Budget 2013 Speech – MP Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap

Faisal 2By MP for Aljunied GRC, Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap
[Delivered in Parliament on 6 March 2013]

Mdm Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this debate.

Singapore is not a welfare state but we should certainly be a state concerned with the welfare of its people, in particular lower and middle income Singaporeans. Our social compact is one of Singapore’s prized assets and it is the duty of any government of the day to ensure that it is not left exposed to market forces. With this in mind, I appreciate the series of assistance rolled out in this year’s budget to alleviate the burden of daily living in an increasingly unequal society for lower and middle-income families. However, I hope that this year’s budget will set motion a rethinking on the part of the government to place more emphasis on the social compact to improve the nation’s well being.

In my speech last year, I raised three issues: empowering our social workers and other professionals in the social service sector; two reaching out to the vulnerable; three, adopting a holistic approach in the forging of an inclusive society. My speech this year will build on my speech last year and I will be raising three more issues; first, assistance for students from disadvantaged and less well-to-do backgrounds, second; support for the public assistance scheme and lastly, the introduction of the social services office.

Social attitudes towards the social service sector must evolve with an increasingly ageing population. In February last year, the acting Minister for Community, Youth and Sports Mr. Chan Chun Sing said, “within the next one, two years, we should be able to close that salary (gap) very substantially, to eliminate the gap, so from a remunerative perspective, it is competitive.” I applaud the government’s intention to increase the pay of professionals in the social services sector but I believe more can be done and the process can be further accelerated to enhance the competitiveness of the industry vis-à-vis the teaching sector, as stated in my speech last year. The government should also look at enhancing the recognition and salaries of support staff in the industry such as the early intervention teaching assistant, the special education teaching assistant and the social service assistant. They play a crucial and integral role to the smooth running of the social services sector and they should be recognised for it.

My first point is on financial assistance for students from disadvantaged and less well-to-do families. The Deputy Prime Minister in his budget speech has reiterated the importance of social mobility and he intends to improve it by providing children from less well-to-do families at the pre-school and primary school level with a leg up. He also recognised that meritocracy alone is not sufficient in the sustenance of social mobility.

Undoubtedly, there are many financial assistance schemes currently in place to assist these students at both the pre-school and primary school levels. For pre-school students, KiFAS or Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme has been the lifeline of many families. I am glad to know that such assistance is available and tapped upon by families. Indeed as someone who worked in a Family Service Centre before, I have seen many children benefitting from this scheme. However, many in this House would know that KiFAS is only made available mainly for students in PAP community foundation kindergartens.

In January 2012, my fellow Workers’ Party colleague Mr. Yee Jenn Jong asked a Parliamentary Question on KIFAS. He asked whether the eligibility for KiFAS could be extended to private preschool operators and not-for-profit religious or racial groups.

In his written answer, the Minister pointed out that there are currently about 240 kindergartens where families can apply for KiFAS. At the same time, it is a known fact that PCF kindergartens are eligible for KIFAS. Incidentally, a quick check on the PCF website would indicate that there are 247 PCF kindergartens in Singapore.

We must understand the various considerations a parent has in enrolling his/ her child in a preschool. Among the many factors are proximity and the environment provided by the school. Some parents may for convenience sake choose to send their child to a non-PCF kindergarten. For example, in my Kaki Bukit ward, some parents who are unable to obtain a placement at a PCF Kindgarten at Block 519, Bedok North Avenue 1 would have to send their child to a non-PCF kindergarten. Parents would also like to have their children receive their education in their preferred environment in accordance to their beliefs and values. As such, there are parents who send their children to kindergartens run and managed by religious organisations or religious based voluntary welfare organisations.

My view is simple and I hope that KiFAS can be expanded to all families who are in need. It should be about providing assistance in accordance to economic needs rather than in accordance to one’s choice of kindergartens. KiFAS should be made available to all students who require it and should not be limited solely to the 247 PCF kindergartens.

Mdm Speaker, I will continue in Malay.

Puan, Selain skim KIFAS, satu lagi skim yang ingin utarakan adalah Skim Edusave Kementerian Pelajaran. Saya dan juga AP bagi GRC Pasir-Ris Punggol, Encik Zainal Sapari telah menyuarakan tentang isu ini pada sesi COS tahun lalu. Kedua-dua kami telah memberi pandangan masing-masing mengapa seharusnya Skim Edusave ini harus dilanjutkan kepada pelajar-pelajar yang menunut dimadrasah sepenuh masa. Puan, Membina masyrakat Inklusif adalah antara objektif utama Belanjawan 2012 and juga pada belanjawan tahun ini. Timbalan Perdana Menteri, Encik Tharman telah mengatakan di dalam ucapan beliau bahawa ‘Kita (iaitu pemerintah) sedang mengambil langkah-langkah ‘Utama’ atau ‘Major steps’ untuk memastikan pembentukan masyarakat yang adil dan yang lebih inklusif. Puan, Diatas laungan ‘Masyrakat yang lebih Inklusif’ ini, sekali lagi saya ingin menyeru kepada Kementerian Pelajaran agar merealisasikan laungan Timbalan Perdana Menteri Encik Tharman dengan melanjutkan Skim Edusave kepada pelajar-pelajar Madrasah sepenuh masa.

Mdm Speaker, I will continue the rest of my speech in English.

Allow me to move on to my second issue on the public assistance (PA) scheme. I welcome the government’s move in enhancing this scheme. Any amount of increase means a lot to the beneficiaries. I also welcomed the multi-tiered approach to the PA scheme. Under the secondary tier, health-care assistance such as adult diapers, stoma bags, milk supplements etc is long overdue as expenses on these items are not cheap to the affected families. I have also noted the scale of the increment, ranging from $50 per month for a 1-person PA household to $130 per month for a 4-person PA household. However, greater clarification and explanation as to how the increment is considered, tabulated and arrived at is required from the relevant ministry.

The Public Assistance Scheme and other ComCare assistance schemes that are currently in place are meant to ease the burden of needy Singaporeans and these assistance schemes come under the purview, management and administration of the Community Development Councils or CDCs in short. Apart from enhancing the various components of assistance, it is also crucial to ensure that the administration of the aid is thorough and effective.

In my last budget speech, I have expressed my concerns that only 6% of the investigative officers from the CDCs are social work trained. This is not only unfortunate but also worrying at the same time. Investigative officers on the ground have to make judgment calls that require the aptitude of trained social work professionals who are able to evaluate the needs of the vulnerable with compassion. With the intake of social work students at the university level remaining constant at about 200 each year, I hope to see more plans to make social work and the study of social services a more attractive option for A levels and polytechnic graduates. There is an urgent need to increase the current pool of social work professionals in the industry. This can come in the form of more scholarships and greater societal and remunerative recognition of their contributions, especially in the context of a rapidly ageing Singapore. I believe that the quality of social services rendered to our people should not be compromised and it is important to have a professionally trained sector so as to minimise the numbers of Singaporeans who falls through the cracks and hence move Singapore a step closer towards a more inclusive society.

DPM Tharman announced that about 20 social service offices would be established to improve the manner in which the government delivers social services. In a Straits Times article on 26 February 2013, it is explained that the social service offices serves as a one-stop centre located closer to homes with the function of planning and coordinating social services to ensure that families get holistic support. In short, it is hoped that the administration of social services can be integrated and any duplication avoided.

However, I remain puzzled by the introduction of another level of bureaucracy to the existing layers of social service structures and support network. While we frown upon a welfare state, we seem to embrace increased bureaucratization in the administration of social welfare support. There are far too many questions than answers and I hope that these questions can be properly addressed.

First, I would like to know which organisations would be given the responsibilities to run and manage these offices. Second, social workers that I have spoken to are interested to know more about the functions of this office and the roles of the officers stationed at these offices and thirdly, is there a requirement for these officers to be social work-trained?

The social service offices appear at first sight, without much explanation to be duplicating the services offered by the Family Service Centres (FSC). From my tenure as a counselor at a FSC, I am aware that a FSC provides Information and Referrals Services (I&R). It also assumes the role as a one-stop centre for residents who are seeking assistance. Basically, the role of a FSC, apart from providing counseling and casework management, is to provide information on the types of community services that are available and wherever necessary conduct the appropriate assessment and recommend referrals to relevant government agencies. There needs to be a clear definition between the different case management roles played by the respective agencies, namely, the CDCs, FSCs and the social service offices. If the social service office does the coordination, then what happens to the case manager at the FSC? How does it differentiate from the Intensive Case Management System being put in place now? Seen in this light, may I ask what makes the social service offices different from the current family service centres that we have and what improvements can social workers on the ground expect from the establishment of a social service office. What would happen to the existing CDCs, FSCs and VWOs structures that are currently in place, recognised and accepted by the people whom we want to help. I hope the DPM can assure social workers and industry professionals on the ground that the social service offices are not merely satellite CDCs, which would then defeat the purpose of the proposal to set up 20 social service offices.

I am of the view that it is far more productive to channel the resources in establishing the social service offices towards enhancing the functions and capabilities of the FSC, which incidentally are located in the neighbourhood. As a member of parliament for Kaki Bukit ward of Aljunied GRC , I can attest to the good work done by the staff and volunteers at the Moral Family Service Centre at Block 534, Bedok North Street 3 and any enhancements of the functions and capabilities of its centre would be most welcome by residents and social workers alike staying and working in my constituency. From my experience as a counselor, greater support would also be welcomed by all concerned and aware of the situation in many of the FSCs across the island. An efficient and productive FSC would be in line with the fourth Pillar of Social Strategy painted by DPM Tharman in his budget speech, that of the role of the community and the government providing strong support for community initiatives by partnering with community bodies and groups of citizens to improve the lives of Singaporeans.

The issues I raised during last year’s and this year’s budgets are not mutually exclusive from one another. In fact in striving for an inclusive society, which is the core principle in last year’s and this year’s budget, these issues are integral and intrinsic components. However, there are no quick solutions to complex issues, especially when it comes to issues over social welfare and the role of the government in welfare support. But as long as any government of the day puts the welfare of its people at the core of its policies, exercising compassion with flexible management of resources while strengthening the social compact, nothing is too difficult to overcome in our quest for a better and more inclusive Singapore.