DPM Lawrence Wong at the Samaritans of Singapore's 55th Anniversary Charity Gala Dinner

PM Lawrence Wong | 4 May 2024

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Samaritans of Singapore's 55th anniversary charity gala dinner on 4 May 2024.

Chairman, and CEO of the Samaritans of Singapore
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I’m very happy to join all of you this evening at SOS’ 55th anniversary.

SOS’ Journey

I’ve had the chance to serve as Patron of SOS since 2011. It’s been a long time, and I’ve seen firsthand the good work done by SOS and your Samaritans, and all your volunteers. I’ve also seen how far SOS has come over the years. In the past, you only had a simple telephone hotline service, but progressively you have improved and expanded your capabilities. Now SOS has a 24-hour telephone and text hotline, email befriending, and counselling services. You provide training to para-counsellors to support individuals with suicide risks and mental health issues. And besides supporting individuals in distress, SOS has also extended support to families who have lost a loved one to suicide. You have widened your reach to the general public – to educate them on how to identify, and support those who are in distress.

Throughout the last 55 years, SOS has saved countless lives, and provided emotional support to countless families who have lost their loved ones to suicide. All this work is only possible because of the commitment and dedication of SOS’ staff, volunteers, as well as the generous support from your donors. So tonight, I want to say a very big thank you to everyone involved in SOS – past and present – for your contributions to this cause. Thank you very much. And I join the CEO in encouraging all of you to please donate generously, step forward and volunteer if you have the time, it’s an important and worthwhile undertaking.

Mental Health Strategy

The work of SOS is in suicide prevention. Of course when someone is in need of help, someone’s in distress, they make a call to the hotline, our Samaritans come forward and they provide assistance. If we are successful in reducing the stigma associated with seeking help, SOS call volumes will increase, you will need more volunteers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because then you will be able to reach out to those in need and hopefully reduce the incidences of suicide in Singapore. At the same time, we also want to intervene upstream, because ideally, we are also able to inoculate people, build them with greater resilience so that they don’t even need to be approaching suicide helplines. If we are successful, your call volumes will go down, you may find yourself out of work. But that’s not a bad thing. Because if we are able to envisage a future where suicide is no longer an option, or where people have greater resilience, then ideally call volumes should come down. And that’s why while we expand outlets for people to seek help, while we provide more support for call centres, provide more channels for people to come forward, we also need to find ways to intervene upstream to strengthen inoculation, and to focus on mental health and well-being.

In fact last year, SMS Janil chaired a taskforce setting out our National Mental Health and Well-being Strategy, and we had a full debate on this in Parliament recently.

Mental health is important, we are paying close attention to it. It is relevant for all ages, but we are also looking at the mental health of our young people in particular, because something has changed over the course of the last 10 years or so. And it’s changed not just in Singapore, but around the world. There has been an increase of mental health concerns amongst young people worldwide. It’s happening in countries everywhere, even in Nordic countries where they are consistently ranked high in global happiness and well-being surveys. You see the same trend, young people, mental health issues, all going up in the last few years.

What’s the reason for this? Why is this new phenomenon happening globally?

Researchers worldwide are still trying to figure it out. One hypothesis, which some people have been highlighting and gaining some traction, is that children are growing up with more of a screen-based childhood, and less of a play-based childhood.

For a long time, independent, free play has been embraced as an important role in healthy child development, because children can stretch their imaginations, learn social skills like conflict resolution and cooperation, and also develop motor skills. So free play is good for kids. But nowadays, instead of going out to play, children are more likely to be glued to the screens of smart phones and tablets.

Some are already exposed at a very age, even when they are infants or toddlers. This can be a problem. In fact, we have done some research in Singapore, and we found that screen time during infancy, because we’ve know of infants who have been exposed, we’ve tracked the development. And screen time during infancy adversely affects development of cognitive skills that are needed for self-regulation and learning, as well as socio-emotional competence as the child grows up. This in turn raises the risk of mental conditions, such as depression.

Of course, as the kids get older, they will inevitably be exposed to screen time and not all screen time is bad. You can watch the news, read a book or do your homework on a tablet. But unfortunately, a lot of the screen time is not spent on these productive activities, it’s spent on social media.

This can be an issue for children during early puberty and when their brains are still developing and growing. Because the constant pressure to present a positive image online, the algorithms that flood news feeds with stories that are designed to spark outrage, and cyber-bullying that sometimes happen – these can all take a toll on one’s mental health. Social media also makes it easier to access information that can lead to risky behaviour, or self-harm, which may increase the likelihood of engaging in such behaviours. And more time spent on social media means less time for sleep, exercise, and real world interactions – all of which are important for healthy brain development for young people.

What can we do going forward? Tonight, I would like to share some areas that we are looking at.

First, we have to consider additional safeguards for our children, particular when it comes to smartphones and social media.

Countries everywhere are grappling with this issue. A few have been pushing for phone-free classrooms and schools. It’s a big problem in some countries where children are allowed to bring their phones right into the classrooms, and so they are completely distracted and pay very little attention to their teachers.

Thankfully, Singapore is in a better position where this is concerned. We already have phone-free classrooms across all our schools. Kids can bring phones to their schools, but they cannot bring phones into the classrooms. This is already the case in Singapore, and we are continuing to see what additional safeguards we can put in place, including recently working with the major tech platforms to introduce robust age requirements on their services, starting with their app stores, such as Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, so that children do not download and access age-inappropriate apps.

Should we do more? Should we go further? That’s something the government will have to consider carefully. We will continue to conduct research to better understand the risks associated with excessive screen time and social media usage. The science will not likely be definitive and exact, and we must be prepared to address the issue even without perfect knowledge.

In fact, the major social media platforms already recognise the risk that their products have on young children. That is why all of them already have an age requirement of 13 before users are allowed to create their own profiles. But the requirement is not tightly enforced, and it’s very easy to circumvent. Any of you with kids, with nieces or nephews below the age of 13, just ask them, do you have a social media account? Technically they’re not supposed to, age requirement is 13. But, I would imagine that many of them actually do. So, should we take this age requirement more seriously? And if we do, is 13 the right age, or should it be older? These are questions we – and in fact societies everywhere – will have to think through carefully.

This is not just a matter of government regulations. Parents also have an important role to play in setting boundaries. For example, there are parental control tools available on social media services for parents to monitor or, if necessary, restrict their time spent on social media and the kind of content consumed by their children. It exists, but our surveys showed that only about half of the parents used these tools today.

Hopefully, with greater public education and awareness, things will change over time. I see more and more parents having conversations with their children about the dangers of addictive online video games and social media. Some say that they will only give their children smart-phones and allow them to set up their own social media accounts when they are older, for example, after 16 years old. Today this group is the minority, but hopefully the minority will grow, more parents will come aboard. And we see this is happening not just in Singapore, but also in other countries.

Of course, limiting the use of smart phones and social media is only part of the equation. It’s equally important for children to take part in arts and sports; enjoy free play; learn to face challenges and be responsible and independent in the real world. These are societal norms which parents themselves can help to shape, so that our children have more space to grow up, and will be able to forge deeper human connections with one another.

So that’s the first area we are looking at, around safeguards and around giving children more space to grow up.

Second, we need to strengthen capabilities to build resilience and provide better social support.

Today, we already have programmes to educate students on cyber-wellness, digital literacy and online safety. Parents also have access to resources to guide their kids. Last year, MOH released guidelines on screen use in children, to provide parents with evidence-based information on healthy screen use for their children. MCI and IMDA, alongside partners like the tech platforms and community organisations, have also put in place a range of educational initiatives to support parents in guiding children to be safe and responsible users of technology.

At KKH and our polyclinics, all parents-to-be and parents of infants are advised that there should be zero screen time for infants, for their first 36 months. This is already the advice going out. How many times have you seen parents give their smartphones to young toddlers just to pacify them. It’s bad practice, and we should not promote it. In fact, zero screen time for infants, for the first 36 months, should be the norm.

So, we can do more, we will do more to educate parents and children. We can probably do more at pre-school, where the great majority of our young attend. They can be taught the basics, but more importantly, through the children, we can share resources and advice with their parents. This is something that MOH, MSF, and ECDA will work on.

Self-initiative matters too. Our own surveys show that young people have the capacity to build resilience. We need to give them the skills to do this better, and faster, so that they will get better through the normal stressors of life, and bounce back from setbacks. Our approach is not to remove all stress. Instead, we want children learn to deal with stress at age-appropriate levels. We want them to develop self-belief and resilience, and grow up with the confidence to tackle the challenges and demands that they will surely encounter in life.

We also know that having good social and family support is critical to improve mental health and mental wellbeing. Strong family support makes a young person feel valued and loved; this enhances their self-esteem and makes them more resilient when facing life’s challenges. Good social support helps young people to cope with stressful and traumatic experiences.

And that is why we are establishing more peer support networks in the community, including in our schools, our Institutes of Higher Learning, workplaces, and even amongst our national servicemen. These networks will have trained peer leaders who can spread the message on the importance of mental health, and provide a first line of response for their friends or colleagues who need help.

Third and finally, we must continue to reduce stigma around mental issues, because stigma deters help-seeking. Stigma reduces a complex and difficult problem into labels or stereotypes. It makes those with mental health issues feel ashamed, isolated, and stops them from seeking treatment. It makes a difficult problem worse.

Fortunately, we see attitudes changing for the better. In the past, people would deal with mental health issues privately. Today, people are more informed and more willing to talk about this openly. But stigma remains, and we can do more to build a society where we help one another cope with life’s stressors. Where we are considerate of others’ feelings, and carve out safe spaces for them. We have set up an SG Mental Well-being Network, we have been linking up with many groups and volunteers, to address the diverse needs of our people, and provide more safe spaces, including for young people to talk about their mental health struggles.

Working Together

So, these three areas which I have outlined just briefly are just some areas of our National Mental Health and Well-being Strategy. There are many other components of this holistic plan, including building capacity, and improving capability and service delivery, we have started work on this strategy.

MOH is in the midst of building up capacity on the ground and working with partners to improve upstream prevention and downstream intervention.

In rolling out these plans, we will work closely with volunteers and with social service agencies on the ground to address the diverse needs of the community. Our plans and approaches will evolve based on your feedback and based on our experience with our partners. Working together is important – that’s why we are setting up the National Mental Health Office, to coordinate our efforts and build networks and partnerships, so that we can share ideas and work with one another.


To conclude, we have come a long way in dealing with issues of mental health in Singapore, but there’s still much more that needs to be done. This is a key priority on our national agenda. But we can only make progress if we work together and we synergise our efforts. I thank SOS for being one such partner, and for the excellent work that you have done these last past 55 years. We will continue to involve you and other stakeholders in fine-tuning and implementing our strategies. Let’s all work together to improve the mental health and well-being of all Singaporeans.

Thank you very much and please enjoy the dinner.