DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the CSR and Social Innovators Forum

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 1 September 2016 | ​

Speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, at the opening of the CSR and Social Innovators Forum on 1 September 2016.


This is an interesting confluence of people and ideas, at an interesting time. We are seeing the enthusiasm grow for social initiatives in one form or another; VWOs, social enterprises, or even commercial businesses who just want to do some good. There is a whole range of initiative that is growing in Singapore, and in the region around us, and I think there is still a lot of potential for it to grow.

In Singapore, it is partly generational. You find that amongst younger people there is this desire that’s coming out, to do good for the community. It may be partly coming out of education, partly out of their own interactions, partly out of observing what is happening around the rest of the world, but you can see and feel this desire to do good for the community, and to do it in a different way. There’s a desire to not just replicate what is being done, or replicate what the government is doing, but to find their own ways of doing things.

And that’s why we talk about innovation in social initiative. It’s because people want to do things their way, the way that they feel is most meaningful, and sometimes using new skills and new technologies that they bring.

Co-creating solutions

So things are moving, but there’s a lot of potential left to go. The broad reason why we in government want to encourage this is, because at the end of the day, whichever social problems or challenges we look at, we need a variety of approaches.

We need government policies, be it subsidies or incentives, or programmes organised by government in partnership with others. These tend to be developed nationally, and we find a way of implementing them on the ground.

But it is critical that we also have ground-up initiative. Groups of individuals, or organisations that are working on the ground, coming up with their own initiatives. It is critical for so many reasons. First, social initiatives are human initiatives. They really rely on human relationships, built up over time, and regular contact, friendships, and the trust that develops from human relationships. No government scheme can replicate that. It is something that is intrinsically about human relationships on the ground.

There is another reason too, and social science tells us something about what it is that really changes people’s motivations and behaviour. The incentives or penalties that are inherent in most government schemes around the world can only go so far. Because what social science tell us is that most individuals are motivated to do things, or to change their behaviour, based on intrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivations. They do what they like to do. What they find meaningful. What they feel matters most to them or their family. It is intrinsic motivations that at the end of the day shape behaviour. Incentives, sanctions, all the usual instruments of government policy anywhere in the world, are helpful but they only succeed where they are matched by individuals’ intrinsic motivations. And you can best shape these motivations through interactions, relationships, and the nudging that comes from the expectations of each other that are developed through those relationships on the ground.

So we’ve got to find ways of encouraging ground-up initiative, and encouraging it in a way that does not end up being top-down. One of the ways that the government agencies are doing it is by organising programmes to co-create solutions. In other words, they identify problems together with the community, and then they ask for solutions. There are some very good examples already, and I have some here that I would like to mention.

One of the examples involves the National Environment Agency together with Garuda Robotics. They have co-created a solution that involves drones which can be deployed to drop larvicide on roof gutters, which are often difficult to reach. They started because of dengue, which is a perennial problem, endemic, and it is also relevant now because of Zika, or anything that the Aedes mosquito carrie. Basically we’ve got to prevent breeding. And this is an interesting example of how technology, enterprise, and a social mission come together.

Another example which I found interesting, and this was in fact recognised in the DesignSingapore Council’s 2016 Designathon, calling for designs to meet problems of the day, is an innovation by a group called Team k.a.y.a. They designed an air cushion for the elderly, and what it does is promote micro exercises. Older folk often stay seated for a long time. The cushion will make it easy for them to get some micro exercise, and also gives them a push-assist when they need to get up. Simple, but meaningful. Another example of how design and social initiative comes together.

We are seeing a whole spectrum of initiatives by what we broadly call social enterprises. Some do not have a clear commercial motivation. Others are fully consistent with a commercial motivation, and the social mission is itself a source of competitiveness. I’ll give you some examples along this spectrum.

At the less commercial end of the spectrum, we have organisations like “(these)abilities”. It is a social enterprise started by Ken Chua and Christabella Irwanto, and their mission is to “disable disabilities”. They realised that our public buses have limited ability to take more than one wheelchair user at a time. Most of the time that is all right, but sometimes it’s not all right. So they have devised an accessory that can be added on to our existing public buses to enable another wheelchair user to be on board. It required a lot of work – a lot of design thinking and verification, and we get a practical solution to a problem that they identified by studying the problem, and I think it is a very good example. They are exploring if they can place this on buses in Singapore.

Another example is “PsychKick”. PsychKick is an app. It came out of the personal experience of Ms Shafiqah Nurul Afiqah Ramani. She found that there is a high drop-out rate in psychotherapy, typically among people who are suffering from depression and have to go through their treatment and meet their psychotherapists regularly. But there is a high drop-out rate. Part of the reason is because there is little contact between them and their psychotherapist in between appointments. So what the team behind PsychKick did is to create an app which allows the psychotherapists to be in constant communication with their patients, engaging with them, monitoring them, assigning them tasks, and it keeps the relationship active. We can all know intuitively how much it can help.

Sustainable / Scalable Social Enterprise

Going to the other end of the spectrum, to initiatives that gel very well with the commercial motivation. I think some of you know about billionBricks, an international non-profit based in Singapore. They design and build homes for the homeless around Asia and elsewhere, but they’re quite innovative in the way they go about it. For instance, canvas tents are not very weatherproof – they’re good for normal conditions but they’re not very good at blocking out heat from the sun, or blocking out the cold or heavy winds and rain. The other problem is that the truly weatherproof shelters are typically communal shelters rather than family shelters, but communal shelters are usually gender-differentiated. So you want the family to live together, but in a weatherproof tent. That’s why they devised the weatherHyde tent. It’s weatherproof, it also has a reflective layer that can be turned either way, so that in winter it traps body heat, and in summer it reflects solar rays. Interesting idea, and this is an enterprise that is scaling up, it’s commercially viable, but it’s viable because it’s also meeting a social mission.

Another example that I will mention is Domestos, which is an arm of Unilever. Domestos, for those of you who not familiar with it, is a toilet cleaning product used in many countries. They’ve decided, apart from marketing their toilet cleaning products, to go about helping people build toilets – which you know, in many parts of the world, is still a very severe gap. . So they partnered with NGOs, first to provide education on sanitation, but also to help small entrepreneurs go about building toilets, and maintaining toilets. They did that as part of a social mission, but it helps them commercially as well, because they are selling a toilet cleaning product. So commercial instinct came together very well with the social instinct. They’ve also teamed up with Singapore-based WTO, which is the World Toilet Organisation, to organise the Urgent Run, which is a charity fun run held in over 30 countries so far to raise awareness on sanitation.

Doing good within business organisations

One interesting thing that comes about when companies take social initiative is that it tends to change organisational culture. When companies do good for the community, something happens in their internal culture. This has been shown in many cases around the world, and in the cases that we have seen in Singapore, of enterprises that go out of their way to inject a social mission into their activities. Something happens in their culture. People are more motivated to come to work, they like why they are working for, and they develop a different type of relationship amongst themselves as employees. They are not just employees, but citizens with an added mission amongst themselves.

I want to end by highlighting that while not every corporation will be very active in pursuing a social mission, every employer can be an inclusive employer.

Every employer can be an inclusive employer by hiring persons with disabilities. It is not widespread today, but it must become widespread.

We have some good examples. RMA Contracts, for instance is a business process outsourcing operator, and they have made it a point to hire persons with disabilities. They reorganised their work process, and have hired more than 20 persons with either hearing or physical disabilities.

Another good example is Barclays Bank. Barclays in Singapore has taken a very deliberate approach towards inclusive hiring. They have set up an internal Disability Network and make sure that every person with disability that they hire is matched with someone else in the organisation, a mentor of sorts, someone to guide them along the way.

It’s actually not very difficult. It just requires a mindset of wanting to do good. And the easiest way in which every company can do good is by being an inclusive employer.

My congratulations once again to both the Global Compact Network Singapore and to Social Innovation Park. We can all see how your initiatives are paying off. Today we are also recognising young social innovators, through the CDL-Compact Singapore Young CSR Leaders Award. It is a meaningful f recognition of new groups of people who are coming up with new ideas in social services. Some of them may be future business leaders, but they are starting off on the right footing. Whatever we do, just make sure that we are doing something that is practical, that is people-oriented, and if possible, sustainable.

So thank you once again, congratulations to all of you for what you are doing in your own organisations, or in partnership with the government or the community. Let’s do more in the future.

Thank you.