Back to top

Speech By Mr Desmond Lee At The Singapore University Of Social Sciences Convocation 2018

Speech By Mr Desmond Lee, Minister For Social And Family Development And Second Minister For National Development, At The Singapore University Of Social Sciences Convocation 2018 On Oct 11 2018, 2.00 p.m., The Grand Hall, Block A, Level 4, SUSS

​​ Mr Stephen Lee, Chancellor, Singapore University of Social Sciences; 
Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SUSS; 
Distinguished Guests; 
Ladies and Gentlemen;​


  1. Good afternoon. To all who are graduating today, my warmest congratulations! This afternoon, you are wearing your academic dress. Very shortly, you will receive your graduation certificates. This year’s convocation over these few days is especially significant because your inaugural batch of full-time students will also be graduating this year.
  1. For many of you, today is a culmination of months and years of hard work.Your journeys have taken you on different paths. Counselling, Human Resource Management, Social Work, Early Childhood Education. I name just a few disciplines that you have studied.
  1. But I also see what unifies you as members of the Singapore University of Social Sciences. It is a shared purpose -- Your heart for society, and passion to make a real difference. You want to be a part of the change, as we head into Singapore’s future.
  1. Earlier this year, you renamed your “School of Human Development and Social Services” to the “S R Nathan School of Human Development”. This pays tribute to the legacy of the late President Nathan, and provides a chance for me to speak about a very special way in which S R Nathan thought of social service, as part of a larger public service mission. His passion for the causes in the social sector was well known – caring for the disabled, families in distress, vulnerable children and youths, and those with mental illness. What may be less well-known is that he played a part to revolutionize the way in which Singapore provided help to those who needed it most. Let me tell you a story about how he helped the workers of Singapore, while doing a relatively quiet, scholarly job at the Labour Research Unit of the NTUC. He had gone to that unit after working as a medical social worker and then a seamen’s welfare officer. There, he saw social problems, not just with an eye on a man or his family, but as injustices and difficulties levied by an entire system at the time. And so he decided to fix it – but not by taking a path well-trodden – by agitation and activism – but by careful analysis and gathering of data. By long preparation and cool-headed negotiations. With his help, the tide of acrimony turned. Workers in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s often resorted to strikes and go-slows because they believed that corporations were their adversaries, rather than partners. With the late S R Nathan’s understated, stolid philosophy of looking at welfare from the point of view of the person, rather than ideology -- from the point of view of fixing a system, rather than the tragedies of a single person – and the efforts of many other pioneers, Singapore was put on the path of tri-partism, and moved from progress to prosperity.
Today’s Social Challenges

  1. Today’s circumstances are very different, even if our aspirations for a better life and a better society remain very much the same. Housing, education, health care – what we have today is a far cry from what the late President Nathan and his generation first knew. Yet we cannot afford to be complacent, or rest on our achievements.
  1. Because of our work in MSF, in the social services, and on the ground, we have met many families and individuals with complex and enduring challenges Some of you may have met such families, in the course of your studies and internships.If you have, then you know also that the challenges we face as a society do not have simple solutions. On a macro-level, our population is rapidly aging, and coupled with a low birth rate, family sizes are shrinking. The numbers of people who are growing old alone as singles, and without family support, are also growing. New and innovative uses of technology have benefitted society but have also quickened the pace of disruption to jobs and the economy. On the individual-level, a person’s well-being can be affected by any permutation or combination of events: unemployment, family conflict, health problems, emotional or physical abuse, disability. I name just a few. But together, challenges can add up, and can sometimes become overwhelming. The need for social services, and the relevance of your studies – the social sciences – are greater than ever.
A New Way Forward

  1. If our circumstances have evolved, so must our approaches. The Government more than doubled overall social spending in the last 10 years. From around $14 billion dollars in 2007, to $37 billion in 2017. Healthcare spending more than quadrupled. Investment in education went up by almost 70%. Our spending in the social sector more than doubled. Expenditure and subsidies on public housing have also doubled. In the same period, the proportion of households earning $3,000 and below (in2017 prices) has decreased, from about one in five (20%), to about one in seven (less than 15%). Households in all income deciles saw real growth in average household income per household member. From 2012 to 2017, households in the lower 50% experienced higher real income growth compared to households in the top 50%. These figures broadly suggest that while many families have seen their household incomes improve in the last ten years, we must continue to strengthen and innovate in the way we support those with more complex problems, those who are beset by more interlocking and difficultproblems, which may hold them or their children back. In the last few years, the Government has also taken a range of actions, together with community, to address various issues and solve different problems. We have invested very significantly in early childhood education. And we are moving in a very big way into life-long learning, with the SkillsFuture movement. In fact, many of you today, are testament to that lifelong learning movement. To help our workers better navigate, reskill, and cope with change and disruption, we have the Adapt and Grow initiative organised by Workforce Singapore. And to help Singaporeans who are lower income or are more vulnerable, there are a range of targeted support schemes, such as extra housing and healthcare subsidies, the progressive wage model, Workfare income support, Silver Support, and more.
  1. But we continue to find new ways forward, including those that go beyond the Government, to also partner with and galvanise individuals and communities, and spur them on into action. For example, since May this year, we have started bringing together Government agencies, non-profit organisations, community and grassroots organisations, within each HDB town. At the local level, we bring them together into a network to create a support network of social, community and healthcare services that can coordinate and integrate care better on the ground for individuals and families alike. We call these nascent networks the SG Cares Community Networks. Local networks of individuals representing a whole host of organisations – Government, people, private. People who want to help the vulnerable in their community can get to know each other, network, and work together, creating a stronger, more coordinated network of care and support. This maximises our resources and builds on each other’s strengths. And bynetworking and working together more tightly on the ground, we can better identify and resolve policy and implementation kinks, gaps and inconsistencies.
  1. We must also try tackling challenges by going further upstream. When we encounter the toughest cases, and see unhealthy patterns repeated across generations, we ask ourselves if we could have intervened earlier. That old adage, “prevention is better than cure”, is nowhere more true. We have tried to intervene earlier, before issues compound.
  1. For example, through the KidSTART programme for low-income and vulnerable children. Social workers, medical professionals and preschools provide coordinated and concerted support to family and children from the lowest income brackets, in their homes, in the community, and in the preschool. The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) is working with preschools to pilot the Abecedarian Approach, to enrich the learning and language acquisition of these children in the lowest income brackets, investing significantly in new methodologies not just for the broad swath of children, but starting first and foremost with those who have the least. ECDA also works with community partners to reach out and encourage low income and vulnerable families to enrol their children in preschool. Fees are heavily subsidised, and low-income families pay a few dollars a month for a full-day childcare programme run by our Anchor Operators.
  1. Even as the Government increases social spending on a whole range of needs,society will further benefit when corporates and people embrace the spirit of volunteerism and giving, and make it more pervasive on the ground in society. The SG Cares movement is one way for Singaporeans to step forward to build a more inclusive and caring society. From daily acts of kindness, to volunteering with friends, I hope you will consider ways that you can champion the SG Cares movement in a meaningful and personal way. If you are looking for ways to contribute, there is no better way than to whip out your phone, download the SG Cares app, start flicking through the opportunities, read the motivational stories, the heartfelt stories, the stories of need, the stories of depravation, and the call to action – on the ground and in individual organisations. Start today.
Exciting Sectors to Enter

  1. As you would be able to tell by now, the social sector that many of you will be stepping into, or returning back to, after today is undergoing transformation. These are exciting, dynamic times. Uncertainty, yes, but promise and opportunities await us. Let me do a quick sketch for two fields within the human development sphere.
  1. For those of you who are in social work and counselling, we have made some decisive shifts in social service delivery. I call it the social service transformation. I mentioned that we are improving our coordination across organisational boundaries, and going more upstream to address social issues. We are also using data and technology to improve the way we evaluate and plan, and engage in upstream early intervention. In this new environment, there is much for you to contribute. The Government strongly supports social service professionals, and we have guidelines, frameworks and new pathways to support your career development and your lifelong learning.
  1. For those of you in early childhood education: The preschool sector is undergoing exciting transformation, supported by growing demand for early childhood services and increasing Government investments. We are expandingpre-school capacity by creating another 40,000 places over the next 5 years. Every time we open a new centre – whether it is a Large Child Care Centre, an ordinary child care centre, one in the park, one in the commercial area, one in the heartlands, we celebrate because that meansmore capacity for young children, especially those from the lower to middle income to enjoy a good early childhood education. Manpower needs will grow, from 17,000 professionals today to 20,000 in two years’ time. We are creating new training institutions and courses, and introducing measures to uplift the EC profession. You will be able to work in larger preschools, in diverse settings such as parks. You will also enjoy more opportunities for career progression and professional development, including specialised training in mother tongue languages, outdoor learning and early intervention for children with special needs.
Recognising Individuals

  1. In closing, I would like to mention two individuals amongst us today, who exemplify the spirit of your school and the dreams of your cohort. Ms Lynette Chia juggled a full-time job and studies. Many of you know what a challenge that is. She pursued a Masters in Community Leadership and Social Development, while also working as the Deputy Constituency Director of the Serangoon Constituency Office, at People’s Association. She discovered that she was expecting her second child midway through the course, and even went on a study trip to Nepal -- when she was expecting for 7 months! The second individual is Ms Alvina Neo, who is graduating today with a Bachelor of Social Work. Yet she finds time to train and compete, representing Singapore in her sport. Her discipline and resilience is an inspiration, all the more because she was born with spina bifida – a birth condition that results in an incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord. I wish both and them, and all our graduands, the very best in her career.
Concluding Remarks

  1. In order to graduate today, some of you too may have faced your own set of challenges. I want to take this opportunity to recognise your families, friends, and professors who have cheered you on. We celebrate today with them.
  1. After today, your academic quest may be over. But a new adventure awaits. Stay in touch with each other. Your friends and batch mates will be a valuable community in years to come. Use your knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in society. I hope that you will always be able to say, as the late President Nathan once said: “I’ve done the best I can. You don’t do it because you want to leave a legacy. You do the best you can.”
  1. All the best to you. Congratulations, and a warm welcome to the social sector.
  1. Thank you.​​​​
Back to top