singaporeans to fill up the positions.”

Mr Shanmugaratnam assured the public that Singapore’s economy is better diversified than it was in the late-60s and the mid-80s when unemployment rates rose beyond 6%. However, the country’s labour force is much older now.

He said, “We will spare no effort to help them [older workers] carry on with their careers in the most productive jobs they can do so that they can continue to provide for their families and contribute to Singapore.”

He noted that the new Mid-Career Pathways programme will be scaled up in the coming months so that older workers can get opportunities to work at companies and public sector agencies and can prepare for more permanent jobs in future.

Furthermore, the senior minister said that the government will also be working with employer to “reorient” their management, HR and talent management philosophies and practices, saying that the Ministry of Manpower will be closely watching companies to ensure they comply with the Fair Consideration Framework.

Expanding educational support to keep social mobility alive

Beyond that, the government also looking to education. Mr Shanmugaratnam said, “There’s nothing natural or preordained about social mobility. Every successful country has in fact found that it gets more difficult to sustain this with time. Parents who themselves had higher education or who have become better off are investing more in their children and moving them further ahead of the rest.”

“It therefore requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools and dedicated networks of community support to keep social mobility alive. We are investing a lot more into equalising opportunities when kids are young.”

The KidStart programme will be expanded to help more lower income families and more is being invested into schools. The minister noted that the Ministry of Education has allocated more resources to schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. More will be done in the form of hiring more teachers, allied educations, student welfare officers, and teacher-counsellors, said Mr Shanmugaratnam.

The MOE is also accelerating its plans to equip all secondary school students with a personal tablet or laptop to enable learning. Each secondary school student will have a device of their own by next year, said Mr Shanmugaratnam, seven years ahead of the original target.

Increasing assistance for lower and middle income Singaporeans

Finally, Mr Shanmugaratnam stressed the importance of community support.

“We are working systematically to provide greater support for lower and middle income Singaporeans and to build a fair and just society,” said the minister, adding that these policies will be strengthened in the coming years.

He elaborated, “The government has increased subsidies for lower and middle income families in education housing and healthcare, including CHAS. We are also boosting Silver Support to help our poorer retirees.”

“But very importantly, we continue to strengthen support for our lower income Singaporeans at work. Through Workfare and the Special Employment credit, the government pays our older lower income workers as much as 40% on top of the wages they get from their employers. We are also making progress in uplifting our lowest paid workers and will go further.”

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