NUS Social Service Research Centre Conference “Working With Low-Income Families Through The Life Course: Challenges To Social Services” Keynote Speech By Second Minister for Education, Ms Indranee Rajah

Published Date: 18 July 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Professor Vasoo, Advisory Board Chair, NUS Social Service Research Centre (SSR)

Professor Paul, Steering Committee Chair, NUS SSR

Professor Irene, Director, NUS SSR

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good morning everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you, and thank you for inviting me to this conference on the very important topic of social services and working with low-income families through the life course, and for giving me the opportunity to address you.

2. Today, I would like to speak about the 4G team’s vision for a society of opportunities throughout life - one in which all will have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, irrespective of their background; a society in which birth is not destiny nor where the starting point determines the end point. I will also share my views on some of the key challenges to maintaining social mobility and bridging inequalities, and what we can do together to address them.

Challenges to Social Policies: Then and Now

3. The conference topic that you have today puts squarely in the frame the issues of inequality and social mobility currently confronting many countries, Singapore included.

4. While very much in the news today, these issues are not new.

5. In the 1965 Proclamation of Singapore, we proclaimed and declared that our goal was that “Singapore shall forever be a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded on the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society”.

6. As you can see, inequality and social mobility were issues even back then, and we had from inception made tackling them a fundamental tenet of achieving a fair and just society.

7. Since that time, we have achieved much in pursuit of our goal, and the statistics tell the story of the tremendous progress we have made in our quest for a more just and equal society:

  1. In 1960 life expectancy was 62.9 years. In 2018 it was 83.2.

  2. In 1980 nearly 45% of the P1 cohort did not complete secondary education. Today it is less than 1%.

  3. In 1965 only about 10% made it to post-secondary education. Today, more than 90% of Singaporean youths go on to our institutions of higher learning.

  4. Home ownership was less than 60% in 1980. Now it is more than 90%, of which more than 80% is public housing.

8. SM Tharman1 and Minister Ong Ye Kung2 have on separate occasions spoken about what we did over the years to arrive at these outcomes so it is not necessary for me to detail them further, save to say that this transformation can be attributed to our adherence to meritocracy, our heavy investments in education and our people, and our policies aimed at economic development, job creation, income growth, affordable quality healthcare for all, our public housing programme and generous subsidies to promote home ownership. The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats. The early generations saw significant improvements within their lifetimes and were able to give their children a better life than what they had experienced.

9. Why is it then that inequality and social mobility are still issues today? And what is the difference between then and now?

10. First of all, in our early years as a nation, the starting base for the majority of Singaporeans was very low across almost all indicators: education, income, and home ownership. There was a greater sense of all being in a similar situation. Or, as some older Singaporeans have put it, ‘We were all equally poor’.

11. However, things have since changed. Our economic progress has created prosperity for many, but it has also resulted, over time, in different levels of resources accruing to low, middle and higher income families. It is natural for families to want to use their resources to help their children advance, be it in the form of extra educational material, enrichment programmes, or social networks. As those parents who have accumulated more over our five decades of growth pass on the advantages to their children who in turn pass on further advantages to their children, this has given rise to a new concern that children at the bottom end of the spectrum have increasingly unequal starting blocks, which will translate down the line into very different outcomes and hinder social mobility.

12. At the same time, other deep-seated forces are also at play.

13. In an era where growth is driven by the knowledge-based industry in which the well-educated and exceptionally talented reap more rewards than others, economic and social benefits quickly accrue to those at the top.

14. This is exacerbated by rapid technological advancement. The structure of our economy, like that of many others, is seeing rapid change driven by technology, automation and AI. Some of these changes have had the effect of worsening wage dispersion, threatening to deepen the divide between higher-skilled and lower-skilled workers. Lower-skilled workers risk being shut off from the new opportunities being created.

15. Meanwhile, as we have become more developed and gradually caught up with some of the most advanced economies of the world, our growth has naturally slowed.

16. This new phase of our development coincides with our changing demographic profile. Our people are not as young as before – within a few generations, we have gone from enjoying the baby-boomer demographic dividend to dealing with the challenges of an ageing population. This trajectory is not unlike that of other similar economies, such as Korea and Taiwan. A slower pace of economic growth directly translates into how much progress each new generation is likely to see. It can also lead to stagnation for lower skilled workers who are unable to adapt or re-skill.

17. These trends and tendencies pose new challenges to our society that did not exist in earlier decades. Left unchecked, they will cause less advantaged Singaporeans to be left behind, and to feel that the opportunities available can only be accessed by a privileged few. As the needs and viewpoints in our society continue to become more diverse, such a situation will make it easy for new fault-lines to emerge between the haves and the have-nots, or the will-haves and the won’t-haves.

18. Our Gini coefficient as a measure of income dispersion has remained stable in recent years, but if we do not actively intervene to mitigate inequality and enhance social mobility, our sense of being one united people will gradually erode.

19. These developments show that tackling inequality and maintaining social mobility are continuing challenges. They take different forms in different times and each generation will have to address them as they manifest. The question for 4G leaders therefore is how we will tackle inequality and sustain social mobility, in this time and on our watch.

20. Let me now outline our approach.

21. One common call is that we should “rethink meritocracy”. Well, that depends on what one means by that.

  1. If that means that we should do away with letting people advance on merit, that we should abolish the principle of choosing the person best able and best equipped to do the job, then the answer is no, that cannot be the right approach. We must remember that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism and a means of ensuring that positions were obtained on the basis of substantive ability. Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to re-surface and weaken our system.

  2. If the suggestion is that we should hold back those who can achieve more in a bid to equalise outcomes then the answer must also be no. Which parent doesn’t want their child to be the best that they can be? Students too have their own aspirations. Each new generation will want to reach for the greatest possible achievement for themselves. It would not be right to hold them back. People have diverse skills, talents and abilities. It is inevitable that there will be some differences in outcomes.

  3. The crux of the matter is not the principle of meritocracy per se. The crux of the matter is that while we have worked very hard to provide equal opportunities, those from the lower income and disadvantaged backgrounds might find it harder to access these opportunities.

  4. Our approach is not to cap the top but to uplift the bottom - to improve access to these opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities on offer, to bridge the shortfalls and narrow the gaps so that all can rise together - an enabling meritocracy if you will.

  5. In tandem with this, there must be multiple pathways for achievement, success and careers to ensure continuing social mobility. Some may progress faster, others may take longer; some may take familiar routes, others the path less travelled, but ultimately all can have good outcomes - not necessarily the same outcomes - with effort on their part and, where needed, with support from the government and others.

22. Our approach therefore is twofold: (a) First, we will continue to strengthen the support for those who have less; (b) Second, we will build a society of opportunities for all, at every stage of life.

Strengthening Support

23. As a Government, we are committed to do the best we can to bring about the right conditions for our people to thrive. In the early years when we had fewer resources, heavy emphasis was placed on economic development, a policy approach which lifted an entire generation out of poverty.

24. As circumstances changed, we saw a rising trend of inequality in the 1990s. Without letting up on economic development, which is the engine that generates the wealth that is a prerequisite for redistribution, in 2006 we made a decisive shift to provide greater social support to more vulnerable groups and those who need it most.

25. The coverage and level of our assistance schemes have grown in the last decade and span the life-cycle.

  1. The enhancement of housing grants, including the Additional CPF Housing Grant and the Special CPF Housing Grant, has helped more young families, including middle income couples to afford homes.

  2. For those with young children, we enhanced the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme (KIFAS) and the Basic and Additional Subsidies for childcare, which extends support up to middle income households in recognition of the substantial cost of early-childhood education.

  3. To help lower income and older workers, we have continually enhanced Workfare and the Progressive Wage Models. Most recently in Budget 2019, DPM Heng announced the enhancement of the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS). From Jan 2020, we will increase the qualifying cap for lower-wage workers, and raise the annual maximum pay-outs, particularly for older workers. Other measures like the Special Employment Credit encourage companies to continue employing older workers.

  4. The Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation Packages have given peace of mind to seniors on their healthcare costs.

26. We will continue to strengthen support for those who need it. In the coming months, my 4G colleagues will share more on this subject. But even as we do more to moderate the effects of unequal circumstances and strengthen support for those in need, we must in parallel also work to provide opportunities for all Singaporeans to do well in life.

Building A Society of Opportunities, at Every Stage of Life

27. The second key area of work therefore is building a society of opportunities for all, at every stage of life. This is a fundamental basis on which our nation is built, and remains a key pillar of the 4G’s vision for Singapore.

28. This government will strive to ensure that no one, no matter the conditions of his or her birth, will be denied the opportunities to improve the conditions of their life. We will make sure that all are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities we provide in education, skills training, housing and other relevant areas. This is what we mean by an enabling meritocracy.

29. Ensuring that Singaporeans have a solid foundation from which to advance and progress is core to MOE’s work. But it also extends across many other policy areas – finance, social, and housing, among others.

30. Minister Desmond Lee has outlined the moves by MSF in the social space to moderate the income gap and strengthen the support for low-income families. In housing, Minister Lawrence Wong has highlighted various initiatives to help rental tenants progress to home ownership.

31. Let me elaborate what this means in relation to education.

32. First, we want every child to have good pre-school education given the importance of early childhood development as a key factor for good outcomes later in life:

  1. To increase the availability, affordability and quality of preschool education for all, including the lower and middle income, we introduced the Anchor Operator Scheme as well as MOE kindergartens, implemented the Nurturing Early Learners curriculum framework and SPARK certification and set up NIEC as a pipeline of well-qualified early childhood educators. Fee subsidies are also available for those in need.

  2. To help bridge unequal starting points, we piloted KidStart to provide targeted and upstream intervention for low-income children and their families, starting from pregnancy and going all the way to preschool.

  3. Early childhood is a continuing area of work and we will do more.

33. Second, for children in their schooling years, our education system must serve to develop every child’s strengths and allow for success through different trajectories.

  1. We in MOE see it as our responsibility to ensure that our public schools continue to provide quality education pathways for all students, regardless of their background, and to help them realise their fullest potential.

  2. Our remaking of secondary school pathways with full subject-based banding is a latest step towards this direction.

  3. Our institutions of higher learning, ITE, Poly and universities, provide different paths for our students to achieve their aspirations.

We will look into what else can be done to remove barriers to education and training at different levels.

34. Third, beyond opportunities in the early and schooling years, we want to ensure that there continue to be diverse and rewarding paths for everyone in their working years.

  1. Our economy continues to generate good jobs for our young adults as they enter the workforce. We must make sure we equip them with the right skills to take advantage of opportunities in our new economy.

  2. But that is just the start. We must make sure that there are good opportunities for continuous education and training, and that learning does not stop after you enter the workforce. Singaporeans should have the opportunity to deepen and broaden their skills at every stage in their career. We are looking hard at how SkillsFuture can be enhanced to support this goal.

  3. We will also take care of our vulnerable workers – these include not only the lower-income or older workers that I spoke about earlier, but every worker who is at risk of displacement. Given the pace of technological change, it is especially important for us to see how we can help those affected by setbacks like job loss, illness or family difficulties to get back on their feet quickly. MOM’s employment support programmes under Adapt and Grow is a part of this. Minister Josephine Teo will be speaking more about our approach in this area next week.

Bridging the Gaps

35. What I have described is the broad outline of how we are creating a society of opportunities. And in this, I am very heartened by the report in today’s newspapers about those who have obtained PSC Scholarships. You will see that this year, we have the highest number of polytechnic diploma holders who obtained scholarships and importantly, you will also see that the scholarship holders came from 17 different schools, showing that across the board, there are children of ability whose talent is recognised. This brings me to the next question: How then do we address the critical issue which I highlighted earlier, that of ensuring that the lower income and disadvantaged can make the most of the opportunities on offer?

36. This is not a simple or an easy task because the factors which cause families and individuals to be in disadvantaged positions are myriad and complex. They range from unemployment, financial difficulties, poor health, disability, family problems, among others. Often, these problems are beyond the families’ control. Their circumstances can be overwhelming and sometimes it is difficult for them to even reach out for help.

37. However, if we want to change their situation, if we want to mitigate inequalities and ensure social mobility, then this is the space in which we must be and this is where interventions must take place.

38. This is the space where the work of MSF interfaces with the work of MOE. But more than that, this is also a space where we should - as the title of today’s conference aptly notes - work with the families. And it is also the space where we should work with you - by which I mean not just the social researchers and the conference attendees here today, but with everyone - private organisations, social service agencies, individuals and the community at large. This is a space in which partnership and working together has the potential to make a big difference.

39. Let me touch on the part that each of these - MSF, MOE, families and the community - plays.


40. Given the many challenges faced by these families and their limited resources and other constraints, to be effective, social assistance needs to be coordinated and close to the ground.

  1. In recent years, MSF has, in collaboration with other ministries, put in place measures to transform service delivery in order to provide comprehensive, convenient and coordinated assistance to Singaporeans in need of support.

  2. Since 2013, MSF has progressively set up Social Service Offices (SSOs) near HDB precincts with residents in need of social services, to make these services much more accessible. To further transform service delivery, MSF has co-located complementary services with some of the SSOs and made use of video-conferencing, so that those in need of assistance from other agencies do not have to travel to and fro between agencies. This saves time, cost and physical energy.

  3. IMSF has also redesigned work processes for agencies to share information and assessments back end, to make it easier for those in need of help to get it – and fast – without the hassle of going through the same tedious process of filling in the same paperwork multiple times or answering the same set of questions for different agencies.


41. Last year, MOE set up the “Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce” (UPLIFT). UPLIFT’s mission is to examine problems and issues faced by underperforming students from disadvantaged families, understand what exactly prevents them from doing better, identify gaps, and devise practical solutions.

42. We did not begin with a fixed notion of what the underlying issues were, or what we should do. Our approach was to engage and listen to those in the frontline of working directly with disadvantaged students and their families – including teachers, student welfare officers, social workers, VWOs, Self-Help Groups, community partners and volunteers – to learn from their insights and experience. Their contributions were extremely valuable both in identifying the underlying causes for poor performance in school as well as shaping the strategies to uplift these students.

43. As a result, we zeroed in on four key areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Long term absenteeism;

  2. The lack of a structured and supervised environment outside of school;

  3. Under-performance due to lack of self-confidence, motivation and resilience; and

  4. The need for stronger family support. These vary with individual families. Examples include parents being overwhelmed by work and family issues, making it difficult for them to care for their children, or domestic situations affecting the child emotionally.

44. Given that there are already many agencies and people able to assist in these areas, those at the frontline identified better coordination as the key to addressing these issues.

45. Arising from this, MOE has to date put in place three major initiatives:

  1. First - the UPLIFT scholarship which provides a $800 annual cash award to students from lower income families who have performed well to be admitted into independent schools. This will help offset their out-of-pocket expenses, so that the students and their families will not be deterred from applying to these schools.

  2. Second – MOE has strengthened after-school care and support through school-based student care centres (SCCs) and after-school programmes in secondary schools, including plans to expand capacity and enrolment, and partner the community to enhance our after-school engagement programming.

  3. Third – we are setting up the UPLIFT Programme Office (UPO) for better coordination and leverage of community assets and resources, including citizen volunteers, Self-Help Groups – CDAC, MENDAKI and SINDA, and the MSF network of social service agencies to strengthen support for disadvantaged students and families at a local level. The Programme Office will match community resources to schools, based on specific needs.

46. This is only the beginning. The UPLIFT work is ongoing and there will be other initiatives in due course.


47. Families and students themselves will be key partners in our efforts to uplift them. As this concerns them, they would need to be on board. What we want is for them to know that there is hope, that there is a supportive community and that they are not alone. In this regard, you can read the report in today’s Straits Times, “From sleeping in void decks to enrolling at Oxford”. It is the story of Mr Zulhaqem Zulkifli, which is an amazing story of resilience. You will see that he attributes a lot to his father because his father was the one who encouraged the children to work hard, supported them and gave them the motivation. The father was a parent who was invested in his children’s progress and their desire to do well. Thus, you can see the power of the family’s involvement in uplifting these children.


48. A few weeks ago, DPM Heng spoke about the 4G’s approach to partnering Singaporeans. The UPLIFT endeavour is one which uniquely lends itself to partnership and collaboration with the community. This is an area that many are passionate about, and in the short time that UPLIFT has been in place, MOE has received many expressions of interest from various organisations and individuals to participate.

49. The difference that the community can make is tangible.

  1. Take for example, Xishan Primary School is one of the seven schools that RSVP Singapore – an organisation for senior volunteers – is partnering for their mentoring programme. RSVP volunteers visit the school weekly to provide practical help such as after-school homework supervision, and they conduct activities like handicraft work to build healthy hobbies and interests. Over time, the seniors have befriended the children and served as positive role models for them. One of them, Aryan, a Primary 5 student in the programme, was very thankful that one of the seniors, Uncle Jimmy, shared his life story with him. Uncle Jimmy shared that when he was a child, he used to dislike doing homework, but realised that he needed to work hard in his studies in order to support his family which was going through some financial difficulties at that time. This motivated Aryan to study harder. The bonds forged between the volunteers and students are precious and benefit the students tremendously.

  2. Every Saturday night, Mr Lim Seng Kee, an Airside Operations Manager at Changi Airport Group, plays football with a group of SportCares youths between 13 and 21 years old. He trains with them and leads by example, completing the sessions to the best of his ability and inspiring them to give their best. With the time spent on the pitch together, Mr Lim has become not only their football kaki but also their role model and trusted mentor who, through the sharing of his life experiences, motivates, inspires and encourages them to be resilient.

50. Such ground-up volunteerism and active contributions from community organisations and alumni members are examples of the partnerships between citizen volunteers and schools that we are looking to expand. Through local connections, students are able to receive more immediate, targeted help required. When the community is involved, it actually works both ways: it strengthens the ecosystem of care and support for disadvantaged students and at the same time, it also offers people an avenue to give back.

51. There is also opportunity to partner academics and researchers like yourselves on policy-relevant social science research.


52. This task of tackling inequality and ensuring social mobility is a critical work.

53. We do this because, as Singaporeans, we must care for one another and look out for each other. Every Singaporean matters and we want all to do well. Singapore must always be a society of opportunities for all, throughout life, where everyone can progress irrespective of starting point; where all Singaporeans will have equal chance to seek better lives – to meet their aspirations and find happiness – regardless of background.

54. We must also do this as a matter of national interest.

55. As PM Lee has pointed out, the issues of mitigating income inequality, ensuring social mobility and enhancing social integration are critical. If we fail – if widening income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interests at the expense of others – our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither. This is why this Government will strive to keep all Singaporeans – regardless of race, language, religion or social background – together.

56. What is at stake therefore, is the very nature of our society. This is not just the task of government. It is the task of everyone because it affects all of us.

57. This brings me back to where I began: The Proclamation of Singapore, which sets us on the quest of “ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society”.

58. The Pioneer generation laid the foundations. The second and third generations built on that. It is now our turn, the fourth generation, both leaders and people, to do our part, together.

59. Thank you all very much.

  1. Speech by SM Tharman, SG50 Distinguished Lecture of the Economic Society of Singapore “Singapore’s Social Policies: Past, Present, Future”.

  2. Speech by Minister Ong Ye Kung at the Debate on the President’s Address “The unfinished Business of Tackling Inequality”.

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