DPM Wong urges youths to take action to build a better Singapore
Mr Wong was joined by 50 youths who shared about their worries regarding life in Singapore.
Deputy Prime Minister Mr Lawrence Wong stressed the importance of coming together to keep on the journey of building a better Singapore for ourselves and for the next generation.
Speaking at the CNA Youth Forum which took place at National Gallery Singapore on Nov 23, the Finance Minister was joined by 50 young Singaporeans from all walks of life, who presented a multitude of concerns ranging from inequality to housing affordability.
The forum, held in support of the Forward Singapore movement, was organised by CNA, in partnership with National Youth Council.
Rising cost of living
Come Jan 1, 2023, Singapore is expected to increase its Goods and Services Tax (GST) from seven to eight per cent – the first of two planned increases in the GST rate.
In light of the impending GST hike, coupled with inflation, many are concerned over the rising cost of living.
In response to this issue, Mr Wong acknowledged that it’s “a challenge that has been felt consistently over the years”, and one “not unique to Singapore”.
He cited recent factors like the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine crisis that have made the pinch “more acute over time”. However, he assured that the Government “will provide as much support as (it) can”.
Participant Alister Ong, 29, asked if the changing expectations and aspirations of the younger generations are contributable factors, to which Mr Wong agreed.
While he recognises that such expectations and aspirations can contribute to certain stresses of the cost of living, he stood by the fact that the GST increase is necessary as the Government needs revenues to look out for the vulnerable in society, such as the growing number of seniors.
He shared that the Government is “effectively deferring the impact of (the) GST (hike) by providing an offset” so Singaporeans won’t feel the impact “for at least five years”.
Home ownership and affordability
Apart from the cost of living, housing affordability was also one of the mounting issues brought up.
In the 2021 edition of The State of Youth in Singapore, a publication by the National Youth Council which explores specific emergent trends and issues of youths, it was indicated that across age groups, youths continue to prioritise home ownership.
Having a place of their own came out as the second most “very important life goal”, following maintaining strong familial ties.
One of the participants, a Singapore Management University student, shared about his failed attempt at securing a Built-To-Order (BTO) flat in a mature estate in a recent application.
While he admitted that non-mature estates, albeit not as attractive, are much easier to secure given that there’s almost a guarantee that if you apply a maximum of three times, you will likely get a unit.
He asked how the Government can further assure young people that they can still own a house if they can’t live near their parents due to land constraints in mature estates.
Mr Wong said the Government is looking into how to address this issue effectively.
“We will never be able to provide as much of a guarantee in a mature estate that’s already very built up. But potentially, there will be some areas where (even though considered mature estates) we may be able to open up new tracts of land for development potentially.
“In such areas, maybe there will be more opportunities for new flats to be built and then for young couples to be able to access these flats as well.”
Participants also questioned if the Government is hoping to make flats more accessible to people in their twenties and thirties who want to live on their own.
While Mr Wong recognises the people’s desire to own a house of their own, the challenge is that “we don’t have enough land to accommodate everyone’s needs”.
“Our conundrum of the land constraint is real,” he said.
According to Mr Wong, we are already struggling to meet the housing demand. Young couples, seniors and even singles above the age of 35 are still having to wait with a long queue before them.
“We do have to prioritise for the time being.
“Everyone wants to be an exceptional case but how (do we) decide (on) who is more deserving (of a flat)?”
Mr Wong also emphasised the need for Singaporeans to not just look at headline prices, but also at incomes.
“Rest assured we will catch up with our building programme and make sure that housing remains affordable for all of you,” said Mr Wong.
“Wherever you graduate from, you get a job, you work for a while, you will be able to get a flat. You can take a loan from HDB, most of which will be paid with your CPF.
“If you were to live anywhere else in the world, it’s almost impossible for young persons to buy a flat like that.”
Hustle culture and broadening the definition of success
With the rising cost of living and as we become more ambitious, our hustle culture is more normalised over the years, said 18-year-old Republic Polytechnic student, Wint Thawda Lwin.
She asked how Singapore can strengthen our work-life balance moving forward, to enhance our quality of life.
In response, Mr Wong said he hopes for the Government to have the ability to help everyone realise their full potential.
“We will want to have in Singapore, the ability to encourage and to help everyone realise their full potential based on their strengths (and) to have multiple pathways where people can achieve success in different areas without that sense of having to compare with one another and that sense of (having) to conform,” he said.
“So that’s something we will try very much to work on and hopefully, that will reduce some of the stress and the feeling of being in a rat race as well.”
He also added that currently, across most of the advanced economies worldwide, we place too much of a premium on jobs that require cognitive skills and not enough emphasis on people who do hands-on work or care work.
“We need to find a better balance to celebrate success across all of these different fields and I would also say rather than talk about just success, I think we should celebrate excellence.”
During the discussion on the job landscape, 24-year-old participant Ainul Mardhiyyah Binte Mohamed Razib mentioned how given the academic rigour of our current education system, some students find it hard to find the time or opportunity to explore other career aspirations.
Mr Wong concurred with this, saying that too much energy and attention has been placed on examination results.
“We are trying to shift that emphasis towards a more holistic learning and giving people more time and space to explore other things outside of the school curriculum,” he said.
“A lot of mental health (issues) that (were) highlighted, stems from this stress, rat race, comparisons, and then the feeling that I’m pigeonholed. I can’t be myself and I have to conform to expectations that are imposed on me.”
Beyond schools, even at the workplace, Mr Wong believes that more needs to be done.
To further support Singaporeans on their upskilling journey, he said the Government will provide more resources for individuals through SkillsFuture.
He also shared that ensuring Singaporeans adopt a mindset of lifelong learning is crucial.
Keeping Singapore open and embracing foreign professionals is “extremely essential” but one of the downsides is that locals are subjected to more competition.
“It means that there may be more churn in the workplace. It means that later on as you start work, you may see foreign professionals amongst you and you can imagine for a Singaporean being very upset if a Singaporean is displaced, is retrenched, loses the job but the foreigner next to him keeps the job. Understandably, there will be a lot of unhappiness there.”
To enable everyone to remain competitive, there’s a need for Singaporeans to develop their skills set.
“We want every Singaporean to feel that all of us are benefitting from an open economy and if we feel that way, I think we can sustain Singapore as an open city and society for many more years to come.”
The Government will also look out for the more vulnerable groups like freelance workers who may not fit into the design of CPF contributions.
To accommodate these different career paths, the Government will work with the various companies like delivery platforms to ensure that such workers will be able to build up their retirement savings as well, noted Mr Wong.
That said, he understands that this does not need to apply to everyone in the freelance sector as “some of them may genuinely prefer that flexibility” and “don’t want to be tied down (to) a long-term employment relationship”.
Mental health awareness
With respect to mental health awareness in Singapore, issues like the institutional and structural barriers in place such as long waiting times in hospitals and significant clinical fees in both the private and public health sectors were raised by participant Viaano Mikhael Spruyt.
“There’s an incredible lack of psychoeducation and awareness on mental health,” said the founder of mental health startup, Huddlehumans.
To mitigate this “whole host of issues”, Mr Wong announced that there’s a task force at work and more will be revealed in due time.
Better insurance and medical coverage for those with mental illnesses and persons with disabilities were some of the considerations mentioned by Mr Wong.
He added that for Singapore to see tangible change, employers need to be understanding when their staff open up about their mental health struggles and not treat them any differently from physical conditions.
There’s also a need to build up “a whole range of capabilities” to provide further assistance to individuals who struggle with mental health issues. This is not just limited to medical professionals but school counsellors as well, said Mr Wong.
Climate change and sustainability
Sustainability and the environment sit among the top three social issues that Singaporean youths care deeply about.
While Singapore contributes to 0.1 per cent of global carbon emissions, many feel like more can be done on the global front, or at least regionally, with Singapore taking the lead and setting an example for other countries.
However, Mr Wong reminded participants that many Asian governments and countries don’t have that same focus on climate change as they don’t even have basic access to utilities.
“Given where they are, one can almost appreciate why their priorities may be different.
“If the governments and their countries are struggling with resources, obviously they will direct the resources to more immediate needs rather than these other issues.”
As it is, besides cutting down on emissions, Singapore is already setting aside resources to protect ourselves from rising sea levels, according to Mr Wong. Called climate change adaptation, the Government is preparing the country for the worst case scenario.
“We hope we don’t have to rely on bad events to catalyse change but we also have to be realistic that despite all these efforts, things may go wrong,” said Mr Wong.
For now, at an individual level, Singaporeans can look into adopting more environmentally friendly habits.
Singaporeans can also expect sustainable products to become cheaper over the years.
Mr Wong shared that the Government will do its part by providing incentives for more sustainable items or by making the more carbon-intensive item more expensive – something that is already being done through the carbon tax.
Racial and religious tensions
In a 2021 survey by TODAY, four in 10 youths said that they have experienced racism. Six in 10 Malays and Indians believe that minorities are more susceptible to such experiences.
A question raised was if it’s time for Singapore to move away from the CMIO model and ethnic integration policies in Government administration that require racial categorisation.
While Mr Wong says that he appreciates young people’s desire to phase out these policies and be “race blind”, he urged Singaporeans to realise that this is an ideal and the reality is that ignoring race and ethnicity does not address the problem.
He explained: “We’ve seen examples of that in many other places, for example where ethnic enclaves form and the governments don’t know how to deal with that because they don’t track race, they don’t want to talk about race.
“Therefore, without the ability to track and understand what is happening on the ground, they don’t have the tools to deal with these ethnic enclaves which can bring about a more separated society.”
A participant called for the CMIO model to be redesigned, such that it can allow Singaporeans to “meaningfully construct their identities”, since not everyone falls into “the neat boxes of the CMIO model”.
Mr Wong agreed that more can be done and that the Government “should continue to review and update (the) classification so it’s not overly rigid”. However, he reinforced that “there will always be some tension” because Singapore is a diverse society.
“In Singapore, compromise must never be a bad word because if compromise is seen as dishonouring my tribe, dishonouring my identity, and I can never compromise,…then indeed we will end up like many Western countries – completely divided.
“We must find the right balance. The balance is never static… (by) engaging one another, listening to each other’s concerns and finding the right balance, (it) will allow us to live peacefully and harmoniously with one another.”
Wrapping up the session, Mr Wong acknowledged that the concerns raised by the participants are “legitimate concerns” that we should work on together as a country.
“Singapore is a small island but we don’t have to be small in our mindsets. We can be big-hearted…we can be gracious people looking out for our fellow citizens and creating a fairer, more inclusive Singapore for the future.
“I hope all of you will join us in this journey, give your inputs, take action, participate and do your part for all of us in creating this better Singapore for the future.”
For more content about Forward SG and how youths can participate, click here.