Singapore's social policies 'reinforce responsibility'

In Singapore's early years of nation-building, the emphasis in its social policies was self-reliance.

Today, there has been a shift towards collective responsibility. But the new emphasis does not mean self-reliance is less important, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Rather, it aims to encourage and reinforce personal and family responsibility, he said in a speech that dwelt at length on the key challenges in shaping social policies.

Mr Tharman was speaking yesterday at the opening of a three-day conference on social development, which was attended by about 400 experts from 38 countries.

"Our whole approach is to empower people and empower aspirations. Reward responsibility throughout life, rather than substitute for personal or family responsibility," he said.

It means, he added, a government that actively supports personal responsibility - in education, housing and "what we do to support lower- income citizens in their working years, and how we help families look after our seniors".

His remarks recall his pledge in March when rounding up this year's Budget debate. He said then: "We are seeking to build a stronger social compact for the future, a compact where personal and collective responsibility go hand-in-hand."

In building such a social compact, there are five challenges. But common to each is the need to develop and preserve a sense of equity.

This is at the core of every social policy in Singapore, he said.

The first lies in striking a balance and ensuring a "fair deal" across generations - an issue in many advanced societies.

Calling it a "crisis" in social equity between generations, he noted the burden placed on young people in countries where promises of pension and free healthcare have been made to older generations.

"The young will have to pay more than older generations have paid, but for benefits that the young will themselves not enjoy," he said. Another issue is the unintended shifts in social norms and values owing to social policies.

Citing Singapore's low fertility rates, he said: "We've been trying very hard with new and expanded incentives, succeeded in stemming the decline but we haven't yet seen a significant increase."

The third is policy effectiveness. A key priority, he said, should be the development of an effective public administration infrastructure without corruption.

The fourth issue is neighbourhoods and urban planning as they influence upward mobility and the forging of a sense of equity, he said.

Singapore's housing policy, which promotes integration among people of different ethnicities, has played a key role.

The last challenge lies in education, "critical in mitigating the polarising forces that now exist around the world", particularly globalisation of sectarian strife.

Singapore's public education system, he explained, enables students to have similar experiences but at the same time is customised to suit different needs.

This article was first published on July 8, 2015.
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