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Helping struggling families goes beyond handing out cash, but effort is worth it to gain social cohesion: Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — Even as Singapore strives to be a global and cosmopolitan city, there are marginalised families here that should not be forgotten, and helping them is not as simple as just handing out money, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Thursday (Sept 8).

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong speaking on the final day of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies on Sept 8, 2022.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong speaking on the final day of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies on Sept 8, 2022.

Singapore

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  • Although income inequality has narrowed, many low-income families continue to struggle, Mr Wong said
  • But helping them involves more than financial aid, as their problems are complex and multi-faceted
  • This effort is worth it as Singapore must ensure nobody gets left behind while the Republic progresses, he added
  • Beyond economics, he said Singaporeans must continue engaging in interfaith and intercultural dialogues

SINGAPORE — Even as Singapore strives to be a global and cosmopolitan city, there are marginalised families here that should not be forgotten, and helping them is not as simple as just handing out money, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Thursday (Sept 8).

But the effort is worthwhile to ensure the continued cohesion of Singapore society, he added. 

Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, made these remarks during a dialogue on the final day of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies held at the Raffles City Convention Centre, where he also touched on issues of race and religion.

The three-day event was organised by the Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). More than 50 speakers and 800 delegates from about 40 countries attended the event, which is now in its second edition.

During the dialogue, which was attended by academics, policymakers, inter-faith advocates and community activists, Mr Wong was asked by members of the audience questions about a wide range of issues related to social cohesion, such as his thoughts on the impact of technology on senior citizens and how Singapore's experience can be relevant to Southeast Asia.

Another question, from dialogue moderator and ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, was what Singapore can do for marginalised groups. Mr Ong is also RSIS' executive deputy chairman.

In response, Mr Wong noted that income inequality in Singapore has been narrowing over the last decade, and low-income workers have seen their salaries rising faster than that of the median-income worker.

Still, he acknowledged that many low-income families continue to struggle, and the Government is continually looking at how to help them.

Mr Wong said it may be counterproductive to simply hand out cash to such households, as some of the problems might be marital in nature, or related to past criminal conduct or addictions.

Instead, he said Singapore adopts a “family-centric approach” that brings different government agencies together to help the family in need.

This is highly resource-intensive and requires a lot of coordination among people such as counsellors, social workers and volunteers just to help one family, he noted.

But such work is essential as nobody in Singapore must be left behind even as the country strives towards becoming an open cosmopolitan and global city, Mr Wong said.

In response to another question from Mr Ong about the challenges of keeping traditional values while striving for cosmopolitanism, Mr Wong said that if Singaporeans feel that their country is becoming a place where only certain segments of society benefit, or where the wealth gap continues to widen, then “we are finished”.

“The citizens will not support the (social) compact that we have. ‘What's in it for me,’ they will say. ‘Why would I want to have such an open, globalised city, when I'm not seeing any benefits?’”

But he acknowledged that it will not be easy to create both an open cosmopolitan, global city, as well as an “endearing home” for Singaporeans.

“It's more than an issue of values, but it's also an issue of identity, and the place that Singaporeans have in the city.” 

Doing this, Mr Wong added, requires multiple approaches — key among which is inclusive growth.

This does not mean taking care of Singaporeans in a protectionist manner that closes up borders, but rather, giving them a chance to compete with others internationally.

He also said that it means investing in human capital such as providing opportunities to give “every child a good start in life regardless of their backgrounds”, and emphasising education beyond the formal schooling years.

For the Government's part, it will work on designing a fair and progressive system where everyone pays their share of taxes or contributes to the common good. Those who can should, of course, pay more, he said.

“And then when the Government has these resources, we have to think hard about how we allocate these resources,” Mr Wong said. “It is never a top-down decision (from the Government). It has to be representative of people's views of Singaporeans’ priorities.”

NEGOTIATIONS AND COMPROMISES

Social cohesion goes beyond economics and requires inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue, Mr Wong added, saying that there are people who are of the view that Singapore “has arrived and can take these issues less seriously”.

He was responding to a question on his perspective on the challenges involving inter-faith and inter-ethnic issues.  

“Younger people may reflect that sort of thinking and… I think it's good that we have that sense of idealism,” Mr Wong said. “At some point in time, we will go beyond these differences in… religion, race, identities and we can all see ourselves as one people.”

But until that day arrives, Mr Wong warned that society should be aware of the dangers of communalism and racialism.

Using Covid-19 as an analogy, he said that society can learn to live with such problems, but can never eradicate them.

“They may be dormant, but under a certain conducive environment, they will come up again.”

It also means rejecting calls for maximum entitlements… and avoiding attempts to construe every compromise as an injustice.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence on maintaining a balance of interests among different segments of society

In a speech he gave before the dialogue, Mr Wong spoke about how Singapore resolved some of these differences among various segments of society, which was through negotiation and compromise.

He said that Singapore’s guiding principle has been to “preserve maximum space for each community to lead their own lives”.

However, this does not mean giving each group everything they want, but rather, striving to arrive at a point where everyone can live with a balance of interests.

“It also means rejecting calls for maximum entitlements… and avoiding attempts to construe every compromise as an injustice.”

TRUST AND SHARED EXPERIENCES 

Capping the conference was a closing address by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

In his speech, Mr Tong, who is also Second Minister for Law, reflected that a common thread that bound all discussions on faith, identity and cohesion was that of mutual trust and shared experiences, which he described as factors that are critical in building cohesive societies.

"Social cohesion does not come about by chance, but through a deliberate and consistent effort to understand one another, so that we can flourish together as one people," he said.

Related topics

social cohesion social compact Lawrence Wong

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