On Political Correctness and Privilege

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Written by NUS student Sarah-Kei Lauw, who attended a dialogue session with Minister Tan Chuan-Jin last month. This article was first published on Treehouse by Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.


Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this says that Mr. Tan Chuan-Jin is too politically correct, and I don’t think they mean it in a good way. My response has and always will be, “Do you really expect anything else?”

Why do we invite ministers to speak to us? What exactly do we expect? They’re going to say the right things. They’re going to toe the party line. They might throw in some personal opinions (Mr. Tan said he’d personally support a move towards shared maternity/paternity leave instead of distinguishing the two, though he doesn’t know if/when we’ll see that happen). But by and large they are not going to say anything politically incorrect.

I figure that at such dialogues we should expect much political correctness, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can learn about or confirm what we already know about our government and their take on certain issues. We can allow ourselves to be persuaded to agree with them. Or we can ask questions to press them on certain issues, reflect on them, and perhaps be inspired to explore further outside of the dialogue. Ministers may respond with “standard” answers, saying what they’re supposed to as members and representatives of the Singapore government. But at least this whole process helps them stay in touch with us students (and the public), to get a sense of what we care about.

At the dialogue with Mr. Tan two weeks ago, he was definitely politically correct. But I felt that he was sensitive, reasonable, and he answered most of our questions pretty directly. His casual and friendly demeanour didn’t hurt either.

How Bad Is Singapore Really?

I’d be hard pressed to name one Singaporean friend who, if asked their opinions on Singapore, would first respond with a positive comment (it’s usually the foreigners who sing praises of our country and migrate here). There is so much information whether in school, online or in the newspapers, about problems in our society. Indeed, articles like this very one are more likely to criticise some policy or advocate for a marginalised community that the government appears to be neglecting. So from the start, I’m letting you know – I’m not going to do that.

Instead I’d prefer to balance the negativity that I feel surrounds us quite pervasively (especially in Singapore) in the form of a natural human tendency to complain. It’s more efficient to focus on the negatives in the hopes of resolving them, as opposed to expending our energy thinking about Good Things that have already been realised. Somehow it’s more satisfying to gossip about the terrible things others do instead of praising them. Painful events tend to leave deeper imprints on our hearts and minds. In whatever way, shape or form, it’s human nature to take Good Things for granted.

Mr. Tan and I seem to agree on this. He mentioned that many Singaporeans don’t realise how “Not Normal” Singapore is, in that we are a safe country, we are economically stable, we have made a name for ourselves in the world despite our geographical insignificance. We all have “pet topics”, as Mr. Tan called them. Foreign workers, unemployment, CPF, LGBT rights, racial discrimination, single mothers… The list goes on. Each of us may be especially concerned about particular issues close to our hearts, and there is nothing wrong with this. But Mr. Tan appealed to us to also look at the bigger picture instead of just a part of it, and to appreciate the successes of our little island home. For example, in response to a question about exploited foreign workers, Mr. Tan pointed out that those who don’t receive help from the Ministry of Manpower are precisely the ones who go to NGOs, and whom we hear about. Bad news is often amplified, whether through the media or as a natural consequence of how news travels. An awareness of this helps us form better-informed opinions.

One of the very first things Mr. Tan said at the dialogue was that as a minister, he has a very practical focus. He’s not about doctrinal beliefs or terms, he cares about what’s pragmatic in the real world –– and here we are triggered by the word “pragmatic”, because we’ve heard it a million times in Social Studies and Econs, right? But I think this very pragmatism has gotten us to where we are today, to this state of stability.

A question was asked about whether Singapore had forsaken “well-being” for economic development. This very effectively highlights the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Mr. Tan’s response was that healthy economic development ensures our well-being. In the past, we had a “very small pie” to work with, and at different stages of our development we have different priorities. In the beginning it was our economy, and now we are a developed country, the richest in the region. Perhaps we don’t have much “heritage” — kampongs are a mere memory and precious few colonial buildings remain. Our schools are still too exam-focused, in that old spirit of educating our citizens as efficiently as possible. Our people are still “kiasu”, wary of strangers, pushing forward even when no one is going to cut their queue. We have problems, however big or small, but our leaders did what they had to to build Singapore to where she is today. Whatever decisions are made at any point in time, we will have issues as every country does. It’s how our world works — we’re always making trade-offs, as any decision that benefits one group of people may unintentionally disadvantage another.

Mr. Tan also spoke about Singapore’s approach to welfare. Loosely transcribed, he said, “We want to create inter-locking, tightly woven nets so that people don’t fall through the gaps. If weaved too tightly however, it could become a solid plate which can be damaging. At the same time we want to create some bounce so people can bounce back from that net. But ultimately we don’t want anyone to fall through.” It’s easy to pick at the gaps through which some fall and to admonish the government for them. But supporting needy citizens without encouraging over-dependence is a difficult balance to strike. We certainly haven’t achieved it perfectly (if a perfect balance is possible at all) but I don’t think we’re too far off. At the very least, this seems to me to be a logical model to aspire towards.

Checking My Privilege

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to balance the complaining spirit of many Singaporeans, and I strive to do this in everyday life. I try to encourage my friends to be thankful, even when it’s hard to be. For example, my friends complained extensively when we had to pay adult fares for public transport after JC. In response, I pointed out that public transport in London or New York is even more expensive.

But that makes no difference to the Singaporean who simply can’t afford to pay for public transport.

I started out wanting to get my friends to “see the bright side”, but I realised that in doing so, I can come off as dismissive of very real issues and problems that Singaporeans face (however few or many they may be). I realised I needed to strike a better balance — to be positive and counter negativity without sounding too uncaring and dismissive. It should’ve been obvious, but I see that it’s very easy for me to advocate balance and positivity because I am privileged in almost every possible way.

It hit me when Mr. Tan spoke about employment — our 3.1% unemployment rate is “virtually full employment” in his words. But to the unemployed father of three, that’s 100% unemployment. I have a stable family and two working parents who have never been unemployed unless by choice. I couldn’t possibly understand. Yes, unemployment rates are very low in Singapore, but more can be done as with every other issue. While we are happy for the 96.9% who are employed and appreciate what the government may have done to create their jobs, we do not dismiss the 3.1% who struggle.

Polity Head Tan Yang Long opened the session by saying that he hoped Polity would encourage Tembusians to reflect on their privilege. It seems they have succeeded, at least for me.

The Power of Your Privilege

Now my personal encouragement to you is this. Whatever your pet topic(s) are, care deeply, champion those causes, be passionate. But see how those issues fit into the broader fabric of Singaporean society. Be cognizant of our overall state, of the many other citizens who are doing well, whom the government is helping and supporting. Find your own balance. In doing so, reflect on your own privilege, how that may influence you and how you can work around it.

In addition, we must all do our own parts — and not just through official programmes and organised charity work. Mr. Tan mentioned speaking to residents about people they’d seen lying on the street or walking around aimlessly, only to discover that they hadn’t even spoken to them. There are plenty more who may see problems without reporting anything at all. We can’t expect the government to be omnipresent, to identify and help every single struggling citizen. We talk a lot and complain a lot, yet we have more agency than we realise, so much power to help even in small ways. Let’s use it.

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Chinese New Year – Looking out for each other

Chinese New Year is a particularly hectic, but meaningful period for me. It gives me an opportunity to meet up with my residents during our visits to the shops and town centers, and in some of the festive activities organised.

Having been around the community nearly 6 years now, it is a joy to catch up with familiar faces. The young ones are growing up fast and some have gotten too big to carry! With the passing of time, many are also getting older. Some have passed on to a better place, while some have become more frail. A few ‘regulars’ at our Meet-The-People sessions haven’t been very regular for some time, and I sometimes wonder how they are. But when I saw them on my rounds recently, they were looking better than ever before! It had taken awhile for some, but the help extended by so many have made a difference.

So do remember to look out for those around us even as we visit our families and friends. For those who are alone and without much social contact, do pop by and say hello and see how they are. Some of us can help via the VWOs, while some can reach out to our community and to those living near us.

It may not seem much, but it can make a difference. Last Chinese New Year, we read of volunteers who have been organising a community reunion dinner to celebrate with elderly residents who lived alone in their neighbourhood. This is just one of many examples that I am sure we will see again this year. We also read that charities are receiving more donations last year compared to previous years. These developments are heartwarming and encouraging.

Let us continue to foster this sense of caring and giving. With each step and effort, we strengthen family and community. In so doing, we are all forging a closer-knit and a more inclusive society.

May you and your family have good health and happiness in the year of the Rooster! 恭喜发财, 万事如意, 合家欢乐!

Family is where the heart is

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(Taken on a family trip to Japan, Dec 2016)

The picture you see above was first shared on my Instagram page, which received an interesting comment: “落叶“.

Literally translated, this phrase refers to how the fallen leaves have returned to its roots. The fallen leaves are a metaphor for old age, and ‘roots’ describe one’s home.

In a related way, I think ‘roots’ also represents our families – where our values, memories and ties were first formed, and firmly anchored. If you think about it, the family really is the building block for a safe and stable society, and it is important for our families to stay strong. Families are also who we turn to for comfort and support, and a refuge when times are difficult and uncertain.

Giving children a good start in life

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(During my visit to one of the KidSTART group sessions at Henderson.)

This year, we’ve made some progress to enhance our support to help strengthen families, as well as to help our children get a good start in life. It’s a continual effort, and I’m proud of the work put in by my MSF team. It is a cause they feel passionate about.

For example, to help couples build stronger marriages, we have been offering an evidence-based introductory marriage preparation programme, PREP, free-of-charge, at the Singapore Registry of Marriage (ROM) during lunch time.

To give our children a good start in life, we rolled out additional support measures this year. All newborns now get a $3,000 Child Development Account First Step grant. Changes to the Child Development Co-Savings Act accorded all new mothers the full 16-week maternity leave, and mandatory two weeks of paternity leave for new fathers from 2017. We made important moves on maternity leave and the CDA account to better support unwed mothers.

KidSTART is a pilot programme that aims to provide more assistance to children from vulnerable backgrounds to ensure their future success. This effort by the Early Childhood Development Agency brings together family, community and pre-schools to build a strong support system for the child. I look forward to meeting the little ones at their first day of (pre)school in a few days’ time. 🙂 I trust that this programme will succeed and move on beyond its pilot status.

Faishal has also shared in his blog post about the work done to help parents via the Positive Parenting Programme and the Safe and Strong Families pilot, as well as to support parents and children amidst divorce.

We are also working to further develop the early childhood education sector to offer meaningful and rewarding careers for Singaporeans, and quality care and education for our children. We announced the Early Childhood Manpower Plan this year, and we hope to attract another 4,000 educators by 2020.

Building a community of support for those in need

Notwithstanding our best efforts, unfortunate circumstances do occur. We need to be always ready to provide help and timely services to the more vulnerable in society.

Our ComCare schemes disbursed $130 million to about 87,000 beneficiaries in FY2015, this is 10% higher than the previous financial year. We have also enhanced the assistance package to households on ComCare Long-Term Assistance by raising the cash assistance rates for our beneficiaries. For example, a one-person household will now receive $500 per month from $450. We will continue to work closely with the community and voluntary welfare organisations to support the less unfortunate among our midst.

Even as we recognise families as important sources of refuge and support, sadly, for some, they can be vulnerable to abuse by loved ones. Last month, we launched a three-year “Break the Silence” campaign to encourage bystanders to speak up against family violence. Violence is not a private matter and is not acceptable.  All of us have a role to play to step up and help, by having the courage and knowledge to take action.  You can interrupt incidents of family violence with little acts of kindness, and contact the various help centres. Do call the Police immediately if a life is in danger.

 


(Ah Ma made the first step to break the silence against family violence.)

For those who need foster homes and families for support, we were pleased to see an increase in fostering as we celebrated 60 years of fostering in Singapore. Foster parents are such incredible big-hearted folks who open their homes and heart to care for vulnerable children. To further support the efforts taken to help these children, a third fostering agency will be set up in 2017.

Fostering a more inclusive Singapore

We have also achieved much in helping each and every Singaporean to fulfil their potential, regardless of their abilities. In the past two years, MSF, together with MOE and SG Enable, piloted the School-to-Work Transition Programme with five Special Education schools to facilitate a smooth transition from school to the workplace for graduating students with disabilities. I am heartened that 80% of the first graduating cohort of were successfully employed, and 83% stayed in the job for more than six months.

Just last week we received the 3rd Enabling Masterplan report from the steering committee led by Ms Anita Fam. We will study their findings and recommendations carefully to make Singapore even more caring and inclusive for persons with disabilities.

Supporting one another in the year ahead

While MSF continues to do its best to support the vulnerable and those in need, and strengthen families so that they can fulfil their dreams, it is also my hope that fellow Singaporeans can do their part to care for one other.  If we could all reach out to others in the community, and begin to look beyond ourselves and our own families, we would begin to see a very different society – one that is more caring, more selfless and more compassionate.

One way you can show support to one another is through the Singapore Cares movement. Many of us have expressed the desire to do more and work with others to support individuals and families that need help. The movement is an opportunity for everyone – you, your company, or institution – to partner with charities in Singapore and/or areas where needs exist, and make an impactful difference. By coming together and contributing to the social causes you care about, we can support one another in the year ahead. Together, we can show that Singapore cares.

As 2017 approaches, there could be more challenges ahead that we have to face.  But I take heart in knowing that we will all walk this journey together with our loved ones and support one another as one big Singapore family.

Happy 2017!

Every end is a new beginning

As 2016 draws to a close, it is a good time to reflect on what has been done to give all children a good start in life, lay deep foundations to build strong homes, and strengthen the support for Singaporeans in need.

Supporting our young ones

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(From visit to a pre-school earlier this month)

We want to help parents in their care-giving responsibilities, achieve the best possible outcomes for our younger generation, and foster a more inclusive environment for them to grow up in.

This year, MSF enhanced key policies and amended several laws, such as the Women’s Charter, where divorcing couples with minor children have to attend the mandatory parenting programme before they can file for divorce.

The Positive Parenting Programme (Triple P) has been expanded to 118 Primary and Secondary schools this year. The programme equips parents with skills to promote their children’s psychological, social and emotional competence, and over 80% of parents found it relevant to their parenting needs.

We’ve also launched the Safe and Strong Families (SSF) pilot programme to strengthen family-based care and community support for vulnerable children. Eligible families will receive counselling and coaching.

Making Singapore more accessible for all

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(Checking out some of the enhanced family-friendly features at The Grandstand in August)

As a father with two kids, I know how challenging it is for parents with young kids to plan a family outing out. Families with elderly members or wheelchair-users face struggles as well.

To ensure that families enjoy positive experiences outside of the home, we provided funding to neighbourhood shopping malls to introduce or enhance their family-friendly facilities, such as family rooms and inclusive playgrounds. By this year, most of these malls have implemented their enhancements and received favourable feedback from shoppers. These malls have done a commendable job and shown their commitment and effort to make their premises safer and more convenient for different family needs.

Let’s get ready for the next leap forward

I think that my Ministry, together with our community partners, have taken small but significant steps forward. But this is really just the beginning and we do not intend to rest on our laurels.

Together, I believe we can do it even better in 2017, and make Singapore a better home for all families.

Onwards to a more inclusive society

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(With “See the True Me” ambassador Wanyi, on my right in green, and her colleagues. Her employer Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa has a committed interested in hiring persons with disabilities.)

Today, we commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The year’s theme, “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want”, refers to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015. The goals remind us about ensuring and promoting inclusiveness in the various facets of life from education and lifelong learning to economic growth.

Over the years, we have worked together as a community to provide greater support for persons with disabilities to lead the lives they desire, reach their full potential, and realise their aspirations. This year, we celebrated the indomitable spirits and triumphs of our Paralympians at the Rio Paralympics. We began work on the third Enabling Masterplan, a five-year roadmap that guides us in building an inclusive society for persons with disabilities.  The Ministry of Education also announced that the Compulsory Education Act will be extended to children with special needs from 2019.  2016 also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights Persons with Disabilities, which Singapore ratified in 2013. Singapore has submitted the Initial Report on the Convention to the UN. We will continue with our efforts in making Singapore an inclusive nation.

Indeed, we can observe this special day with pride. The progress we have made to support persons with disability would not be possible without the many caregivers, voluntary welfare organisations, corporate partners and supportive individuals. Thank you for walking with us on this journey to build a caring and inclusive society.

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Cherishing time with our grandparents

Many of us know that Mother’s Day falls on the 2nd Sunday in May and that Father’s Day is on the 3rd Sunday in June. But how many among us know that Grandparents’ Day falls on the last Sunday in November?

Don’t take our parents for granted

When we talk about parenting and strengthening the parent-child bond, we tend to think of parents nurturing young children to adulthood. As parents, our focus is on raising our children, but we often forget that we are children too.

I think many of us take our parents for granted. Even as we try to interact and connect with our children, we must also remember that it’s just as important to maintain our bonds with our parents and to ensure that our children have a strong relationship with their grandparents as well.

Show our love for them

I remember watching this interesting video a few years back.

It showed a few elderly aunties chatting about their children over a meal. The conversation became more heated as they tried to compete to see who had the more successful child.

One of the women had remained silent throughout the conversation. When her friends asked her about her son, she simply said, “He’s a good son”. At this point, her son arrives with his wife and children to pick the elderly lady up for a family holiday, leaving the other ladies to look on with quiet envy.

I think there are a few lessons to be learnt here. Having fame, status and riches may give us and our families a better life, but these often mean little to our closest kin if we do not cherish them or make time for them. It would become our regret one day if our parents were to leave us, and we realised we have not spent as much time with them as we would have wished to.

We are never too old or too young to tell our parents or grandparents that we love them.

Simple words or gestures, like having dinner with them twice a week or bringing them out for a family holiday, show them that we care for them. Let’s make an effort to spend time with them.

By putting our values into action, we can also be good role models and show the younger generation how we can show love, care and respect to the elderly and keep them involved in our lives.

Thank you, Grandpas and Grandmas!

There is a Chinese saying, “家有一老,如有一宝”, meaning “an elder is just like a treasure in the family”. Grandparents play an important role in supporting the family and nurturing the young through the sharing of valuable life lessons and values.

On this special day, I would like to thank all Grandpas and Grandmas out there for their contributions to society and to their families. As you enter the golden years, I hope you take the opportunity to slow down and enjoy life. Don’t forget to find that balance between having your own lives and spending time to connect with your family.

Happy Grandparents’ Day!

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Supporting those at their most vulnerable

Nancy is currently the Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF’s Office of the Director of Social Welfare. In her time at MSF, Nancy has covered areas of work from policy development to programme implementation for youth-at-risk and youth offenders.

This year, Nancy was awarded the Outstanding Social Worker Award 2016. The Outstanding Social Worker Award is the highest award in the social work profession, presented annually by the President of the Republic of Singapore to recognise the outstanding contributions by dedicated social workers to the social service sector in Singapore.


Reboot, redesign and reform.

For Nancy, these are some key words that come to mind when describing her work. This has led Nancy to advocate for a greater use of technology and innovation to improve areas of work in MSF.

During her time as Chief Probation Officer, Nancy introduced a voice biometric system for time restriction checks of probationers. This system made a marked reduction of physical time restriction checks by the Volunteer Probation Officers.

Supporting those at their most vulnerable

In all her years of service, one incident has clearly stood out in Nancy’s mind. She was then a social work student at the National University of Singapore.

During her field placement, Nancy was faced with a situation where a man was about to jump off the window of his flat.

However, when his 8 year old son was brought into the room by the police officers, the man stepped off from the ledge of the window.

After the scare, Nancy recalled comforting the boy – who was shaking very badly. This episode left such an impact on Nancy that she continues to remember it till this day. 

“Social workers witness the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and I regard that as a privilege,” said Nancy.

Guiding the next generation of social workers

Today, Nancy serves as a senior lecturer to social work students at UniSIM. The degree course at UniSIM is one of two full-time social work programmes in Singapore.

In her current role as Director of Professional Practice Development at MSF, she aims to improve the sector to become efficient and effective, as well as to help the sector be ready for the future.

“Social workers need to go beyond practice to navigate between policy, skills and knowledge to be all-rounders,” added Nancy.