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Speech at Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, NUS Town Plaza Auditorium

Keeping chances alive, keeping social mobility up

This is an edited extract from a talk by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum on Wednesday.

IF YOU look at this year's Budget, and what we have been doing in the last few years, you can see what our most important mission as Government is: to build and sustain an Inclusive Singapore. It is not a one-time job. It is continuous work for any society, certainly for us in Singapore, but it is also our major project.

At first glance, you'd think it is about social policy. But it is also economic policy. It is about growing in a way that helps everyone do better and have a better life. It is about growing the pie so that all Singaporeans can have a fair share of a larger pie.

We are stepping up social policies, aimed especially at helping the elderly, those with disabilities and the poor. But it is also about social policies that encourage aspirations, that ensure we do not lose our drive as a society. That is critical for growth and growing the pie.

So we have to keep thinking that way. Think of the social consequences of economic policies, think of the economic consequences of social policy.

It is about many initiatives, but all focused on how we can achieve the next lift in Singaporeans' living standards, and ensure that everyone feels that he or she has a fair chance of doing well in life regardless of where they start from.

We have two major challenges.

The first is taking care of our elderly and giving them a greater sense of economic security in their retirement years. They do not want to be too big a burden on their children. That includes the middle-income group, and in this year's Budget we extended significant subsidies to them in health care.

The second challenge is to keep our social compact. Economic inequalities are increasing around the world and in Singapore. We have to find a way to contain that, and keep our social compact. The key solution is to keep social mobility going.

We have to find every way to keep that going in each successive generation, so everyone who starts off with a disadvantage has a way of moving up, and we don't get disadvantage repeating itself across generations.

We cannot avoid the fact that in every society there are advantages that come with being better-off or having better-educated parents. But we want to do more to help other kids to level up and aspire. Do more to make sure that your chances in life are not all determined at birth, and how well you do does not depend on where you start from. Do more to ensure that we keep chances alive, so that we have churn and movement in society, within each generation. In our education system, that too is an important responsibility.

We are starting upstream, when the kids are young, so that difficulties and problems do not build up. Problems downstream are always much harder to tackle.

So we are starting early, to help kids who need speech therapy, spot those with learning difficulties and train specialists to help them. We are giving those from lower-income backgrounds more opportunity to discover their strengths and gain confidence.

It is many things, not just financial assistance but also opportunities. Opportunities to develop leadership abilities, with special programmes funded through Edusave; for overseas study trips through the Opportunity Fund; to develop strengths through the arts and sports, which we are placing more emphasis on in every school. And at the core of it all, good teachers in all our schools, to help bring out the potential in every child.

A lot of this is also taking place in neighbourhoods, through the initiatives of volunteers. It's quite inspiring. I see it in my own constituency and elsewhere. Young people coming forward, people in their 50s are coming forward, taking the initiative to develop and run community schemes, once and often twice a week. Many different ways to help children gain confidence, give them exposure to things that better-off kids take for granted, and help spark off something in themselves.

We are catering to different ways of learning, and that too is important for mobility. The Normal Technical stream is evolving in very interesting ways in several schools, with more attachments outside the school. Some people learn better when they are doing things. It's not just the manual skills they pick up. Their minds are ticking, and they learn how a system operates. I think we can move further in this direction, to reduce the emphasis on one particular form of learning and assessment, which is largely academic.

We are also investing a lot more to help people once they have entered the workforce, so that everyone can keep learning something, keep improving and upskilling, and can move up. It is not just about basic skills, but investing in advanced skills, in every job - in restaurants and hotels, in manufacturing and in our other industries. It goes hand-in- hand with re-instilling pride in blue-collar jobs, giving them more respect and rewarding them better.

We also want to provide better support for middle-income Singaporeans, many of whom work in PME (professionals, managers, executives) jobs. They are not poor, but they want to progress and not stagnate in their careers. Many switch jobs at mid-career, and need to pick up a new set of knowledge and skills. Devising schemes of continuous education to help our mid-career professionals is an important priority for the future.

I think we will be able to do this well in Singapore. Provide the support and training opportunities, in the workplace and outside, so that this is truly a learning nation - where everyone keeps improving their skills, sees their pay improve over time, and also know that they are part of a team at work and with a whole set of fellow citizens who keep improving.

So both at school and in the workforce, we want to do more to keep mobility up. It's a challenge in every country, as societies becomes more settled. We have to do all we can do keep spreading opportunities from young, so that everyone knows they have a real chance to move up through their efforts.

But ultimately, it is not just about new schemes and programmes in themselves. We have to keep up the spirit of aspiring, that makes Singapore what it is. I'll give you an example from among my colleagues at the Ministry of Finance: a young officer, Mastura Manap. Her father is a lorry driver, her mother a homemaker. Mastura started off at East View Primary. She then went to Tanjong Katong Girls' School (TKGS) - she had her eye on it from the time she was six, when she had an older neighbour who went to TKGS, and decided that she wanted to wear the green uniform like her. She made good friends there and next at Nanyang Junior College, friends that Mastura says made her think more about herself and what she wanted to do. She went on to the National University of Singapore, got first-class honours in Sociology, then to do a master's degree at NUS, got an award for the best graduate thesis, and was the valedictorian for her year.

Of her three siblings, one has graduated from university, another is still in university, and the youngest is in a junior college. I asked her how they all managed this. Mastura told me said that, from young, their parents kept telling them to 'study hard so that you will have a better life than us'. She and her siblings grew up 'always wanting to get good results, and get the Edusave bursary which was like really a huge bonus'.

It's a spirit we all recognise. Nothing holds us back.

It's the spirit that has made Singapore, and how we got to this point. How the average citizen's income has gone up by three times in the last 30 years in real terms, ie adjusted for inflation, and how living standards have caught up with those in several developed countries. It's what we must keep supporting and encouraging through every way, because it's what really keeps an inclusive society going.