Tharman spells out steps to stave off social polarisation and despair in the face of crisis
Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn. But it must “absolutely defy” the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation and the despair that are taking hold in many other countries, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
Even as the Covid-19 pandemic ravages economies, he said Singapore must strengthen its social compact by helping those who have lost jobs to find work, by keeping social mobility alive and by assuring Singaporeans that help is at hand when they meet difficulties.
Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, also said mature workers would get special help in finding jobs so that no employer rejects them on account of their age.
Speaking yesterday from the Devan Nair Institute of Employment and Employability, in the fifth of six national broadcasts by ministers on Singapore’s postcoronavirus future, he said job losses and disrupted schooling have widened social divisions around the world.
He cautioned against thinking that Singapore is immune to these trends: “No society remains cohesive simply because it used to be.”
The Government’s first priority is to save jobs and help those laid off to return to work. This, he said, cannot be left to market forces.
Mr Tharman, who helms the new National Jobs Council that oversees efforts to help Singaporeans stay employable, said this is why the Government is working with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships.
“No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long,” he said.
Special attention will be paid to workers in their 50s and 60s, and the Mid-Career Pathways programme will be scaled up so that they can prepare for more permanent jobs, he added. But this is a national effort that requires employers to change their thinking.
Mr Tharman said: “No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be ‘too old’ to hire. And no one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as ‘overqualified’.
“Our workers will be able to build on their skills and experience, and we will have a more capable and motivated workforce, with a strong Singaporean core, that every employer can rely on.”
He added that good schools are critical to social mobility, and Singapore must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort. “There is nothing natural or preordained about social mobility,” he said, noting that successful countries have found this harder to sustain with time. “It therefore requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools and dedicated networks of community support to keep social mobility alive.”
Hence, the Government is equalising opportunities when children are young, such as by expanding the Kidstart programme to help lower-income families. Plans are also afoot to equip all secondary school students with a personal laptop or tablet by next year, seven years ahead of the original target.
A strong spirit of solidarity is also important. Key to this, he said, is strengthening support for lowerincome Singaporeans at work.
He pointed out that cleaners, security officers and landscape workers have seen their wages increase by 30 per cent in real terms over the last five years under the Progressive Wage Model. The eventual goal is for every sector to have progressive wages, with a clear ladder of skills, better jobs and better wages for those with lower pay.
Those in short-term contract work should also have more stable jobs, better protection and the chance to progress in their careers, he said. “It may lead to a small rise in the cost of services that we all pay for. But it is a small price for us to pay for better jobs and income security for those who need it most, and a fair society.”
He noted that the social compact is also about the “self-effort and selflessness” that must be strengthened in the country’s culture.
“It is about the networks and initiatives that we saw spring up in this Covid-19 crisis… And it is about how we draw closer to each other, regardless of race, religion or social background. It is how we journey together. A forward-looking, spirited and more cohesive society.”