By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong delivered his seventh consecutive National Day Rally (NDR) speech this year at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central. The annual speech was moved to the present venue in 2013 after nine years at the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre, underscoring PM Lee’s “longstanding commitment to investing in every Singaporean to his full potential” and to emphasise that “Singapore is at a turning point”.

Since the 2013 rally speech and in every subsequent one, Mr Lee appears to have lived up to his promise, touching on a range of issues of concern to the nation and the average Singaporean – preschool, diabetes, cost of living, lease issues of Housing Development Board flats and incentives for the elderly.

The goodies announced in 2019 included those targeting the lower-income groups – making preschool more affordable and calibrating the cost of higher education to make it more accessible to the lower-income.

Raising retirement and re-employment age is a pertinent topic as, increasingly, fewer among older workers can afford to retire or, as some would argue, prefer to continue working.

The 2019 speech also marked a milestone: Mr Lee’s speech raised an issue, the significance of which may not yet have registered in the minds of many Singaporeans – climate change. Singaporeans are hearing that its effects are already at their doorstep.


PM Lee’s point “that anyone who works hard will have a chance to succeed, regardless of starting point or family background” is debatable. This is because, even amongst the poor, the climb out of the vicious cycle of adverse socioeconomic outcomes for some is steeper than for others. A meritocratic system, in today’s context, may not necessarily mitigate the disadvantages of those in the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, during a speech in Parliament in July last year, spoke about two paradoxes, one which has to do with meritocracy. The first generation of Singaporeans, he said, were mostly students from similar backgrounds, in the case of his school classmates, mainly humble ones. Meritocracy uplifted many families over the decades, who in turn “spare[d] no effort investing in the next generation, including enrichment classes from a very young age”. He added,

“Unlike the first generation of Singaporeans where students are mostly from humble backgrounds, the next generation is pushing off blocks from different starting points, with students from affluent families having a head start.”

 Mr Ong’s assessment is arguably more reflective of the realities of education in Singapore – affluent families have a head start. Starting points matter and poorer students will require considerable family and community resources to catch up from a lower starting point.

While some from disadvantaged backgrounds may shine – such as 27-year-old former Normal (Academic) student and Public Service Commission scholarship recipient, Zulhaqem Zulkifli, who once spent months sleeping in the void deck – statistically, those from poorer backgrounds have relatively low educational attainments.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) report, Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, while indicating high upward educational mobility and narrowing of education attainment gap due to family background, also revealed that, in 2015, 46% of socioeconomically disadvantaged[1] students in Singapore were attending disadvantaged schools[2], up from 41% in 2009 [3].

 Making preschool more affordable is one of the important steps in levelling the starting points and tempering inequity in education in the longer term. The government gave the preschool sector a major boost – doubling full-day preschool capacity to almost 180,000 places; upgrading the preschools; setting up Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergartens; giving preschool teachers better training and career progression; and, now, making preschool more affordable.

With better training for teachers and more resources, it is hoped that schools can develop initiatives to identify learning issues at an early stage and address problems such as irregular attendance and long-term absenteeism.

Post-Secondary Education

Another announcement pertaining to education is about fees and bursary adjustments to make post-secondary education more accessible, in particular for students from low-income households.

There are different typologies among post-secondary students, such as those who have their minds set on getting a university degree; those whose aspirations are tempered by their socioeconomic circumstances; hands-on and experiential learners who prefer learning as they earn; and those inclined towards the arts. The pathways they pursue are different.  It is heartening to note that the enhancements will be across the board to include Institute of Technical Education (ITE), universities, polytechnics, and even Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts. However, whether the enhancements will cater to the needs of the different typologies warrants further studying.

Among students graduating with a National ITE Certificate (NITEC), Higher NITEC or polytechnic diploma, those from poorer backgrounds may opt to enter the workforce early as they do not want to be a burden to their family. Ms R Abirami, who TODAY interviewed in November last year, is an example. In 2014, the then-21-year old opted to pursue her undergraduate studies part-time at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) after finishing her polytechnic diploma as she did not want to further burden her father’s finances. MOE will now lower the annual fees for full-time general degree programmes in SUSS, from around $8,000 to $7,500. In addition to this, the government will increase bursaries, from up to 50% of general degree fees today to up to 75%. This could mean that a lower-income student would pay only around half of, say, general degree fees of $8,000. If she uses her bursary fully to her fees and, with enhanced bursary, she pays only $2,000 per year. Ms Abirami missed out on this but was nevertheless happy with what she has accomplished.

Mr Mohammad Helmi shared with TODAY last November about missing out on opportunities while at university, such as study missions and overseas activities that required upfront payment. Eligible students will be provided financial help but have to first pay out of their own pockets and are reimbursed later, something Helmi could not afford. Revision to university fees and bursary will hopefully help students from low-income households to channel some funds towards opportunities that can enhance their future career prospects and not forced to forgo them as Helmi had to.

In his 2014 NDR speech PM Lee proposed,

“Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career. It is never the last chance. You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go.”

For those heeding PM Lee’s call, thus starting their careers immediately after obtaining their NITEC or polytechnic diploma, there should be added support to help them upgrade, at least up to the undergraduate level. The government may wish to consider calibrating subsidies and bursaries according to their current income from work and, if not administratively cumbersome, relevance of programme pursued to their current career progression. 

Retirement and Re-employment Age

PM Lee also announced that the retirement age will be raised from 62 to 63; and re-employment age from 67 to 68 in 2022 at the NDR. By 2030, these will be 65 and 70 respectively. What the retirement and re-employment age means, taking into account the 2022 scenario, is that an employer cannot ask an employee, who is a citizen or permanent resident, to retire before 63 years of age and must offer re-employment to eligible employees who turn 63, up to age 68, to continue their employment in the organisation. If an employee is eligible for re-employment but his or her employer is unable to offer a position, then the employer must transfer the re-employment obligation to another employer, with his or her agreement, or offer a one-off Employment Assistance Payment (EAP).

The raising of retirement age is a much-needed revision, considering that Singapore’s life expectancy at birth, as at 2017, is 84.8 years, significantly greater than it was in 1990 (76.1 years)[4]. The share of those aged 60 and over in the resident labour force rose substantially from 6.1% in 2007 to 14% in 2017. The median age of residents in the labour force rose from 41 years in 2007 to 43 years in 2017[5].

Moreover, the healthy life expectancy has risen from 67.1 years in 1990 to 74.2 in 2017, which roughly means that one is able to work till 74 years of age before the onset of a disability, assuming it occurs towards the end of one’s life.

In spite of the realities, not all stakeholders are supportive of raising the retirement age. In January 2017 [6], then-Minister of Manpower, Lim Swee Say, shared in Parliament, in response to a question raised about increasing the retirement age, that the tripartite partners (comprising the government, unions and employers) are concerned about the impact of increasing retirement age on businesses; and the career progression of younger workers since the older ones will be holding on to higher positions longer. These objections had then prevented the government from raising the retirement age beyond 62.

Now that the retirement age has been increased, along with the hike in CPF contribution rates for older workers, there are concerns about whether employers facing cost pressures will resort to unethical ways to circumvent the obligation of keeping an ageing worker till 63 and offering re-employment till 68. For example, the employer could deliberately give an employee a poor performance appraisal as proof of ineligibility for re-employment; or conjuring up a case for resorting to the EAP.

For businesses, there is the Special Employment Credit (SEC) scheme that provides age-tiered wage offsets of up to 8% for companies to hire older workers aged above 55 and earning up to $4,000 a month. In 2015, an additional 3% of SEC, known as ASEC, was announced. However, SEC and ASEC will last only until the end of 2020 unless it is extended again, as it was in 2016 for three years. If the SEC and ASEC are not extended after 2020, employers may find it a disincentive to keep older workers until retirement and to re-employ them.

Mr Lim had said then that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices is at hand to watch the human resource practices of companies against which complaints have been lodged.

In reality, however, it has always been a challenge for workers to take on employers because of the pro-business climate which aims to help companies grow and thrive in the future economy. A mix of education, especially to banish ageism, and incentives such as wage offsets are needed to sustain the employability of older workers. 

Reality of Climate Change Hits Home

Finally, what sets this year’s NDR speech apart from previous ones is that it touched on climate change, a subject more often broached by environmental activists than policymakers. It is somewhat a departure from the usual economic and policy matters, and bread and butter issues covered in NDR speeches.

When PM Lee spoke about a climate changes, it probably helped that he assigned a figure to what it may cost Singaporeans over the next 100 years to tackle climate change and rising sea levels – $100 billion.

Moreover, following up in Parliament, Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong said that funding this astronomical figure could come from a combination of sources – borrowing, reserves and ministry budgets. Such messages should convince pragmatists that environmental activists have a pressing cause and that advocacy should not always be viewed as ‘troublemaking’.

The issue is climate change presents an opportunity for a society hardened by competitiveness to nurture commitment and care towards common good. As it stands now, such values are apparently lacking. In 2013, a public perception survey by the National Climate Change Secretariat involving 1,000 respondents showed that about seven in ten people were concerned about climate change. However, it did not translate into action. Singapore lags behind many countries in areas such as recycling. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that Singapore’s domestic recycling rate of 21% is well below Taiwan’s household recycling rates (55%); and South Korea’s and Germany’s municipal waste recycling rate of 59% and 64% respectively.

The apathy towards climate change is something to be concerned about as it reflects the values held by society, which have longer term implications. Climate change is but just one of the major challenges Singapore is bracing itself for. The onslaught of an ageing population is another impending challenge that requires collective effort of society to tackle.

[1] Socio-economically disadvantaged students are those whose value on the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) is among the bottom 25% of students within their country or economy

[2] Disadvantaged schools are those where the share of students with tertiary-educated parents is in the bottom quarter of the national distribution.

[3] OECD (2018), Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris., pp 123 (Table 4.1)

[6] There was a parliamentary debate on 9 January 2017 following the second reading of the retirement and re-employment (amendment) bill. The details are retrieved from Hansard.

Abdul Shariff 
Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of AMP. 

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, October 2019, Volume 14, Issue 4.

Photo Source: The Karyawan