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Opening Address By Mr Desmond Lee At The 7th APRCSL On 19 June 2019

Minister’s Opening Address At The 7th Asia Pacific Regional Conference On Service Learning On 19 June 2019, 9.25am – 9.40am, At Singapore University Of Social Sciences

Theme: Building Caring And Socially Responsible Societies


Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SUSS
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

  1. Good morning!

    a. Thank you for inviting me to speak at the 7th Asia Pacific Regional Conference on Service Learning.

    b. It was very encouraging to see in the video, young people turning learning into a lifelong passion, turning learning into a relationship with the people they serve, and bringing the causes they believe in to the next level.

    c. And I am also very encouraged that you are holding this regional conference here in SUSS because among many partners in Singapore, SUSS walks the talk through and through – not just espousing the virtues of service learning but carrying its values through to the way service learning is embedded as a key requirement of any student who passes through its gates.

    d. I’m very glad to see so many of you from different backgrounds – educators, student leaders, leaders from non-profit organisations and social service agencies, as well as public officers – who are here today to share and exchange ideas on service learning.

    e. And to our delegates from abroad, a warm welcome to Singapore.

The Personal Value of Service Learning

  1. Growing up, I believe many of us in Singapore have experienced the value of service learning ourselves. The experience spurs us to reflect on what we have learned about ourselves, those around us, and what we have seen. It causes us to pause and think beyond ourselves.

    a. Through service learning, we learn social responsibility, and we can do what we can to create impact to help others.

    b. By interacting with people from diverse backgrounds – ethnicities, lifestyles, cultures and needs – we broaden our horizons and gain a deeper appreciation of our unique differences. 

  1. In Singapore, our education system strongly emphasises service learning at all levels, starting in primary school as part of the school curriculum, until high school, or secondary school.

    a. Younger Singaporeans here would know it as “Values-in-Action”.

  2. Our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), such as our universities and polytechnics, also offer service learning programmes.

    a. Some universities, as I have said, like SUSS and SMU, have made it a graduating requirement.

    b. There’s always this debate about whether making service learning mandatory strips away the joy of learning. I totally disagree. I know there are different points of view about this, but when you take law for instance, there are mandatory courses you must complete. But you do it because you have a passion, because you want to make a career out of it, because you want to pursue justice and fairness.

    c. And so, I don’t believe that by making service-learning a mandatory requirement in an educational programme, it then necessarily strips away all motivation to do good.

    d. Ngee Ann Polytechnic will be launching a new Civic Internship programme this September, which will place 700 final year students into social and health services.

    e. I hope that this rich emphasis on service learning will inculcate a strong spirit of giving back to the community, that lasts beyond your schooling years.


Creating Meaningful Service Learning In the Community

  1. Yet I am also aware that there are challenges to service learning. And I’m sure that through the course of the conference, many of you will share these challenges with each other and find ways to innovate and resolve some of them.

    a. For example, when I speak to some charities and non-profits, with whom we seek to partner in order to provide service learning opportunities for Singaporeans, they sometimes pull us aside and tell us they worry that volunteers, students or service learning participants may not show up, may not have the right skillsets, may not be concerned about the issues that the non-profits have to face on a day-to-day basis, that they’re there one-off, and that they can’t always count on having service learning volunteers to help empower them to do their job, and some also worry, sometimes excessively, about having to ‘clean up’ after volunteers have left.

    b. During such occasions, some organisations may feel that involving volunteers may cause more difficulty for them instead of benefit them.

    c. They may therefore blankly decline requests for service learning places, or they may sometimes offer volunteering tasks that may not offer learning opportunities for the students, in order for them to be invested in the next generation.

  2. But when students of service learning and our organisations have the same objectives, understand each other, and develop a close relationship, both sides will benefit.

    a. Our service learning students become more sensitive to local and global needs and cultures. They are empowered to become more responsible and caring members of society.

    b. While our non-profit organisations benefit when they can harness the young people’s energies, build relationships and gain fresh perspectives.

    c. The community also reaps the fruits of such partnerships. We start seeing the seeds of a more closely-knit local network that cares for one another.

  3. In SUSS, I’m told that students have had an on-going partnership with the Movement of the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, MINDS, since 2016.

    a. By working with staff from MINDS, and persons with special needs, SUSS students learn to be more accepting of more vulnerable members of our society.

    b. It is one thing to espouse the view of being more inclusive. But actually, when you interact with a person with special needs, how you relate to them in person speaks more than what you retain in theory.

    c. When MINDS was unable to bring their clients for outdoor activities because of manpower constraints, the students stepped up to bridge the gap. For example, they taught MINDS students to take public transport and grocery shopping and brought them to explore places like Gardens by the Bay and HortPark.

    d. Through greater interaction and by making friends, we debunk common misconceptions of those who may seem different. The wider community becomes more inclusive of persons with special needs.

Our Social Sector Transformation

  1.  But how do we create even greater impact together? This is a question that we have been grappling with in Singapore, in our journey to transform and change our social services and transform our social safety nets. Two things have become clearer.

  2. The first is that going further upstream will yield better downstream results. This means anticipating what could go wrong and trying to prevent it – spending more energy on preventive outreach, education, and intervention.

    a. You may not quite see the results so immediately as when we are serving and addressing the symptoms, but working upstream pays long-term dividends in social profit.

    b. You may not quite see the results so immediately as when we are serving and addressing the symptoms, but working upstream pays long-term dividends in social profit.

    c. A good example of this is the KidSTART programme under the Early Childhood and Development Agency. We are near the tail-end of our three-year pilot, in which we base ourselves on research that shows that a child’s early years are crucial. Hence, this programme provides intensive healthcare, learning and development support to children from low-income families, from the pre-natal stage, to the families, all the way throughout their early years.

    d. So, that’s the point that upstream is important.

  3. The second area we’re working on is to enhance how the public, private, and people sectors can work more closely together.

    a. Our flagship initiative is the Singapore Cares national movement, which aims to build a more caring and inclusive society through active volunteerism, everyday acts of kindness and ground-up efforts.

    b. And what we’ve started is a community network – SG Cares Community Network – in every town in Singapore. And when I say town, some of you from abroad may look at this dot on the map and say “how many towns could we have? It’s a city, isn’t it?”. When I talk about towns, it’s not from the perspective of Australia or the UK where you have towns set apart from each other. But we plan our city on the basis of planning towns.

    c. And these planning towns allow us to ensure that apart from housing, we provide people with healthcare, with educational, sports, recreational, and park facilities within close proximity to one another. And so, if you look at all the planning towns in Singapore, it covers everyone living on this island. It allows us to organise things a bit more carefully and comprehensively, so we don’t miss things out. But this network seeks to bring people from all organisations and sectors together at the local level.

    d. So you take the community and the town, you bring together the social services, the healthcare services, the grassroot organisations, the religious organisations, schools, government agencies on the ground – you bring together the organisations and more importantly the people who run those organisations together to build relationships with each other in order that the silos start to fritter away between each of us.

    e. Because in isolation, each organisation, whether governmental, corporate or peoples sector are ultimately limited in our capacity to serve.

    f. As said quite pointedly, to me at least, in the video earlier, many of us see the disease and not the person. The disease talked about was the clinical disease, but if we broaden it, actually many of us in our specialisations, even in service learning, look at the disease, the social issue. We look at poverty in the sense of homelessness, in the sense of hunger and malnutrition, we look at disability and specific types of disabilities.

    g. We don’t look necessarily at the whole person or the whole family. But by working together and understanding how each of our partner organisations looks at issues, we’ll ultimately focus on the person, focus on the family, focus on the community and assets that can support the family and the individual resolve the issues that they face.

    h. By working together, we make up for our limitations, tap on our collective strengths, and are better able to help those amongst us who need a hand.

    i. And so, in service learning, you can ask yourself “what is your role here in Singapore in the next phase of our transformation?”. We are transforming our social safety nets, making sure that we look beyond the silos and the systems. Look to partnerships across the organisations, focus on the people and not on the problems they face, and recognize that even though we call them our clients and beneficiaries, they have assets, they have strengths, they have dreams, they have hopes, they have fears to overcome – partner them, not objectify them. That, I think, is the kind of service learning that we want our next generation to take away because you and your students will be the leaders of governments, will be leaders of corporates who will run corporate social responsibility, will head universities, who will run charities. And I think that to embody that approach and mindset will put us in a better position.

  4. So, in brief, we are transforming the way we serve individuals and clients.

    a. Looking not at the problem but looking at it collectively, and weaving our organisations around these families, through systems and relationships.

  5. And to volunteers and corporates, and that’s where you come in, many of you and many of the people we speak to who provide volunteering opportunities, who do philanthropy, who do corporate giving, ask us how can we plug it better, how can we ensure that the efforts we put in – the resources, the time, the heart – how do we make sure that they do not come to naught, that they do not come to waste? How do we ensure that when we give, we give meaningfully and impactfully?

    a. By looking into ways to work together more cohesively, your students will find that they see not just an issue. They don’t come in and just learn about muscular dystrophy, they learn about the range of issues that families who have members with muscular dystrophy face, such as travelling to and from school, the kinds of caregiving stresses and financial constraints they face.

    b. Service learning is then taken to a whole new level and the impact of the students is no longer seen by these organisations, whether governmental, corporates or non-profits, as an extra burden to take on, rather these organisations will embrace you and see you as a valuable asset to partner in the journey they are thinking to undertake with the people that we serve. 

The Challenge to Adopt a Town

  1. So my challenge that I would like to throw here for everyone to consider – a challenge that I’ve thrown, in private, to some of the people that I’ve met, including the IHLs – is that if you want to maximise service learning or bring it to the next level or if you have students who have learnt about an issue, built relationships, but want to take service learning leadership to a higher level, yet still connected to the ground, then consider plugging into one of these towns. Attend the networking sessions and you will see the demographics of the town, you will see the issues that they face, you will see the hotspots, and then you can see your opportunities. This is where the service you provide will yield maximum social profit for the families and individuals that we serve.

  2. So that is my call – my invitation. If you would like to consider this journey with us, we are here. My colleagues will be around. You know how to get to us. We will journey with you to take service learning alongside our transformation of our social safety nets.

  3. Thank you and have a good and meaningful conference today and in the days ahead.
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