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Covid-19 has ‘makings of profound social crisis’, S’poreans must work together to bolster social compact: Tharman

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans must work together to strengthen their social compact, even as the Government seeks to save jobs and help those who have been retrenched — an issue that is not just economic in nature, but a social priority as well, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Wednesday (June 17).

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivering a national broadcast on June 17, 2020.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivering a national broadcast on June 17, 2020.

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SINGAPORE — Singaporeans must work together to strengthen their social compact, even as the Government seeks to save jobs and help those who have been retrenched — an issue that is not just economic in nature, but a social priority as well, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Wednesday (June 17).

Covid-19, he pointed out, has resulted in more than just an economic recession. “It has the makings of a profound social crisis, in one country after another,” Mr Tharman said in a televised speech.

Singapore cannot defy the global economic downturn, but it must “absolutely defy the loss of social cohesion, the polarisation, and the despair that is taking hold in many other countries”, he said.

The economic dangers Singapore now faces compel it to fortify its society, added Mr Tharman, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

“We will redouble efforts to strengthen our social compact. First, we will ensure that everyone has full opportunity to do well for themselves, through education, skills and good jobs,” said Mr Tharman, who chairs the National Jobs Council which oversees job creation and skills upgrading.

“Second, we will boost support for those who start life at a disadvantage, so that we keep social mobility alive in Singapore, and lessen inequalities over time.”

He called on everyone to strengthen Singapore’s culture of solidarity, to help people bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks, and make sure no Singaporean is left behind.

“We are doing this through government policies to help those with less, at every stage of life, as well as through citizen-led initiatives and communities of care that are growing in every neighbourhood,” Mr Tharman added.

The Government’s first priority is to save jobs, and to help Singaporeans who lose their jobs to bounce back into work, he said.

“We will do all we can to prevent people from being out of work for long, so they can stand on their own feet and retain their sense of dignity,” said Mr Tharman.

Mr Tharman’s speech was the fifth of six broadcasts by Cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first to speak on June 7.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also Finance Minister, is due to speak on Saturday.

During the recent Fortitude Budget, Mr Heng announced that he had appointed Mr Tharman to chair the National Jobs Council.

GETTING REAL WORK OPPORTUNITIES

Giving an update on Wednesday, Mr Tharman said the council is “moving full speed ahead” and it will secure the 100,000 jobs and training places targeted by the SGUnited Jobs and Skills package that Mr Heng had introduced.

Singapore is facing strong headwinds, Mr Tharman said, and as long as “grave uncertainty” hangs over the global economy, and trade and travel are down, new job openings in the Republic will very likely be fewer than job losses.

“So if we leave things to market forces, unemployment will rise significantly over the next year, or even beyond that if Covid-19 remains a threat,” he said.

He said that the jobs council is working with companies, sector by sector, to take on Singaporeans through temporary assignments, attachments and traineeships during the down period brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This will allow Singaporeans to get real work opportunities, get paid, and pick up skills while waiting for permanent jobs to open up, said Mr Tharman, adding that the Government will “heavily subsidise” these opportunities.

“It gives people far greater benefit when the Government provides support this way,” he said. “No amount of unemployment allowances can compensate for the demoralisation of being out of work for long.”

As for the public sector, Mr Tharman said that it will be bringing forward hiring for future jobs in areas such as healthcare, early childhood development, education and social services.

“(The public sector) will step up recruitment especially in sectors which earlier had difficulty finding enough Singaporeans to fill up the positions,” he said.

NEVER ‘TOO OLD OR OVER-QUALIFIED’

As for older workers, Mr Tharman pointed out that Singapore’s labour force is much older now compared to the late-1960s and the mid-1980s.

These were periods when unemployment rose well beyond 6 per cent. By comparison, the unemployment rate for the first quarter of this year was 2.4 per cent, according to a recent labour report by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Back then, Mr Tharman said that less than 30 per cent of the labour force was 40 years or older. Today, the proportion is 60 per cent.

“Many of today’s workers are in fact 50 years or older,” he said, noting that many in their 50s or 60s did not go beyond a secondary education.

“(They) still have many good years ahead of them,” he said. “This is why we are making a concerted effort to help our middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers.”

While he did not spell out the details, he said the Government will give employers extra support when they hire middle-aged and older Singaporeans.

Plans are also in the works to scale up a new mid-career pathways programme to give older Singaporeans opportunities to work at companies and public sector agencies.

The programme will also prepare them for more permanent jobs in future.

Still, Mr Tharman stressed that this must be a national effort, and that employers must change their perspective and give middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers a “fair chance to prove themselves”.

“Employers need to reorient their management philosophies and their HR (human resource) and talent management practices,” he said. “No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be ‘too old’ to hire. And no one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as ‘overqualified’.”

He said the Government will work with business associations to bring all employers into this national effort.

In addition, the MOM will watch companies’ hiring practices to ensure they comply with the Fair Consideration Framework.

“If it becomes the norm to hire mid-career Singaporeans and train them for new jobs, everyone is better off,” said Mr Tharman.

RESKILLING SINGAPOREANS

Aside from older Singaporean workers, Mr Tharman said the Government is investing heavily in reskilling and upskilling the majority of Singaporeans who still have jobs.

He said that while Singapore has been preparing for a digital revolution and technological advances, the coronavirus has “fast-forwarded” the changes.

“When we talk of the jobs of the future… it is not some far off or hypothetical possibility. The future begins now,” he said.

As such, he said the Government has expanded training opportunities in every sector and every job through avenues like the Next Bound of SkillsFuture programme.

“Everyone must have the courage to re-gear to stay on track, and make the effort to acquire new skills at regular points in your careers, possibly even learning whole new disciplines,” said Mr Tharman.

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