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PAP has significantly stepped up strategies for inclusivity: Tharman

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In his speech, Mr Tharman outlined the PAP's strategies for creating a more inclusive society for children, working adults and seniors.

SENIOR Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam outlined the People's Action Party's (PAP) strategies for building a more inclusive society in a speech, highlighting that the Covid-19 pandemic makes inclusivity a more important issue.

"We’ve significantly stepped up our strategies for inclusivity, a fairer society and for lesser inequalities at different stages of life in the last 10 years," Mr Tharman said in the speech that was streamed online on Tuesday afternoon, adding there is still much more to do in future. He pointed out that the pandemic has amplified the importance of this issue as it is fracturing societies in many countries as it impacts people differently.

"With slow growth that's going to come out of Covid, it's going to lead to greater tensions between people and we must avoid that. We've got to build a society with a stronger social compact," he added.

In his speech, Mr Tharman outlined the PAP's strategies for creating a more inclusive society for children, working adults and seniors.

Social mobility starts from the younger years, and the government is raising the quality at every stage of a kid's life, starting even before preschool, he highlighted.

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Over the next few years, the government is doubling its expenditure on the preschool sector as well as raising the quality of the preschool sector. He said: "In five years, 80 per cent of the preschool sector will be government supported with our anchor operators... as well as other partner operators... so that costs are affordable but very importantly, so we have a very high level of quality." The preschool profession, teaching profession and care profession are also being upgraded.

Efforts are also being extended throughout the school system. "We need deeper interventions to help those who are falling behind, just like we do in the preschool sector," he said, highlighting that Singapore has the smallest class sizes and the highest expenditure for students who are further behind in their studies.

He added: "We're going to do more. We're hiring more teachers, more teacher counsellors, more professionals of every type to be in our schools to strengthen the whole school team to help every student in need." This will be stepped up in the next few years, as will efforts to prevent a digital divide. Where the latter is concerned, resources will be channelled to make sure students have broadband access and a laptop at home to use. 

For those entering working life, "we've got to make sure every Singaporean is on a moving escalator", he said, adding that today's generation of young people entering the workforce must not become a lost generation due to the impact of the pandemic.

"We have to make sure that middle-aged Singaporeans and mature workers do not find that the escalator has suddenly stopped midway through their career," Mr Tharman went on to say, highlighting that employers will not be able to make excuses for not hiring a middle-aged or mature Singaporean. Aside from rules, the government is enabling this by investing in the skills of every Singaporean.

An immediate challenge facing Singapore in the current crisis is keeping the unemployment rate - which currently stands above 3 per cent - low. To tackle this, the government has rolled out the Jobs Support Scheme to support wages. There is trust in the system, employers know the government is serious and trusts the government to do the right thing to preserve jobs, Mr Tharman added. Singaporeans have also been playing their part by skilling themselves over the years, he went on to say.

A long-term challenge is sustaining the upward movement in income for the majority of Singaporeans, Mr Tharman said. He noted that in the last decade, the median income has seen a 32 per cent increase in income in real terms - an outcome that has arisen from the increase in productivity. "Over (the past) 10 years, productivity went up by one third, just like median wages," he said. "This is a story that is not seen elsewhere in the advanced world and we have to find ways of sustaining that moving escalator that comes from continuous improvement in technology, skills and movement towards better jobs."

While Singapore's construction sector has lagged behind other advanced countries by a large margin, he acknowledged, a major effort is being made to re-gear the sector in the coming years and create good jobs for Singaporeans in the sector.

Overall though, this has been a success story, with productivity having increased in Singapore and putting the Republic in the upper tier of advanced countries in terms of productivity and incomes, he said.

In his speech, Mr Tharman also touched on how the government provides seniors in Singapore with a sense of security and the ability to live life to the fullest. He explained that the experience of other countries has shown that in doing away with a social security system where the government takes responsibility to ensure people have enough savings for retirement, society becomes more divided and unequal.

"The basic rationale of the CPF (Central Provident Fund) system, of MediShield Life and a lot of our other schemes, is that we've got to take collective responsibility for each other. We cannot leave each other to fend for ourselves," he said. The CPF Life, MediShield Life and CareShield Life schemes help the low and middle income groups in their silver years, with additional support from the government, he added.

Going the route of a system where the government pays for everyone will lead to greater inequality as the better off get the same benefits as the poor, he pointed out. In addition, there will be higher taxes on the middle income group.

Mr Tharman said: "We should keep to a system where taxes remain low on our middle class. Of course, as every society gets older, taxes have to go up because our healthcare expenditure will go up. But try to keep taxes as low as possible on the middle class and use government revenues to help those who need it most - the poor, the lower middle income group and to some extent, the middle income group."

He concluded his speech by talking about the need to build a more inclusive society. "We can become a society which is inclusive of the next generation, not just today. And we can become a much more deeply multi-racial society, which is a journey of its own. We can become a better Singapore."

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