Press | Hands and legs needed for policy measures to be rolled out successfully


Words by Lim Boon Heng

This article was originally published in The Straits Times on 22nd December 2018

Go beyond asking why inequality takes place, to stepping up to help low-income families

During the year, there had been discussions in different forums on inequality in Singapore society. These discussions suggest that the Government has not done enough to uplift the poorer among us.

What has been done to uplift the poor?

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has published an occasional paper that sets out what the Government does to uplift the poor - wage top-ups for all workers earning less than $2,000 a month, the Silver Support Scheme for seniors, a wage ladder through the Progressive Wage Model, and government transfers (rebates for service and conservancy charges, rebates for rent, utility vouchers, goods and services tax vouchers, and Chas, the Community Health Assist Scheme).

A fair amount has been devoted to the children of poor families, to bring them as close to the starting line as other children. There are assistance programmes such as the Centre-based Financial Assistance Scheme for Child Care and the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme, as well as KidStart.

Thousands of children benefit every year. No doubt, there will be families that for various reasons are unable to fully benefit. We can do more, with community support. It will mean people stepping forward to lend a hand to families facing multiple challenges. It is not just money - it also means time, and adjusting our own schedules when help is needed.

One strand of discussion on inequality suggests that mixing the poor with those who are better off leads to the poor losing self-esteem. This set me thinking. How do we bridge the divide?

Segregate, or continue to integrate? Is segregation the answer? If we want those who are better off to be able to help the poor, proximity makes it easier to do so.

For children of pre-school age, NTUC First Campus has made a modest contribution. It has a policy of giving priority registration to children from low-income families.

Today, 15 per cent of its children are from low-income families. It provides further support through the Bright Horizons Fund. It found that it is not enough to get the children to pre-school - there is a need to help families solve other problems, working with government agencies. As for the children, they get the same quality of teaching and care as all other children.

In addition, the Bright Horizons Fund provides well-being and learning programmes to give these children equal opportunities in their pre-school years. And I am sure the better-off children get to learn that in society there are people less well off than they are, and this may help them to appreciate what they have.

So we did not segregate. We think children of diverse backgrounds should study and play together. I believe that the low-income should live side by side with those who are better off. Their environment should not be poorer than the rest of society. Our focus should be on how to give the lower-income a hand.

What about those who falter in school? Does the Government help them when they stumble?

Let me relate two experiences.

A young girl, accompanied by her grandmother, came to see me at a Meet-the-People Session some years ago. Her O-level results were not good enough for her to enrol in a polytechnic. Instead, she was told that she qualified for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). She wanted to appeal to be allowed to register for a polytechnic.

I could tell that her mood was down. I told her that she could complete her ITE course, and then go on to a polytechnic. "Mr Lim," she said, "ITE - It's The End!" Her whole future seemed to have collapsed in front of her. I told her I would try, but she should keep the ITE option open.

As expected, the appeal to the Ministry of Education (MOE) was unsuccessful. I encouraged her to give the ITE a try. She was dejected, but felt there was no other choice. I think she felt she had a bleak future.

The ITE term opened. She went to ITE College West. On the same night, she came to see me at my Meet-the-People Session, with a smile on her face. She said: "Mr Lim, it's all right, I can do ITE! The campus is fantastic, it's like a university!"

NTUC First Campus

For children of pre-school age, NTUC First Campus (above) has made a modest contribution, says the writer. It has a policy of giving priority registration to children from low-income families. Today, 15 per cent of its children are from such families, while it provides further support through the Bright Horizons Fund | Photo credit: Straits Times

In the months that followed, her grandmother told me that the girl was very happy at ITE. The grandmother had to keep pushing her to study when she was in secondary school, but now there was no such need. The girl was so motivated by the environment and the staff at ITE.

She went on to complete her polytechnic diploma.

The second story is about Assumption Pathway School. After the success of NorthLight School, the MOE encouraged the Brothers of St Gabriel - they had run a vocational institute - to do a second NorthLight, looking after pupils who failed Primary 6.

One of my former schoolmates, Mr Gabriel Teo, was roped in to head the project. He had left the banking sector and gone into headhunting services. He accepted the challenge and had ideas of his own on what could be done for that segment of youth.

He soon found that many of the pupils were resigned to be failures with little hope for their future. He found that a key factor for success was to show them that if they applied themselves, they could have a good future. He told me: "These are pupils who have known only failure their whole life. They need to taste success!"

So one of the programmes he initiated was to have groups of them climb Mount Kinabalu. The school then channelled them to courses that played to their aptitudes and strengths. From a feeling of hopelessness, the pupils were transformed into believing "Yes, I can!"

Then what about those who struggle to find jobs and settle into them?

During his stint in national service, Mr Victor Zhu served alongside other young men from diverse social and educational backgrounds. He noted that even though these young men did not excel academically, they were a very smart lot who could work really well. He thought: "Can society give them a chance?" If they could learn to package and present themselves and pick up skills, they could land better jobs.

So Mr Zhu, now a National University of Singapore student, rounded up a dozen more like-minded young people, and Hatch was born. Details of Hatch can be found at

Hatch borrowed space from the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute at NTUC Centre, One Marina Boulevard, to conduct a training workshop for young people identified by the MSF and youth organisations, and matches them with start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises.

What do these three real-life stories tell me? Yes, it is good that we have concerned citizens who highlight the shortcomings of our society. But it should not end with putting the onus on the Government to solve societal issues with policy measures alone. Policy measures need hands and legs to carry them out successfully.

Uplifting the lives of those who are less well off in our society requires people with imagination, like the people who transformed ITE, like my former schoolmate Gabriel Teo, who helped pupils without hope into believing in themselves. Like Bright Horizons Fund's staff, who work hard to connect the dots for low-income families. Like Mr Zhu, who rounded up friends to start Hatch.

We have others, too, who go beyond saying something should be done to actually doing something that may help the disadvantaged, using their imagination to come up with new programmes, and are tenacious in seeing the programmes through, tweaking them where necessary, from experience. I am aware that in many constituencies there are activists who do this. They are the unsung heroes of our society.

They did not stop at asking "Why?" They asked themselves: "What can I do?" My hope is that we will have more people coming forward to help in the cause of uplifting the poorer among us.

  • Lim Boon Heng is a former secretary-general of labour movement NTUC.
  • This article is adapted from a memo he wrote to NTUC staff.

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