Listening out for how policy hits people in the short term

SINGAPORE - Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor is in the hot seat over the Pioneer Generation Package, an $8 billion fund to help seniors pay for health care but which many struggle to understand. The 56-year-old co-chair of the PGP task force tells Maryam Mokhtar that various new strategies are in place to help drive the message home. She also addresses another hot issue - whether the ruling People's Action Party has lost touch with sentiment on the ground.

There is often talk that the Government is out of touch with the ground. Why do you think there is this perception?

We have for the most part focused on policies which are in the long-term best interest of Singaporeans, sometimes even if there's short-term pain. Because of this, there could be gaps in policy implementation.

People may feel that we may be overzealous in wanting to implement policies because we know they will give long-term benefits to the people.

How do you shift this perception?

Some of my MP colleagues have said that we need more politics in our policies. That doesn't mean we are then gearing towards populism. But we need to make sure that we also take note of the short-term pain, how to cushion the impact in our policymaking and how to engage and explain. Hence increasingly the policies implemented have been more consultative.

Do you have an example?

Income inequality is more stark now because of globalisation and competition, many factors of which are not within our control. And so we will have to balance values we always talk about - self-reliance, hard work, meritocracy - with targeted help for those who cannot make it on their own to ensure their social mobility. So, a compassionate meritocracy.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said the Health Ministry is at the forefront of changes in social policies, especially in MediShield Life and the expansion and upgrading of the health-care system. What are the major difficulties you foresee?

There are a few challenges within three main categories. The first - understanding the health-care financing system. We find that a lot of people are quite confused about Medisave, MediShield and integrated insurance plans.

We need to ramp up our efforts and work with insurers, health-care professionals and community leaders to improve awareness and understanding.

The second challenge is long-term health-care affordability, both for Singaporeans and the Government. We are addressing this challenge in several ways.

The Government's share of health-care expenditure will increase. It went up from $4 billion in the financial year 2011 to about $8 billion in the financial year 2014. MediShield Life will better protect Singaporeans against large hospital bills. Premiums will rise but the Government is committed to making sure it's affordable. We will also allow more flexible use of Medisave.

Lastly there is infrastructure and manpower. Particularly, because of our ageing population, health-care needs will go up and we need manpower to run these facilities.

We are trying to attract more fresh school-leavers to join the health-care profession and encouraging back-to-work women, mid-career switches and retirees to come back to work.

But we will still need to supplement it with some foreign manpower especially because there'll be some jobs that Singaporeans will not be interested in.

You are known as the "chilli padi" MP, not one to hold back on raising issues you feel strongly about, such as doing away with streaming in schools.

It's true that I speak and give my views both in and outside Parliament if I feel that these are genuine concerns, and also if these are views that ought to be raised for informed policymaking.

I suppose if it helps to dispel the notion that we are all yes-people and that there is group-think among us so much so that we cannot express our own views vehemently, then yes, that's useful to me. We are not monolithic. We express our independent views, whether they are divergent or not.

What are some changes you feel particularly satisfied with having brought about?

In my time as chairman of Reach (the Government's feedback arm), we started policy work groups. And two particular policy work groups that I was very happy with were health care and education. In health care, it was about more support for intermediate and long-term care because of the ageing society, and caregiver support. And I think we're doing that.

In education, there were also proposals about pre-school education and the need to have standards and a body overseeing the development of the sector. So now there's the Early Childhood Development Agency overseen by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

As a politician, how does it feel to see your suggestions bear fruit?

I joined politics because I felt it would be good if I could make a difference in people's lives, improve policies and contribute in some way to society. Having been given a chance to do this, I'm honoured.

The Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) is the centrepiece of this year's Budget. A government survey of 1,500 Singaporeans found seven in 10 have heard of it. But of those aware, four in 10 do not know its benefits. What is the strategy ahead?

First I must say that it's been about four months since the package was announced. So in terms of the fact that the PGP is going to last maybe 30 years, it's still relatively early days yet.

But we're keenly aware that we need to be able to effectively communicate this package to the pioneer group. This is a group that is less connected with what is going on, on the ground, due to barriers like language, a lack of media awareness, or poor physical health.

We are doing door-to-door visits and looking at providing an information kit. There will also be a helpline. We are looking at in-depth training for volunteers. They can be resource persons to help pioneers navigate the package at various points in time. This is really a lot more intense and proactive than what we have previously done.

More than the usual means of policy implementation?

It's a lot more intense, focused and has to be proactive, multi-pronged and sustained. We need to look at the messaging, it has to be simple enough. Our Pioneer Generation kit, for instance, will have to be in a language familiar to them and in a format that is easy to understand.

We're adopting a very flexible mode. That means we learn along the way, improve, adapt, improvise, to make our message more effective.

We are training our front-line staff too - at the outpatient clinics and polyclinics. More than a thousand have already been trained. We're trying to use multiple platforms and leave no stone unturned. But I think it will take time.

You are an office-holder with two elections under your belt. Following the Cabinet reshuffle, you are taking on more responsibilities in the Health Ministry and have relinquished your role as mayor of South West District. What are your thoughts on PAP's renewal efforts in the lead-up to the next election?

We definitely take our renewal efforts very seriously simply because good governance is one of Singapore's critical success factors. Political leadership succession is really something that must be carefully programmed and rigorously tested because we should not let it be subject to, say, the vagaries of events that could throw (up) leaders who are going to bring the country to ruin.

So there is no let-up in our wanting to identify people of the right qualities and calibre, for instance with the mental acuity to identify the issues and create solutions. But in addition, they must also have a very deep sense of self-awareness and empathy for the people, and of course, the ability to withstand the rigours of public life and scrutiny.

In GE2011, you had the highest votes among People's Action Party MPs - 70.6 per cent in Hong Kah North SMC. Public sentiments have changed, with a more vocal and assertive public. What are ways you have adopted to engage the public?

I'm really grateful for the support voters have given me but after that we need to clean the slate and start from zero again because I believe support has to be earned.

Increasingly, Singaporeans want to be engaged. They want to be heard and want to participate in policymaking. I would take it as a positive thing, a sign of a maturing society.

There is no magic pill, no silver bullet. You will have to engage people with your head and heart, have real empathy, keep your ears close to the ground and try and understand their concerns and needs to see how you can resolve them, whether at the municipal or at national level to improve people's lives.

You are a mother of three children aged 25, 24 and 20 and have a busy life as an office-holder. Do you have work-life balance?

I wouldn't say it's work-life balance because a lot of people may have this idea that it's 50-50.

I think that's hard to achieve. For me, it's more work-life integration or work-life harmony. I'm not sure if I've achieved it.

You've also been known to be quite a gym enthusiast. Is that how you de-stress?

I am at the Parliament gym by 6am or 6.30am. I jog every day. It's a great de-stressor, the endorphins. Sometimes, my ideas for speeches come when I'm jogging.

How else have you coped with the demands of being a politician?

You must have very strong family support. When I first entered politics, my mother, late father and husband were very supportive. They helped me to take care of the kids. I didn't have to worry that much and didn't have to feel so guilty. I could focus on work and the community.

You're a strong proponent of active ageing. How do you see your retirement years?

I never think about retiring. I want to continue to be active as long as possible, maybe as a volunteer doing social work.

Maybe I'll take it a little bit easier and go for holidays but that is not uppermost in my mind. It's about how to keep my mind active and make sure I'm also physically well.

maryamm@sph.com.sg

What's for supper

Foodcourt at Gek Poh Shopping Centre: 762, Jurong West Street 75

Diet coke and iced lemon tea: $3 Fishball noodles: $3 Bubur kacang: $1.50 Total: $7.50

This article was published on June 14 in The Straits Times.

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