You are on page 1of 9

Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports at the Committee of Supply Sitting 2008, 5 March 2008, 2.15pm

Preamble

1. Mr. Chairman, Members of this House, this is my fourth occasion as Minister of

MCYS. Each year, the MCYS COS debate gets longer. This year, we budgeted 6 hours and 35 minutes. I don’t intend to go as long as that and with your permission, Mr. Chairman, I intend to wrap up the MCYS COS debate by this evening.

2. What I have just circulated to Members are a series of handouts. They are

handouts as in attachments, not money. They summarise the progress of our initiatives last year and what we will do this year.

3. Before I attempt to answer some of the urgent questions Members have asked,

I would first like to share a personal story.

4. Exactly 80 years ago, a young man on business trip to China fell ill. That young

man was my grandfather. When he passed away 80 years ago, he left behind a young widow. This young widow had two children and was on the verge of delivering

the third child, my mum.

5. You can imagine the deep grief of a young widow. Back then, there was no

MCYS, no Public Assistance, and no ComCare support. Nevertheless, her two brothers gave her an allowance. She was not penniless but money was tight.

6. My mum had a tough life. She could never really enjoy taking luxury. She

worked hard. She became a teacher. It was not easy even near the end of her teaching career. And in those days, MOE was not as enlightened as it is now.

7. My uncle went on to become a doctor and became a GP in Albert Street.

Those of you who know him know that he never took a single day off.

8. Why am I sharing this story? I want you to get a sense of what I am feeling, of

my innermost attitudes toward poverty, toward family, toward social safety nets. I want to express what I bring to bear on the policies I make in MCYS and what I have learnt.

9. Firstly, life can be tough, life can be unfair, and life is unpredictable. Bad things

can happen to good decent people. Regardless of this, we all need hope. The second thing I have learnt is that you need family support. Let us not even talk about MCYS first. The very first foundation is family support. Who is going to be there for you when you need help? The third lesson is that it is all about discipline and hard work. No matter how wealthy you are, if we lose that discipline or work ethic, we will fail.

10. At least for me, my mum has successfully transmitted those values. The

question now is whether our youth born in the times of plenty spend more time thinking about how to spend their inheritance compared with our parents’ generation.

11. At the end of day, while money is important, it is also not enough. All the

wealth in the world will not buy you success. Nor will it eliminate all the social problems in the world.

12. Let me ask you, is the real problem the lack of money? Is it the poverty of

material wealth or is it usually the poverty of relationships? Those of us who live long enough will agree the long-term problem is a poverty of relationships. We all need families, we need friends. And it is not just about families. We also want a caring, compassionate society. We will fail if society degenerates into nothing more than a society of selfish successful individuals looking to spend more on themselves.

13. I remember Sam Tan’s brilliant speech last week. I read the speech three

times. I resonate with his views that it is not about the dilemma between the young and old, or between rich and poor, but between the head and heart. The head knows it cannot be overly generous, yet the heart wants the head to be so.

14. But I also read with great distress Mr. Siew Kum Hong’s speech. I am a

debater, and that was a brilliant debating speech. I actually share his hopes. He wants Singapore to be a generous society that helps its most vulnerable members. But the danger is in the rest of his speech. In order to fulfill this hope, he said that you

should be prepared to waste, to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of a helping hand.

15. I believe we need a lean, efficient, rational, disciplined and competent

government. There is also a need for compassion, generosity and emotional support in our society. However, these are best delivered by community organisations rather than by a bloated bureaucracy. That is why we believe in many helping hands. Instead of Dr Loo Choon Yong “cheerfully” paying more tax, I prefer him to cheerfully donate his money and time to VWOs. And I am glad that he has done so, being named by Forbes as a hero of philanthropy along with Mr Sim Wong Hoo. So

let each sector do what it does best – a community which cares and a government which is sensible.

MCYS Key Initiatives in 2007

Supporting the Low-Income and Needy

The Public Assistance Scheme

16. In this context, I would now ask you to look at Annex B which describes our

Public Assistance (PA) scheme. Much angst has been surfaced over this scheme by Members. Last year, we had a long debate whether $290 is enough. This year, it is raised to $330. I am sure we can have another long debate over whether this new amount is enough.

17. But let us put things in perspective. The PA cash allowance that we have been

arguing about is only one of four components of help that PA beneficiaries receive.

There are three other components.

18. Look at the second component which consists of the considerable government

subsidies for rental housing, totally free medical care, rebates for utilities, services and conservancy charges. Their children also receive free education through the MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme.

19. The third component comes from ‘Many Helping Hands’ – community support

from Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) who provide additional hong baos, free meals, befriending programmes, senior activity centres, home help services, day care services and a host of other innovative services. I was quite sceptical when I saw the amount of hong bao money a PA recipient receives. However, I came to know of three organisations which actually give about $300 to each PA recipient each year. I am sure that there are more organisations which give similar hong baos to this needy group.

20. Fourth, we know that PA recipients also get disproportionately more under the

GST Offset package, Senior Citizens’ Bonus as well as this year’s Growth Dividends.

21. An elderly PA recipient living alone will therefore receive $330 a month, while a

family with two adults and two children will now get $1,020 a month.

22. If you add the first and fourth column in Annex B, a single elderly PA recipient

actually receives about $450 a month in cash and rebates from the Government. Once you include the second and third column of subsidies and community support, the figure goes up potentially several-fold. For a family with two adults and two children, monthly cash and rebates come up to $1285 a month. When you include the free healthcare, the subsidy is very substantial. PA recipients are the only people in Singapore given a blank cheque in healthcare. Even NTUC is unable to push through this idea for its low-income members.

23. The point here is not to make a case that we are treating PA recipients very

generously. The point is that nobody should go hungry in Singapore. I had lived in London for 5 years. I look at the housing, the life and the hopes of the people on welfare. I can assure you that they are not better off than our PA recipients. Hence, while you comment on how much we give to PA recipients, I would urge you to compare our situation with other countries. And I say to you, in terms of housing, education, healthcare and opportunity, SIngapore is still the best place in the world to be poor. Our social safety net is robust. You have an equal chance to succeed. All Singaporeans I have spoken to have a story that tells me that they have opportunities and hope. Therefore, let us not destroy the foundation of success by eroding their work ethic and self-reliance.

People with Disabilities

24. I note the concerns of members of House for people with disabilities. The

Government has not forgotten about the disabled. I would like to refer Members to Annex D showing what we have done for the disabled. I asked my staff to make sure that the pie chart was done to scale and you can see that we have spent a lot and are spending a lot more to help the disabled.

25. Between 2002 to 2006, we spent $400 million on the disabled, and from 2007

to 2011, we have budgeted $900 million. We have not forgotten the disabled. How

are we spending the $900 million? Primarily on education. We want to equip the disabled with knowledge and skills so that they can fulfil their potential and make a living for themselves, and integrate into society.

26. Ms Denise Phua has also expressed concerns over the implementation of

means-testing in EIPIC. Means-testing is introduced to ensure that subsidies are targeted to the people who need them most. Let me reassure Denise that no disabled child should pull out of the EIPIC programme because of a lack of funds. MCYS and NCSS will establish a $3.6 million Support Grant, used with flexibility, to help families who have difficulty coping with fees. This grant is available over and above the means tested subsidy that they would be entitled to.

27. In addition, we have also extended the Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) levy

concession to the disabled who require additional care-giving assistance. There were 853 applications received as of 31 Jan 08 and 99% were accepted. This meant that

MOF has foregone revenue of about $1 million per year. And as this number grows, the amount foregone can only increase. In addition, MCYS has set aside $500,000 over the next five years to fund the Caregiver Training Fund, which has benefited almost 140 caregivers to date.

28. I agree with Denise Phua that special schools which have grown so large that

they have to be GST-registered, such as Pathlight and MINDS, should not be penalised for their success. There are 21 special schools and six need to pay GST. One of which is Pathlight, which Ms Denise Phua runs. The other five are from MINDS, a well-established VWO that has been in this sector for a long time. I have thought about it and she has a point. I will work with MOE to see how Government can absorb the GST component so that special schools need not charge their beneficiaries more just because they have grown. I hope that satisfies your request.

Mental Capacity Act (MCA)

29. Last year, we proposed the enactment of the Mental Capacity Act to provide a

legal framework to enable a person to voluntarily make advance plans for his own financial and personal welfare should he lose his mental capacity. We have received extensive and useful feedback from the public. We have amended our draft legislation

and will table the Bill later this year.

Key Initiatives for 2008

30. I will now turn Members of the House to Annex E, which presents our key

initiatives in the year ahead.

Making Singapore a Great Place for Children and Families

31. Our children are our future. It is our duty to nurture and educate them to their

fullest potential. There is increasing scientific evidence showing that investing in early childhood development would yield the greatest impact on a child’s cognitive, social,

emotional and physical development. And many of you have appealed for more investments in early childhood development. So we have decided that we will invest in the supply, accessibility, quality and affordability of centre-based child care. This means infant care, child care, and student care centres, which provides an important continuum of care and early childhood development for children.

32. As of 31 January 2008, there were 739 child care centres, providing almost

63,000 places. If all these places were occupied, we would have provided for 30% of the cohort between the ages of 18 months to six years. Presently, about 23% of this cohort attends institutional child care. This 23% represents an increase of 7% from 16% in 2003. I anticipate that this demand will only increase. Going forward, we expect another 100 child care centres to be needed over the next five years, and MCYS will facilitate their development.

33. Having said that, it is not just a numbers game. People also want childcare

centres to be near by. Today, 70% of households in HDB estates have a child care centre within 300m from their homes. Those who use these centres will know that you

can walk there. We will work towards increasing the number of centres in HDB estates and locating new centres near transport nodes to make it even more convenient for parents.

34. At this point, I must appeal to all Singaporeans regarding an implementation

problem, linked to a complaint I received in my constituency. I had a petition from a resident, telling me, “Yes, you can build a child-care centre, but not in my void deck”. This is similar to the “not in my backyard” syndrome. I would like to urge all that as a gracious society, we must learn to give. Of course, there would be some congestion and noise, but the centres would work to minimise these. Let us not always complain but be a little bit more tolerant.

35. I also hear from Prof. Kalyani that the quality of teachers is important.

Yesterday, we heard about MOE’s plans to raise the qualification requirements for kindergartens, and MCYS will follow suit for childcare centres. We will raise the minimum qualifications for new teachers and supervisors to five GCE ‘O’ level credits (including the English Language) and a Diploma in Pre-school Teaching. Incumbent teachers teaching K1 and K2 must obtain a Diploma in Pre-school Teaching and an ‘O’ level pass in English or pass an English Language proficiency test by January

2013. In addition, we will require each childcare centre to have at least 75% of all its

teachers obtain a Diploma in Pre-School Teaching by January 2013, a three-fold increase over current requirements.

36. However, given that services provided by child care centres are different from

kindergartens, we will exercise some flexibility. The new requirements will only apply to teaching staff in child care centres. They do not apply to non-teaching staff, such

as child care assistants who provide valuable support on the care of children.

37. As we raise the quality of child care development, Ms Kalyani Mehta’s

suggestion for track record of licensed child care operators to be made available to the public is timely. We will explore publishing more information on our Child Care Link Portal (www.childcarelink.gov.sg) to help parents differentiate child care centres based on their track record. I’m not too sure if we want to put all comments online, as some may have a personal agenda, but it would be sufficient for parents to make a decision.

38. This brings me to my final point – affordability. You know that as we increase

quality, prices will go up. Currently, working mothers receive a monthly subsidy of up

to $150 for centre-based child care. Since 2001, we have introduced the Baby Bonus, which has helped parents defray the cost of centre-based child care.

39. My Ministry will enhance the Centre-based Financial Assistance scheme for

Childcare (CFAC) and the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme (KiFAS) to make it very affordable for low-income families. The child can be put into the child care centre at a low cost, provided the family is willing to work.

40. From 1 Aug this year, I am pleased to announce that we will also have a

Children Development Account (Baby Bonus Scheme) pays higher interest and offer more choice and convenience. How did we achieve this? Through competition. We called a tender and we required the agents to give us a higher yield on CDA deposits. From August, two banks will operate the CDA. More details will be provided at a later date.

41. We will also work with MOE to increase the number of school-based Student

Care Centres.

Protection and Rehabilitation of Children and Young Persons

42. The second key thrust of making Singapore a great place for children and

families is to focus on the protection and rehabilitation of children and young persons. Members may be aware that MCYS is leading the review of the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA). In the last few months, we have sought views of key stakeholders on what we can do to better protect our children and enhance rehabilitation outcomes for children in conflict with the law.

43. Many of the ideas we have received relate to increasing the standards of care

in our institutions. I will give you an example. Currently, there are 24 Homes, 11 of which are gazetted homes and are required to admit cases ordered by the Juvenile Court. Last year, we realised that there was an incident in one of the homes, and that there were statutory limits to what we can do. So we decided to license them to make sure that the environment in our Homes will be good for our children. The new requirement for licensing will apply to the remaining 13 Homes. We will put up all the proposed changes of the CYPA for public consultation in the middle of this year.

44. I listened to Sylvia Lim and I share your discomfort that 31% of our juvenile

offenders re-offended within two years of their release, that is, one-third of the offenders. While I was not too happy with the figure, I was told that this rate fared well compared to published rates overseas which showed an average of 30-40% of

juvenile offenders re-offending within only one year of their release. But we can still do better on the re-offending rate, and we wish to re-assure Ms Sylvia Lim that we will strive to do so.

45. Why have our rates gone up? This is due partly to changing social norms.

Perhaps the re-offenders were from a tougher sub-group. Nevertheless, I agree with Sylvia Lim that the key thing is that discipline must be enforced. If there is no discipline in our Homes, then security cannot be assured, and the boys will seek protection by joining gangs. I will be happy to ask Ms Sylvia Lim to join us in visiting the Homes or even volunteer in one of the Homes, and we can consider your ideas to solve these problems.

46. At this point, I am also pleased to announce that Singapore will accede to the

Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Why is this necessary? We can have a situation, where locals marry foreigners, and some of these may, unfortunately, break up. One parent may then be tempted to kidnap a child from one country’s jurisdiction to another jurisdiction. As a responsible member of the international community, we want to minimise the harmful effects of such situations on children. With this convention, powers enforced by our court can be enforced in other parts of the world as well.

Strengthening Families

47. We must not understate the importance of supportive family environments for

the development of our children and young persons. This brings me to the third key

thrust of making Singapore a great place for children and families – we must strengthen our families, paying special attention to dysfunctional families and those at risk of becoming so.

48. Families at risk of dysfunction include groups such as families with parents

who are incarcerated, minor marriages with children, and serially reconstituted

families. Children from these families are particularly vulnerable.

49. Many of us asked what measures are taken to help dysfunctional families and

their children. We have set up an Inter-Ministry Committee (IMC), which I chair, to review our existing help for dysfunctional families and their children, and determine what else needs to be done to provide holistic help and develop long-term resiliency.

Besides me, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, Mrs Yu-Foo, Mr Masagos, Dr Maliki as well as Mr Teo Ser Luck also sit on the Committee, which means participation of MCYS, MOE, MHA and MND.

50. The IMC started its work in December last year, and we expect to conclude our

work by the middle of this year. There are three principles. First, there should be holistic support for the child within the context of the family. We will support the family and help strengthen families to achieve positive child outcomes. Second, we must not take away the community ownership and self-help. The community is better placed and has the passion to ensure that these families are appropriately helped. Third, we want to identify the causal factors for their dysfunctionality. There is no point just addressing the symptoms, because it will only be a matter of time before there is a relapse.

Firstly, we need to identify families

at-risk of dysfunction that may need help. We will look into better coordination among the various "touchpoints" in the community that the families might come into contact with. These would include VWOs, schools, and the CDCs. Dr Mohamad Maliki’s concern for at-risk youth and measures to engage them will also be studied in detail under the IMC.

51. We have identified four strategic thrusts.

52. Secondly, the IMC will look at preventive measures. There are several

programmes that can benefit these families. These include the Healthy Start Programme (HSP), which provides intensive casework centred on the child, and the Home Ownership Plus Education (HOPE) Scheme. The take-up for HOPE has been

improving, with more than 1,300 families coming on board since 2004. The Government has committed more than $120 million to help these families. We are currently reviewing these schemes to make them more effective. We still want to emphasise that families on HOPE be kept small so as they can commit resources to the development of the child.

53. HOPE can be further enhanced. One idea I am exploring is that for couples on

HOPE, if they divorce, the divorced mother can be maintained on HOPE as long as she can commit not to have more than two children, even after remarriage. Because we don’t want a situation where a vulnerable divorced mother desperately needs to find another man, offer fertility in return, and then gets abandoned by that man. Unfortunately, this is the ground reality. The key thing is to reassure the woman that they don’t need to depend on another man.

54. At risk of being politically incorrect, I suspect the root of most social problems

is an irresponsible man. This is also the reality I see on the ground. If a man wants to start another family, he should take care of his first family first, instead of dragging both families into problems.

55. Thirdly, intervention for at-risk families will be improved. We are looking into

strengthening specialised community agencies that can address specific issues which places families at risk, such as substance addiction, family violence and gambling.

Professionalising the Social Service Sector

56. Let me move on to social workers. Social workers are professionals and they

should be treated as such.

57. Last year, MCYS revised the salary benchmarks of social work professionals,

and increased funding by $11 million, bringing funding for the sector to $80 million. I said that I would be watching to see where the money actually goes and I am pleased to note that a 2007 manpower survey has shown that 72% of VWOs have either implemented or would be implementing the salary revisions. The remaining VWOs indicated that they had already adjusted salaries in 2006. To further address the pay issue, MCYS is looking into benchmarking the salaries of social worker in VWOs to their contemporaries employed in the Public Service. Making their pay-scale competitive recognises their invaluable contributions. We are also looking at structuring the jobs in the sector, so that social work professionals can focus on their professional duties.

58. In addition, we will work with Institutes of Higher Learning to increase the

intake of social work students. Furthermore, two new schemes will be rolled out this month to provide social workers respite and development opportunities. First, The Sabbatical Leave Scheme will give experienced social workers time to recharge and upgrade professionally. Second, the Professional and Leadership Development Scheme (PLDS) will groom dynamic leaders for the social service sector by providing milestone developmental opportunities in key points of their career.

59. In tandem, we will also aim to accredit social workers with a view to eventually

licensing them. This is a big step that we will not take unilaterally. With accreditation and licensing, we can ensure proper standards and proper training. Not everyone

can claim to be a social worker just by working in the sector. We will manage this transition carefully.

Governance of Charities

60. I would now like to turn our attention to governance in our charity sector.

Unfortunately, this is a hot issue and there has been a litany of problems in this sector. Problems will surface from time to time but we should not jump to conclusions and

over-react.

61. We now have a full-time Commissioner of Charities. Yes, as Denise has said,

he is overworked, as there are so many charities. A tiered approach must be taken. More intensive checks should be done on charities deemed to be of higher-risk. Wherever possible, we also want to achieve self-regulation. This is the objective of setting up the Charity Council. Although appointed by MCYS, it is led by the people sector. The Chairman is Mrs Fang Ai-Lian. We wanted her to lead because she is a trained accountant and experienced in leading charities.

62. Considering the time pressure and constraints they are facing, I think the

Charity Council has done excellent work. They have launched the Code of Governance for the charity sector last November after extensive consultations to ensure that the guidelines are relevant and not onerous. They have also developed an online Governance Evaluation Checklist for charities to disclose their compliance with the Code annually. Through this system, the Council will then be able to identify areas of improvement and help charities improve their governance standards, and ultimately, public confidence.

Community Foundation

63. The number of millionaires has risen in Singapore. Globalisation has provided

new opportunities for more Singaporeans to become very wealthy. We hope that wealth will be accompanied by greater generosity. We hope that more will be inspired to start family foundations like the Lee Foundation, Shaw Foundation, Tan Chin Tuan Foundation and also the Khoo Foundation. For those who are not yet ready to start and manage their own foundations, my Ministry will work with NVPC to establish a Community Foundation. The Community Foundation helps them by pooling their donations for economies of scale, and by advising them on causes they may want to support. I hope many budding philanthropists will come forward, walking in the footsteps of people like Mr Lee Kong Chian, and create enduring legacies for themselves and their families.

Transition to MOS’s Speech

64. Mr Chairman, Minister of State Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon will later take us

through, in greater detail, the plans to strengthen our families and to uplift the low- income and needy. Let us now take a break.