Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Inclusive Business Forum 2022 on Thursday, 25 August 2022 at Mediacorp Campus.
Chairman and CEO of SG Enable,
Parliamentary Colleagues Mr Eric Chua and Ms Denise Phua,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to join you today at this year’s Inclusive Business Forum. I am heartened to see so many businesses leaders gathered together today to discuss best practices for disability-inclusive hiring.
The last time this forum was organised was two years ago, just after the circuit breaker and we had a bit of respite. Since then, we have been through ups and downs and some difficult times through the pandemic. And businesses have been impacted, especially F&B and hospitality. These are also the sectors that traditionally hire persons with disabilities, so that roller coaster ride has also impacted people with disabilities.
But every crisis has a silver lining. In the case of Covid, it has forced us to relook our work practices in ways which have the potential to make our society more inclusive than ever. For example, companies are making greater use of technology to facilitate work. And this has helped make employers more open to working with assistive technologies that help persons with disabilities function in the workplace, technologies like speech recognition software, screen readers and other accessibility features. More companies are embracing flexible work arrangements too, and this can also help facilitate employment for persons with disabilities. Furthermore, in the current very tight labour market which I am sure all the business leaders here can attest to, employers are more and more prepared to hire persons with disabilities, and give them a chance to fill some of the labour market gaps that they experience.
Partly because of these reasons, I am glad that more persons with disabilities have become employed in recent years. Despite challenges of the pandemic, the resident employment rate for this group has increased from 28% in 2019 to 30% last year.
This is good but we can and must do better. Because as we look to the future, what is clear is that the continued success of Singapore will rely not just on how much economic growth we can generate, but how inclusive we can become as a society. We have to do more to ensure everyone can participate fully in the progress of our nation. And for persons with disabilities, we will have to build on what we have achieved so far.
And that is why, to do this, we will take a major step forward to support their employment. The new Enabling Masterplan Steering Committee has convened, and they released their recommendations last week. It is a very comprehensive report. I thank the steering committee of the Enabling Masterplan, co-chaired by Mr Gan Seow Kee and Mr Eric Chua, as well as everyone who chipped in into this process – thank you for your inputs. We have a solid roadmap to guide our way to 2030. This includes a new target of achieving an employment rate of 40% for persons with disabilities by 2030, up from 30% today. That’s 10 percentage points. That’s 10,000 people. It’s an ambitious target. But it is achievable. Consider how many companies we have in Singapore. A few hundred thousand. We can certainly make a difference and get more companies to come onboard to offer jobs for persons with disabilities and reach 40%. Hopefully, we can reach it even earlier than 2030, and we can set an even higher target after that.
For its part, the Government will continue to play a key role to support the employability of persons with disabilities. We already offset up to 20% of their wages through the Enabling Employment Credit and we defray up to 90% of the cost of workplace modifications and equipment, this is to help companies accommodate their unique needs. SG Enable also plays a critical role, providing job matching services and will be doing more to facilitate successful job placements, such as through training and job coaching support.
The Government will do everything we can. We will continue to review our policies and programmes and the kinds of help that we extend to companies. But ultimately companies play the most important role. And if we want to see a sustainable improvement in the employment outcomes of persons with disabilities, businesses must see it in their interest to hire such people – not just out of charity or social good alone, but because businesses truly believe in the benefits of disability-inclusive hiring.
The good news is that more and more employers are coming round to this perspective. More and more employers see that disability-inclusive hiring makes good business sense. SG Enable has done a study, and they found that employees working in companies with a disability-inclusive practices tend to report a greater sense of purpose, leading to higher retention rates amongst existing staff and a greater focus on customer needs, because the employees become more empathetic and aware of individual differences. The companies themselves also tend to have a more collaborative and innovative culture, with employees more open to discussing new ideas.
And that is why I think more and more business leaders like yourself and employees, seeing these benefits, are taking the plunge and successfully hiring persons with disabilities. We already have more companies being accredited with the Enabling Mark, which is a national accreditation by SG Enable that recognises organisations for their best practices and outcomes in disability-inclusive employment. Many of you here are companies with this Enabling Mark. You will hear from some of these companies during the panel discussions. But allow me to share the inspiring journeys of a few companies.
One example is Microsoft (Singapore). Microsoft started their disability-inclusive journey with SG Enable in 2018. They offered internships to students with disabilities from our Institutes of Higher Learning. SG Enable supported this by providing Disability Awareness training to co-workers and supervisors to help create an inclusive workplace for the interns. And after the initial collaboration with interns, Microsoft started recruiting full-time candidates through SG Enable's training and career fairs. Today, Microsoft has gone a step further to launch its Asia-Pacific Enabler Programme, to help its commercial partners in the region to hire persons with disabilities. So not just Microsoft for itself but reaching out and engaging its partners. Through its efforts, Microsoft (Singapore) has offered opportunities to many people with disabilities. One example is Raymond Zheng, who has a visual impairment. Supported by Microsoft and SG Enable, Raymond was able to participate in a fully virtual internship with Microsoft during the pandemic. And now, he is a Data Scientist with NTT Data Singapore, a Microsoft Enabler Program partner.
It is not just large companies like Microsoft which are adopting disability-inclusive employment practices. Local SMEs are doing their part too. One example is Thong Siek Food Industry. You may not have heard of the name, but you may be more familiar with their product, which is the DoDo brand of fishballs, which can be found in our supermarkets. Thong Siek’s journey started in 2017, when it partnered SG Enable to hire persons with hearing impairment in office administration support roles. It then moved on to hiring persons with intellectual disability in its food manufacturing assembly line. SG Enable supported them in helping modify job tasks and coaching their employees with disabilities to get familiarised with the work. Through this journey, the company has found that the turnover rate for persons with disabilities is lower than those of other workers. They have found benefits from hiring persons with disabilities, and they intend to sustain their hiring going forward.
The public service is also doing its part to become disability-inclusive too. One of the agencies under my ministry, the Ministry of Finance, is VITAL. It provides corporate shared services for the entire public service. VITAL has been working with SG Enable to hire autistic individuals to assist with digitising hardcopy documents. Since then, VITAL has continued to curate suitable job opportunities for persons with disabilities. Today, VITAL employs them in various functions, not just digitalising hardcopy payments, but also payroll and claims.
These are just a few examples. There are many more companies in Singapore doing their part in different ways. And I want to encourage everyone of you here to be our ambassadors – Get the message out to many more companies. There are so many businesses and corporate leaders, we will try our best to reach out to them as Government, but the best way to engage them and to change these mindsets is often through peer influence, and sometimes a little bit of peer pressure. So, all of you can help us. Be our ambassadors, be our influencers. Talk to your friends in the industry, persuade them, show them the benefits of disability inclusive hiring practices. Ultimately, if we work in close partnership – government and employers – we can make a meaningful difference to the lives of the persons with disabilities in Singapore.
I know perhaps that there are companies out there who are thinking about starting their own disability-inclusive journey, but you are worried about the challenges, wondering whether or not to do so. To these companies, I would say this: First, start small and build your confidence from there. You can do what Microsoft (Singapore) did, as I highlighted just now. Start with an internship programme, or as Thong Siek did, start with just a few full-time hires. Start small, build confidence and then take it one step at a time. Second, remember that small initiatives can make a huge difference to the lives of persons with disabilities. Even an internship opportunity is meaningful, because it is an opportunity to pick up valuable skills and experience, which can help them for their next job. Finally, do not worry about the challenges, because SG Enable will be there to help support you in different ways – from job matching and training, to job redesign and grant support. We will walk the journey together with you.
Ultimately, persons with disabilities do want to work and, if given the chance, have many valuable skills to offer. And as a society, we owe it to them to give them the opportunity. So, let’s all do our part to get 40% of persons with disabilities employed by 2030. If we can do it earlier, so much the better.
Besides employment, we are also looking at other ways to build a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities. In fact, we have come a long way since the first Enabling Masterplan was launched in 2007. In education for example, we have extended Compulsory Education to students with moderate-to-severe special educational needs, and we have enhanced the ecosystem of support in both mainstream and Special Education schools. We have also worked to improve the accessibility of our infrastructure, by making our public housing estates barrier free, and our public buses and bus stops wheelchair accessible.
Nevertheless, there remain areas where we can do better, such as helping families with the cost of managing disability, providing greater assurance for caregivers, or making it easier for parents to provide for the long-term needs of their children with special needs.
In many of these areas, the solutions do not just lie with the Government alone. We need employers to do your part. We also need community groups to step forward. This is how we can refresh and strengthen our social compact – because it’s about how each of us – as individuals, community organisations, and employers – can contribute in some way to the common good; it’s about how all of us can come together to take on the shared responsibilities of caring for the more vulnerable segments of our society. And it’s about all of us remembering that we must always have a place in our hearts and lives for people with disabilities, because they are our brothers and sisters, and an integral part of our Singapore family. Under the Forward Singapore exercise which we are undertaking now, we will continue to engage different groups, take in feedback, study the issues, and consider what further moves we can make to be more inclusive and provide better care and support for people with disabilities.
Ultimately, if we put our minds to it, we can build a better society. A society that celebrates and values all individuals for who they are, and what they can achieve. That rewards a wide variety of talents, and not a conventional or narrow few. That provides every Singaporeans with opportunities to do better throughout their lives.
That is what we aim to achieve with Forward Singapore, and I look forward to engaging all of you to write this next chapter of our Singapore Story together. Thank you very much.
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