Mr Alok Kochhar, President of Beyond Social Services,
Members of the board,
Staff of Beyond Social Services,
Ladies and gentlemen,
A very good evening to all. Let me start by saying that first, thank you for inviting me to join you in this event. It is not in the core business of the ministry that I am in. But I find these events very meaningful, because in different ways, we are all seeking to make an impact on the lives of the people we are living amongst; and it is not just those in our work environment or in our circle of friends, but also in our larger community.
2 Yesterday, I had the honour of being in an event, the E2Connect Forum. The Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) works with various technology and service providers to see how we can enable a better living environment, and a more inclusive set of opportunities for those with disabilities; and how we can use technology and info-communication developments to assist them. I met very inspiring people from all over the world, including those in Singapore, some with cerebral palsy and other kinds of developmental challenges, and how they have overcome their challenges.
3 This event, for me, is a very meaningful one. And the work that you are doing in Beyond is something that I want to commend. But if I can start, maybe in a way, picking up from where Alok left off, the basic proposition I will put to you is this – a country’s progress, and a nation’s progress, is not just predicated on its economic development, or its GDP per capita, or the number of entrepreneurs that it has, or the success of those entrepreneurs, and so on. It is equally important, if not more so, that we find ways to share the benefits, and look after those in our society and in our community that need help. Sometimes, it is just a helping hand so that they can get on with things. Sometimes, it is a bit more than that. And that is an equally if not a more important measure of our progress as a nation, as a society.
4 At the government level, there are two or three areas in particular where we place an emphasis on our resource allocation and efforts. These fall into some broad buckets which are areas of concern for all citizens, but I think you can relate to them. One is in the area of healthcare, and we put in considerable resources not just to subsidise healthcare, but also to see how we can help those who may need it more at the point of service delivery. And so we have the Medishield, MediShield Life, MediSave, MediFund, and so on.
5 When we look at education, it is an area that we have emphasised significantly, and we have subsidised education heavily from primary, secondary, and into the university, polytechnic, and ITE. More recently, you would have seen our efforts in the preschool area as well, with the plan to open up to 50 MOE kindergartens, but also to work with many of the service providers. Why? Because we want to ensure that there is affordable, basic preschool education, so that all our children have access to education and they come to the starting point well-equipped and that when they start primary school education, they have had that foundation in preschool education.
6 We see this in housing too, if you think about Singapore’s public housing programme, it is interesting that close to 99% of our children go on from secondary school into post-secondary education, whether it is ITE, polytechnic, or university. And that is a remarkable statistic, because what this means is we are able to avoid dropouts, which is usually a consequence of some of the problems and social risks that we talk about.
7 If we talk about Singapore’s public housing programme, perhaps the starkest way of illustrating it is that we have home ownership rates of about 85% or more. If you compare that with global numbers, usually the home ownership rates in cities do not normally go too much above 60% or 65%. So we are basically wanting to help a significant proportion of our population, at least 20 to 25% of them, to be able to own their own house. Why is that important? Because that empowers, that is a way of saving for the future; but it is also a very effective way of transferring – if you must make transfers in the economy in terms of subsidies and so on – the way we do it through housing transfers makes a big impact in the psyche and the sense of self confidence, which started with our founding generation, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team; we still hold on to many of his fundamental tenets today.
8 But, as Alok says, we can do all these, and we also have various other programmes, like in training and work improvement and so on, but ultimately, there will be people who slip through the cracks. This is inevitable, and it is inevitable partly because of the vicissitudes of life. We go through this, we see it. I have had personal experiences because first as a Member of Parliament, I have a weekly Meet-The-People session, and I do see individuals who come, and they seek help. I have also had experience earlier in my career, because I was the first CEO of the Singapore Indian Development Association, and I had to set it up and run it, and in the process, realise that you do need these granular solutions as much as we have these broad programmes.
9 And that is why organisations like Beyond, and many others like them, you play a very important role because your proximity to the people of the segments of society that need the help, your ability to interface with them and help them cope with the challenges, and overcome and move on, is far greater than what any government agency or department can do. So sometimes, in these sorts of instances, what we prefer to do is – create an enabling environment, make some funding available where necessary, and let our community organisations lead the charge.
10 So Beyond has been doing that for 50 years and I want to congratulate Gerard. I did not realise you have been there for 37 years – well done. You have been in Beyond longer than some people have been alive. But you would have seen the evolution of our social landscape, and also how we’re dealing with things, and so on. The emphasis that Beyond places on two aspects – education as a means to uplift is critical. I had the pleasure of meeting many of the students out there, and the life in their eyes and the sense of confidence is critical and education really is, in our system, one of the most empowering gifts that we can give to our children. And in Beyond, I know you have the Learning Is Fun and Exciting programme, and you emphasise the English language. That is a very important, lasting impact that you can have on children – facilitate with their English language – because that is the language of the now and of the future, and if our children are competent and confident in the language, it can make a big difference.
11 I also want to thank all the volunteers who have been involved in Beyond’s activities, and its staff. Because we all know the best ideas remain there unless there are people, and hands, and legs, and brains, and hearts, that are behind them. So thank you very much to all the volunteers. And of course, those who support in other ways, those through donations and so on.
12 All of us can play a part and contribute to this larger objective of making sure that no one is left behind. One of the topics that I am dealing with constantly today is about the digital economy of the future. Because every industry, every job, every aspect of our lives is being affected by these technological changes. And it is key that all our people, especially the younger generation, are equipped with the skills that are necessary to deal with that. And you are doing some programmes with donated computers given to families, helping them get internet access. These are all important, enabling tasks.
13 The last thing I want to say was: the emphasis that you have is not so much on directly giving out assistance, but actually catalysing the support. That is, unlocking what is available already, because considerable help is available throughout our society. Unlocking them, and enabling people through support that goes beyond, as you say, your social services per se. Probably, it is the most lasting contribution that you are making. And I commend the work that you have done, and I wish you much success, and more importantly, transformative impact on the lives that you come into contact with.