[This is the responsibility of a good government – to worry about all our nightmares so that our people can sleep in peace.]

19 October 2011, 5:00 PM, Parliament
Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister of State for National Development and Manpower
at the Parliamentary Debates on President’s Speech,

Why We Serve 

Mr Speaker Sir,

I have not been to Bhutan. But I am very happy to congratulate you on your new appointment, and hope that you will be kind if we over step our time.

I have learnt many things since stepping forward to serve in this capacity as a new Member of Parliament. I have certainly learnt much from all of you here these few days and certainly from the next few days ahead.

I realise that, for one thing, there is great value in speaking earlier in the week. As I listen to each speech, I’m sure some of you are checking off at the same time, all the things that I was planning to say. When Denise Phua spoke of courage and doing the right things I checked it off. When Sylvia Lim spoke about Happiness and Our Pledge, I struck it off again and when Janil Puthucheary shared about pragmatism versus compassion, there goes another couple of points.

And my dilemma was…and I learnt this yesterday as well…. whether to fine-tune? Or should I throw the baby out of the bath water? Or was it with the bath water?

Well, whether ‘with’ or ‘of’, I thought Denise Phua put it best. Let your conscience guide you and do what is right. And may all of us be guided by our conscience in this House.

Let me register my respect and admiration for your passion in not just saying and criticising, because, really, anyone can do that, but in walking the talk. You push for specifics and you make things happen. You fight for those who are not able to fight for themselves.

Recently, a resident came to see me for assistance.

She is a young mother of three. She had to stop work at a fast food outlet suddenly because her older son, a young teenager, had enough and told her that he was not interested in helping to look after his younger siblings, both whom were very young. The middle child has some psychological problems as he was traumatized when her husband, his father, was arrested for drug related offences. He is jailed for 10 years.

The son had fallen into bad company in the neighbourhood while hanging out at the Internet café. But what struck me most about her was how strong spirited she was. She shared with me her joy in being able to work, to stand on her own two feet to provide for her family, however simple it may be.

But now, she was at a loss.

As we chatted, she confided that she had attempted suicide before but she had moved on and with steely-eyed determination, she emphasised that she would not go down that path again.

There was none of the griping, grumbling at the world nor a sense of entitlement. She asked me simply, almost apologetically, if there was anything I could do to assist her.

Our Purpose

Mr Speaker Sir,

These are the reasons why we serve.

As her MP, it is my responsibility to see how best I can help her. As a Government, we need to see how we organise ourselves both as Government and society to help those in need and those who are not able to help themselves. We must endeavour to make their lives better. If possible, to go upstream before these problems happen. These are lives that matter.

As our President put it right at the start of his speech:

“But one thing stays the same – we seek to do our very best for our country and make it the best home for all Singaporeans.”

At the heart of everything must be about our sense of purpose. Why are we doing this? Who is it for? As a Government, there will always be the bigger picture and the proverbial rainy day to cater for. In fact I think we are quite well known for that.

We must resolutely, I think, keep this strength because this is the real world we live in. This is the responsibility of a good government – to worry about all our nightmares so that our people can sleep in peace.

But the bigger picture and the rainy days are not ends in themselves, important as they may be. They are imperatives but serve our more fundamental goal and purpose.

Without this sense of purpose, there will be just policies; a collection of initiatives that we can laud about and tick the box with. Some have shared that we should not be obsessed with economic growth at all costs. I totally agree.

Ms Serene Chew posted a video on my Facebook wall1recently. It was about the mindless pursuit of GDP in another country. I responded to her, and I am sharing part of that response:

“No one should ever pursue GDP or any variant of that for its own sake. It is not an end but a means to an end. What is our purpose? If it is not for Singaporeans and our community and society, if it is not for the now and for our tomorrows, it will make no sense.”

I am new to this Government. We meet each week during our Cabinet meetings and I want to state that we have only one preoccupation. And that is to provide for Singaporeans and Singapore, for our present and for our futures.

These are not mutually exclusive. But neither do they overlap completely. What may make sense for an individual may not always be ideal for society or the other way round. What is useful and relevant today may be less so or perhaps even detrimental for the future.

It therefore requires wisdom and judgement to make the best decision possible. This clarity and the shared sense of purpose will keep this Government and indeed this parliament firmly on the straight and narrow. To do what is right and to do it right. And this is the responsibility of this Government as well as our opposition friends, because I think despite our politics and our differing visions, views, ideas – I believe we all, in this House, want to do our very best for our people, our nation and future.

While we celebrate our diversity, and we have seen a fair bit of that, I think we share a lot more in common than we would sometimes perhaps like to admit. When we bleed, I think our blood’s all the same Singapore red.

Making Things Better

How does this sense of common purpose shape what we do, how we think and how do we make things better for our people? There are many issues that have been raised by members of this house in the last day or so. I have received much feedback, dutifully reading almost all the posts on my Facebook page, though not responding to all of them, countless emails and importantly, heard from many a Singaporean in person.

I know there are concerns on affordability of homes, fair employment opportunities in jobs, being paid a fair wage, adequacy in retirement and healthcare and so on. These are real concerns. Though I believe that we have established systems that work and that have provided significantly for our people, I’d also be the first to admit that we can and should improve. And we do intend to.

Was infrastructure strained in the preceding years as a result of growing our economy? Yes. Transport became crowded. There will be the inevitable impact on property prices and cost of living as a result of increasing demand. Singapore became crowded and perhaps less comfortable.

But was it a mistake? What happened? Why did it happen? Was it really an obsession with growth? GDP numbers? Growth at all cost?

We had two serious recessions in the first half of the decade – it seems long ago, but if you remember, there was a dot com bust in 2001 and SARS in 2003-04. Income growth then didn’t do very well. Median real income growth from 2001-2006 was 0.1% per annum. For those at the 20th percentile or P20, it was a negative 2.4% per annum.

The Government agonised over our prospects, wondering how we could keep the economy growing so that we could provide jobs for our people. Opportunities opened up and we rode the wave. Businesses grew so that jobs were created for our people. Real incomes went up. And even though the world suffered an unprecedented recession, from which many countries have not fully recovered, it was on the back of the foundations laid that we bounced back to where we are today.

We have today a citizen unemployment rate of 3.1%, not 3.9%. 3.1% is seasonally adjusted, in the second quarter (of 2011). It’s – one of the lowest in the world. 77% of Singaporeans aged 25-64 were employed in 2010 – that’s one of the highest in the world2.

Income growth from 2006-2010, the latter half of the decade, the period where we sought to put the economy back on track for our people, was 2.6% per annum for the median – after adjusting for inflation, and 3.1% per annum at the 20th percentile (again adjusting for inflation). Figures, of course, when you compile over the decade are 1.2% and flat, respectively.

Median household income saw 1.8% real growth at $1,520 per household member. At the P20 level, it was 0.8% real growth at $750 per member, before government transfers.

Was it a mistake? Are these statistics good? Are they poor? To provide a perspective and a backdrop, let me share the following.

In June this year, the Financial Times carried an article “Spectre of Stagnating Incomes Stalks Globe”3. It basically outlined how median male real US earnings have not risen since 1975! In Japan and Germany, average real household incomes have also fallen.

A September issue of The Economist4highlighted what the American economy is facing–

“Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s for those near the bottom of the income spectrum…From a real income perspective, the American economy has already experienced a lost decade, but for the median household the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.”

US unemployment is at 9.6%, UK’s 7.8%, Sweden 8.4%, Germany 6.9%. The Newly Industrialized Economies (NIEs) are also not doing too badly, at 4-5%5. Incomes too are also stagnating. I’ve shared these not so that we can feel better, but as a reference point because we do live in a real world that is connected. I wish we were disconnected, but we are not.

Are the sentiments expressed by Singaporean real? They are. I hear them. All of us in this House hear them. And just because others are in worse shape doesn’t change the fact that we need to improve the lot of our Singaporeans, especially the lot of those in the lower income groups, and indeed for the middle incomes. We can’t eat statistics. The numbers in itself, while meaningful, will not feed a hungry family

When we consider how we did on a broader context, I think it’s not too bad. But we should do better. For example, I am not happy that the median monthly wages for cleaners are $800. I met my resident who told me he works as a cleaner in Changi Airport purportedly for $650. This is not acceptable. Denise Phua would be pleased to know that MOM does have a unit that’s looking at improving the incomes of low wage workers (LWW).

In particular, we are looking at the cleaning and security industries as they employ a large number of low wage workers. I believe there are meaningful things that we can do. How we best source is one way to shape things and I believe that Government can take the lead. To my friend, Encik Zainal bin Sapari, saya dengar, saya mengerti. Kita mesti bekerjasama dan harus berjaya. [Translation: We will work hard together and we should be successful.]

Employment is just one part of the big picture. We have a Whole-of-Government (WOG) effort to look at complex social-economic issues ranging from healthcare, housing, ageing, and of course low wage workers.

We worked at keeping things afloat in the last few years. We introduced Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) in 2007. We had an unprecedented jobs credit scheme to help keep workers in employment during the last recession. $4.3b was spent to save jobs by subsidizing part of employers’ wage bills. We have also invested significantly in training to help our workers stay relevant and be employable. Workfare Training Support was introduced in 2010.

On healthcare we already have the 3Ms (Medisave, MediShield and Medifund). The Government has also been taking on a greater share of the healthcare burden – with Government expenditure on healthcare rising in proportion to national expenditure. And we will continue to invest in the healthcare of our Singaporeans. We are reviewing to improve MediShield and ElderShield.

On the housing front, well I don’t need to say all this anymore since my minister has spoke quite clearly and eloquently about our commitment to ramp up supply6and keep housing affordable for all Singaporeans.

Indeed, perhaps we could have invested more in our transport much earlier. But former Minister Raymond Lim did what he could during his tenure. It takes time; there is a time lag and takes time for these to come online.

Could we have kept the access to foreign workers tighter? Perhaps. On hindsight, I think all of us are tremendously wise. But the demand was high from our companies, companies operating here, for these foreign workers went to our companies and these companies created jobs for Singaporeans, for which some of the data I’ve shared earlier.

We were aware, in fact, of the impact of the growing numbers and began calibrating to reign in the growth sometime in June 2009. There was another round in July 2010, and recently in July 2011 and the next point will be January 2012 where we’ve announced some of the measures. It’s a combination of increasing levies, tightening entry and qualifications criteria, increasing qualifying salaries and so on – to moderate FW reliance and ensure foreign workers continue to complement our local workforce. And we will continue to watch this front closely.

On balance, I am glad that we managed to provide well for our people in this last decade, amidst difficult circumstances. But I think perhaps we could do better dealing with the disamenities that comes along with this growth. We will make it right.

It is important that we look forward with hope. We cannot be saddled with the malaise afflicting many of the people in the countries we looked at earlier. Many of you would have read many of the headlines about the lost generation. If you were a young person growing up in Europe today, I think the future would seem rather bleak.

These are economic problems. But more fundamentally, the question that is being asked is out there in those countries and by observers, ‘is it a political problem?’ Is there a lack of political will to do what is right? The political opponents there seem ready to pounce to milk political points. But is it at the expense of their country, and their people so that they can gain votes and power?

I think we, here must figure out how best to avoid this and to forge a path that makes sense for us in Singapore.

Co-Creating Our Future

Can we have a better life for our children and ourselves? We can. I know we can. We’ve had a remarkable run. Not perfect, but in the cold light of day, quite a significant achievement to be where we are presently.

This Government is not perfect and there are things that we can do better and to improve and we will do our utmost to do that. But we stand for a belief that we will serve our people and our nation faithfully. To serve without fear or favour, and to have courage to do what is right.

The inclusive growth that our President shared is really about all of us being in this together. To play a part and to fight the good fight as one nation, as one people. It is a journey that we must walk all together.

Will there be tensions? Yes, and that is to be expected. It is important that our MPs challenge us as it keeps us on our toes and help distil better policies. In fact as Dr Lim Wee Kiak shared, I am also hard-pressed at times when we’re not watching to distinguish friends from foe, but I think that’s a good thing.

Is it uncomfortable? Yes. But it is for the good of our country that we see this development, the debate and the challenging of ideas.

In a recent conference on biodiversity in NUS7, I was struck by the passion shown by our young Singaporeans. I encouraged them to pursue their passion to care for and fight for the environment because these are a part of our heritage and history as well. I know that it will create tensions for us in MND because we need to deal with the developmental needs for our people. But I’d rather have passionate Singaporeans than apathetic ones.

We are engaging stakeholders on issues like the future of our Rail Corridor8, animal welfare matters9, FDW issues10very early in the policy making process. The outcomes are still not fully determined. We have broad parameters, but we want our people to co-create these policies. I believe that this makes sense and we need to see how this evolves over time.

We need to continue to tap on the views of stakeholders out there. Singaporeans. We need to co-create our own future in Singapore. Step forward; walk with us on this journey to build something special and meaningful for all Singaporeans.

Nation Building

In co-creating our future, we are also very much playing a part in nation building. Nations are built not by some big fancy notions of patriotism. But by the foundations laid when family units are strong, when neighbours look out for each other. Household by household, floor-by-floor, block-by-block, as we outreach, we begin to bridge the gaps that exist in society.

I hope Singaporeans can step forward and make a difference to those in your neighbourhood. Come forward and help us at MPS sessions, at our grassroots outreach to see how we can better coordinate our efforts to help those that are in need. And on my part I thank many who have stepped forward, like those who came forward to help distribute almost 8,000 kilograms of rice in Chai Chee11.

This is when, I believe, a community grows and a nation is built. And it will take time. When neighbours get to know each other and care for others, we know we will be getting somewhere.

Schools play the most I think, important role. Our principals must focus on the true spirit of education. Can they carry out the CIP programme, for example, in order to fulfil the spirit and intent of the programme? I think it’s a game changer. Can they lead, educate and inspire the teachers to do the same and avoid being overly anxious to score points? Notwithstanding the pressures that come from parents and their expectations.

Teachers can make a tremendous difference to the lives of all their students. Principals have a tremendous amount of autonomy to do the right thing and I urge them to be courageous in order to place the right emphasis.

As a former leader in the Army, I was clear that people are at the centre of everything. When you are able to earn their respect, you win over their hearts and minds, you nurture them to the best of your abilities, what is there that you cannot do12?

As a nation, the same applies, if not more so. If we get the people part right, I think many things will follow. After all, what is a nation but a community and society made up of people. It is about the society we are seeking to build.

I call on Singaporeans to step forward and decide what Singapore means to you, and what it means to be a Singaporean. Do not concede that space to those who may not represent what you believe in. I believe that when we step forward, and when we begin to care for different aspects in society, we will begin to grow as a people.

What distinguishes us, as humans is our capacity to love, care and respect. Which is why such avenues, be it with your cats and dogs13, animals, our environment, and indeed with fellow humans, caring for the less privileged in society, respecting elders and being there for them in their twilight years after all their contributions throughout their lives, big or small, is critical in the building of our nation, and the forging of our heart and our soul.

Life cannot be whittled down into an efficient equation, however effective it may be. Not everything is an economic digit. Some of the most important things in life cannot be quantified. At the end of it all, it is really about us as Singaporeans, and the future we want to build for our children.

And we as the Government must have that courage to play our role to lead, to decide and do the right things. Our responsibility as a Government is to earn your respect and trust, because this is what gives us the moral authority to govern.

We lead by listening with respect, and to recognize the different views out there. We will care with compassion for those who are less able to fend for themselves. And we will have the courage to do what is right and to do it right.

Before I close, I commend Mr. Yaw Shin Leong for his enthusiasm, his commitment, although he did say I was boasting about our figures, but it’s ok. It’s important not to be unnecessarily critical. I’m grateful that he supports so many of our programmes. You urge us to be diligent, to explore all avenues. We do that. I do in turn urge you to read carefully all the programmes that we have. And perhaps, imitation is the best form of flattery; but we thank you for the support for the many things that we are doing. My last point, perhaps and it’s important, regarding the future of our people, particular with regard to CPF. You quoted the Mercer study. Well, we are very familiar with the Mercer study. They have a slightly different approach. We’ve fed back to them over the years, we don’t totally agree with their approach. It’s not about right or wrong, but they have a different way of assessing. Mercer retained much of its methodologies, with some adjustments.

CPF is very different from many pension systems internationally. For one, they do not consider that we do have a large housing component. You would argue whether that is good or bad. If we did not have the ability to spend using our CPF monies on housing, I think the adequacy rate would be actually very good. But what we have is the ability to own a roof over our head, something which many cities out there in this world cannot claim they have. And that is important. That remains an option at the point of retirement, with whatever you might have left as cash, in the OA, SMRA accounts, but you do have a piece of property, which is by and large a decent hedge against inflation, and there are various schemes to monetize it in different shapes and forms. We’re working towards that. It was interesting, because when ST published it, they did not enquire nor seek our comments. I think importantly, we are quite well aware of the feedback and observations and we track this very carefully. And we do continue to work hard to ensure that CPF remains important and viable.

Let me in closing just say this, it is my privilege to be a Member of Parliament. Mr. Speaker Sir, I dare not claim to be a patriot. It is, I think, too big a word, certainly for myself. But I love my country and our people deeply, and have served faithfully my entire life and I look forward to continuing to do so.

So Mr. Speaker Sir, may I conclude by reiterating my support for our President’s address.

Thank you.

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