DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at launch of book "How Working Together Matters: Adversity, Aspiration, Action"

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 27 November 2018

Speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, at book launch of "How Working Together Matters: Adversity, Aspiration, Action" at the School of Law, Singapore Management University on 27 November 2018.


SMS Maliki, Prof David Chan, Dr Sudha Nair, and everyone who has been part of Project 4650, thank you for inviting me to join you at this launch.

It is a real privilege to be here, standing in front of this rather tall rostrum. The reason why it is tall, is because the title you see on it is not ‘How Working Matters’ but ‘How Working Together Matters’. “Together” added about six inches but it was worth it. Working together raises all of us.

It is an important book, and a beautiful book I would say, because it is about dignity, it is about pride, and it is about how, through collective action, we can help people to restore and build dignity and pride. The whole book is ultimately about that.

A second reason why it is an important book – it is about learning from experience. Social work and policy is really about learning from experience. It is not about starting from ideological precepts. We all have our precepts, nothing wrong in that. But we can only act effectively by learning from experience. Never stick to a precept for too long if it is not born out by experience. And this book tells us of how a group of people, playing different roles in Project 4650, were really learning from experience, and how the individuals and the families who were involved were themselves growing through this experience of interaction with them, and building confidence for themselves. So this was not an academic exercise, nor was it an exercise of simply supporting people. It was about moving together and moving up.

The fact that you recorded these experiences in this book will allow us to learn from them as we go about the continuous task of helping people to bounce up from difficulty.

I will highlight a few things that I learnt from the book and which I felt were important. First, the experience of Project 4650 shows us how collective action and personal responsibility are not at odds with each other. There is no contradiction in the two going together. They are really a compact: how we go about exercising collective action, how we go about engaging with individuals and families in difficulty, determines in a very important way, whether they are able to take charge of their lives, build up the confidence and develop their own success in a way that preserves dignity and preserves their pride.

How we go about it is critical. It is not just about collective action in the form of financial support, although that is also important. It is about building relationships, developing trust, and partnering a family in difficulty as they move forward. If we simply leave it to people to fend for themselves, or to develop self-reliance on their own, it will be much less likely that we achieve what we want as a society – a place with social mobility and where people are able to bounce up from difficulty. That’s the case in every society - personal values and motivation are critical for social mobility but they do not spring up on their own. They are always shaped in a context: family expectations, peer expectations, teachers’ expectations, even the expectations of others living nearby. All these expectations become norms, and they shape personal values and aspirations.

And it is everyone’s responsibility to shape these norms, and help build this positive circle of aspirations and practical ambition. It’s this circle of aspiration that helps individuals to develop a sense of personal responsibility, that desire to earn their own dignity as they go about succeeding in life, and that desire to help others take responsibility too.

The importance of these relationships and networks comes through very strongly in the book. The relationship, of course, between social worker and the family or individual, comes through very strongly. Peer support also comes through.

And it is important to bear in mind that relationships between people of different social backgrounds is also a very important part of these positive networks that we are trying to create. It helps for people of different social backgrounds to be engaged together, developing those positive networks that lead to practical ambition and the desire on everyone’s part to aspire and to move up for themselves.

So that is the first point I wanted to highlight – that collective action, done the right ways, and personal responsibility, are in practice a compact. They are not in contradiction with each other.

The second point that comes through very much in the book is the importance of empathy. Here too we shouldn’t think that there is some contradiction between being empathetic, and guiding people to make the decisions that are in their own interests. We do have to guide people to make the right decisions, as best we can. But it is very hard to guide people to make the right decisions if we do not earn their trust. It starts with empathy, and putting ourselves in their shoes. People know when you are really listening, they know when you really care, and they sense it very quickly. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, understand and appreciate the difficulties they are going through, and understand too the sheer stress of what they may be going through, in order to earn their trust.

And as the book shows, when we earn people’s trust, we are much better able to guide them towards the decisions that are in their own interests. It may be about getting good jobs, or about how to budget for the family, or making the right choices for children.

So we cannot shrink from wanting to guide people towards making the decisions that will help them move out of difficulty, but we can only do that when we earn their trust, and it starts with empathy. Empathy on the part of the social worker, on the part of everyone else involved in the community - fellow residents, volunteers –  and empathy on the part of those of us who are in government. We have to earn people’s trust when they are down, in order to guide them to make the decisions that are in their interests.

Third point I wanted to make was the importance of helping people to relieve the mental stress when you are in financial difficulty. We have to reduce the time and mental effort needed to gain access to government support schemes, as we have been doing. We have to simplify how a person in difficulty can get access to support schemes. Simplify eligibility. And do backend coordination among agencies rather than expect the individual to navigate between agencies. This is the direction we have been moving towards. For example, our SSOs are linking up their systems with the hospitals so that we have a single assessment of a person’s needs, and we do not put them through two rounds of financial assessment.

That is also why it is helpful, as the book points out, for a family to have a single, dedicated social worker so they do not need to be talking, and repeating their stories, to many people. Having a dedicated social worker, who has earned the trust of the family, also helps reduce the stress of financial difficulty.

Fourth lesson is a broader one, about how we go about government strategies towards achieving our social objectives – social mobility, mitigating inequality and helping people to bounce up from difficulties. Those are our basic objectives. Keep social mobility going. Mitigate inequalities where we can. And help people bounce up from life’s inevitable difficulties. And how do we go about it is as important as how much we do.

We must remain focused on encouraging people to be able to make the most out of an education, jobs, and owning a home. Because those are things that give people the dignity and pride that comes from earning their own success. Focus on education, on work and housing as the pillars of our social strategies.

It’s the way in which we preserve that sense of personal responsibility. And it is also the way in which we preserve a society where trust is preserved because everyone knows that everyone else is putting in the effort for themselves. We must never lose that trust among people, where everyone knows that someone else deserves help because they are not just getting help but will put in the effort to help themselves.

It is the way we preserve that positive culture in our society. Where people in different walks of life are aspiring, they know they have the support to help them bounce up when they run into difficulty, and they know that others deserve help because they too will put in the effort to help themselves

So those are some of the lessons that I take away from this book. It is a book about learning from experience. It is a book about passion. And it is a book about everyone taking responsibility for each other, and actively helping those who are down to bounce up and earn their own success.