Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Social Service Offices (SSOs) 10th Anniversary Celebration on 19 October 2023.
My Parliamentary Colleagues
SSO Officers and Community Partners
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join all of you today for our Social Service Office's or SSO’s 10th anniversary. Happy 10th birthday to our SSOs.
As you saw from the video clip just now, we started the SSOs ten years ago. We set up our pioneering two SSOs – here in Kreta Ayer, and in Jalan Besar.
The idea was to create a dedicated frontline office on the ground:
To make the provision of financial assistance more accessible to those in need.
To improve social service delivery by integrating our efforts with community partners. The keywords, as you heard repeatedly in the video, were Comprehensive, Convenient and Coordinated.
At that time when we started out, we had to scramble to get things going.
We had to hire staff very quickly – we started with officers from the CDCs, and then we progressively recruited more to join the SSO team.
We had to scramble too, to find space in the community, which is not easy as many of you know. Finding space is always a challenge – all void deck spaces are typically already taken up. For example, the SSO in Jalan Besar had to be set up in the squash court and classrooms of Jalan Besar CC. That’s how we started – whatever we could find, improvising along the way.
Since then, our SSOs have come a very long way. Today, we have established 24 SSOs across all HDB towns, all well-manned and with, I hope, good offices.
Working together with local partners in the community, our SSOs have helped to strengthen our network of social support across Singapore.
Together with the Social Service Agencies and other community partners in every town, the SSOs help to map out local social needs, identify where the gaps are, and help step up provision of relevant social services.
SSOs help to ensure better coordination especially for the more complex cases which involve multiple social interventions across various organisations.
SSOs work closely with community partners and mobilise them to do more for vulnerable groups.
Most notably, our SSOs provide a tremendous help for residents and we saw that especially during COVID-19 – SSOs were the critical touchpoint for the community in every HDB town, delivering much needed COVID-19 support schemes to our families in need.
All this is only possible due to the commitment and dedication of our SSO officers – not just in carrying out their day-to-day duties, but also in proactively identifying ways to improve our social support system.
So today, let me put on record our appreciation to all SSO officers for their dedicated service over the past 10 years. Thank you all very much.
Of course, the SSOs could not have done all this without the strong partnership of our many community partners – and many of you are here today with us for this 10th anniversary event. We would also like to have a big shout-out to all partners - thank you for your strong support too!
The impact that we have achieved in these last ten years shows that we achieve more when we work together. This is crucial in our next bound because the challenges of confronting inequality and sustaining social mobility in Singapore will only get tougher over time. It is not unique to Singapore – these are challenges faced in countries everywhere. But this is all the more reason for us to redouble our efforts and work together to tackle them.
In particular, we know that lower-income families often face more complex and multi-faceted challenges. When the parents struggle, their children will tend to have a less secure upbringing, and can easily fall behind their peers.
That’s why the SSOs set up Community Link or ComLink a few years ago.
The idea was to go one step further – not just to do coordination at the town level, but to take a family-centric approach.
To provide intensive and holistic support across a range of needs for these ComLink families, from employment assistance to child development.
To customise interventions for each family, so that they can stabilise their situations, become self-reliant, and achieve sustainable progress.
We have since rolled out ComLink across all HDB towns with rental flats and we have helped many ComLink families over the last few years to work towards a better future for themselves and their families. These ComLink families tell us that they appreciate the customised support, which they find more impactful than just applying for a general ComCare assistance. As you saw from the video just now, we have ComLink families who are benefitting from the customised interventions and truly making progress in their lives.
But we also know, despite these efforts, that there is still more to be done. We can see early signs that social stratification is becoming more entrenched. In the past we mostly had older folks staying in our rental flats; nowadays we see more families with young children staying in these flats, and they are there for longer durations too.
As part of the Forward Singapore exercise, which we have been undertaking for about a year now, we have been focusing on this matter. We have engaged many groups, including social workers - some of you may have participated in these conversations. We have sought your feedback and inputs on how all of us can do more to help lower-income families build better lives, while respecting their dignity and sense of agency. In other words, the government wants to do more, but we want to do in a way that empowers these families too.
What do we seek to achieve?
One, we would like to further reduce income inequality in our society. We have made progress in this particular goal over the last decade – our income inequality has been coming down – but we want to do even better. That is why the government has been tilting its policies in favour of the lower-income groups, and we will continue to do so.
Second, more than just closing the income gap, we want to ensure that no family in Singapore gets trapped in a permanent underclass. That means we have to do more to help – not just the parents, but also ensure that their children have access to full and fair opportunities early in life.
What can we do to achieve these goals? Let me share some of the ideas that we have been thinking about as part of our Forward Singapore deliberations.
First, we would like to equip and train ComLink officers to become Family Coaches. As Family Coaches, they will work more closely with each family to coach and motivate them towards achieving their goals. The ComLink officers will also no longer just coordinate social support services, but they will play a stronger role to work with each family to determine the customised support each family needs. This will ensure that ComLink families receive the right level of support at the right time.
Second, to make the first idea work, we will also need to help our Family Coaches. The Government will provide ComLink families with additional support. This additional support will be tied to specific action plans that are jointly developed between the Family Coaches and the ComLink families.
We can consider a higher quantum of support, or even longer-term support, to families that make progress in areas like staying employed, saving to buy a home or ensuring their children attend preschool regularly.
Family Coaches will be able to use this support to encourage and motivate the families to work towards their success.
The additional support will also help ease the families’ short-term financial pressures, even as they make progress towards their longer-term goals.
Third, we want to mobilise more people to join us in uplifting our ComLink families together, so that it is not just Government, SSOs and ComLink officers working as Family Coaches now, but we get more people in the community involved.
There are many ways to participate.
We do need more individuals to join us and serve as volunteer befrienders, alongside the Family Coaches. Volunteer befrienders play a crucial role in helping to understand the needs of these families, and to provide emotional support as they work to overcome their challenges, as you saw some of them featured in the video just now.
Volunteer befrienders is not just a touch-and-go relationship. Volunteer befrienders have to commit to working with the ComLink families over a meaningful period of time, and that commitment is crucial to establish the rapport and the relationship of trust, so that they can help see the families through the ups and downs of their journey. It is not easy to find a good match for every family, so we do need more volunteer befrienders to join us and we hope that many more Singaporeans will come forward to support this very important effort.
Another way to get involved is to encourage and invite those who have done well in life, Singaporeans who have done well for themselves, to support programmes that uplift the lives of our ComLink families. We will reach out to encourage and motivate high net worth individuals and families to participate and donate. These donors can certainly make an impact in many ways, such as through financial contributions, or they can provide mentorship opportunities or even provide job or internship opportunities to help the children of these families build social capital and networks. We will make a concerted effort to reach out to these individuals who have done well, so that they can find meaningful ways to give back and uplift their fellow citizens.
Another way is to involve more businesses and to get the employers to do their part. Some already provide strong support for ComLink today. For example, DBS has been providing customised financial literacy programmes for ComLink families, while OCBC staff have been stepping forward as volunteer befrienders. There are many others, but we want to encourage more corporates to join us in this effort.
Besides these ideas around Family Coaches, additional support and more community participation, we are also looking at other ways to uplift the lower-income groups in Singapore, especially families with younger children.
We are looking at how we can provide more help to uplift their wages and retirement income.
We are seeing how to provide more help to enable them to purchase their own homes.
We are considering how we can enable them to enrol their children in pre-school at an early age, one that is near their homes, with subsidised fees that are affordable.
These are some of the ideas we have been thinking about and are continuing to develop under the Forward Singapore exercise.
It is still being fleshed out. We will release a report soon and you will get a sense of the broad range of recommendations.
But the bottom line is that we have a full agenda ahead of us. We will take bold steps to uplift our lower-income Singaporeans, and to keep social mobility alive and well in Singapore.
This requires intensive efforts by all of us – not just the Government doing more, but also our employers, social workers, educationists, unions, community groups, and of course the individuals and families themselves.
All this means the mission and work of SSOs will be more important than before. Your next 10 years will be busier than your first 10 years.
But that is a good thing because I think it is a meaningful mission for all of us to put focus on. If we work together, we can achieve even better outcomes.
To conclude, the direction for our road ahead is clear: we want to see a fairer, more equal and more inclusive Singapore. Together, let us make this vision a reality.
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