Tharman: Every generation must be on the 'moving escalator' of progress

Social mobility on the escalator.

Sulaiman Daud | July 07, 2020, 03:25 PM

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Coordinating Minister for Social Policies has come up with yet another memorable metaphor to describe economic policy.

During an online speech on July 7, delivered live from PAP HQ, Tharman laid out the PAP's economic policies to deal with both the threat of Covid-19 and problems of inequality, titled "Our strategies for an inclusive society", and said that no worker should get left behind.

Inclusive society

Tharman said that this is not just a "set of goals" or statements, but rather, real programmes to produce constant improvement as building an inclusive society is a "never-ending game".

He added that this will not be achieved in one year or five, but must be a continuous dedicated effort.

He proceeded to elaborate what the PAP has done and will do for the young, for working adults, and for seniors in their bid to create the inclusive society.

Head-start in life

Saying that social mobility is what Singapore is "all about", Tharman said it starts in a child's youngest years:

"Most of life's inequalities start when kids are at a very young age. And we have do a lot more to reduce life's inequalities by intervening when kids are young."

He added that according to scientific evidence, the earliest years are "critical" due to brain development in young children.

Therefore, the PAP intends to double expenditure on the preschool sector over the next few years. They also intend to raise the quality of preschools as a whole. The old system of a "marketplace of preschools" with a small government sector will give way in five years to seeing 80 per cent government-run preschools to ensure a high level of quality.

On the employment side, pay and career prospects for early childhood educators have been improved. These help to provide a good head-start for children, including those from low-income families, and to get them ready for primary school.

The PAP also intends to hire more teachers and counsellors, and prevent a digital divide by providing Internet access and a divide to each student.

Tharman also mention the change to the streaming system, which helps to reduce differentiation among children, and enable them to interact more with people from different backgrounds.

Working life

Turning to working adults, Tharman said, "We've got to make sure that every Singaporean is on a moving escalator. Everyone. Doesn't matter where you start from, but you've got to be on the moving escalator."

He referred to a quote by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who said that he did not want to experience a "lost generation" of workers and youths entering the workforce during the time of Covid-19.

Tharman added that they would ensure that young workers not miss out on the first steps in their career journey, and also keep their skills and incomes.

He also said that the PAP needed to make sure that middle-aged Singaporeans and mature workers do not "find that the escalator has suddenly stopped" mid-way through their career.

"Every generation must be on a moving escalator," he said.


Tharman made the point that other countries with greater resources suffered a sharp rise in unemployment, but Singapore has kept it relatively low.

"Our unemployment numbers have gone up by much less than 10,000 people, so unemployment is a little above three per cent," he shared. This was achieved not only through government intervention like the Jobs Support Scheme, but also because Singaporeans themselves took the initiative to upskill or adapt their work processes.

Tharman also made the point that Singapore's approach was to subsidise jobs and skills, instead of subsidising unemployment. "A S$2 billion jobs and skills package, far more beneficial to Singaporeans than (a) S$2 billion unemployment package," he said.

The aim was to prevent a surge of unemployment in Singapore, but by helping Singaporeans retain their jobs or find new ones through job attachments or placements, or even by helping them start new businesses.


Next, Tharman addressed the issue of wages, and said the broader long-term challenge is to maintain the "upward movement" in incomes for most Singaporeans.

Diverting from the "escalator" metaphor, Tharman said that the median worker, or the worker right in the middle of the income ladder, had seen a "significant increase" in income over the past decade.

"After accounting for inflation, 10 years ago, median income still about $2,900. Now in nominal terms, it's $4,600, after adjusting for inflation it's still 32 per cent, very substantial increase."

Tharman also addressed the "myth" that Singapore had not increased productivity, and said that over the past ten years, productivity had increased by one-third.

Coming back to the escalator, Tharman said that sustaining the moving escalator takes continuous investment and improvement in technologies, and mentioned that the low-income worker had also seen a substantial increase in wages, close to a 40 per cent increase in real terms when adjusted for inflation, over the past 10 years.

He cautioned that Singaporeans may have to pay higher costs if low-wage workers like cleaners are to receive higher pay, but said those costs was not as big as the cost of a "divided society".


Tharman said during every election, there were "nice-sounding promises" on what could be done to help seniors, such as allowing them to withdraw their CPF monies earlier or paying their healthcare costs in full. But he said this would end up hurting more than helping.

Tharman said that in other countries where retirement is left to the individual, society becomes more divided as each individual decides how to invest or save for their own retirement. He said this is happening in countries like the U.S., and in some countries, the bottom segment of society have no retirement savings at all.

He explained that the basic rationale behind CPF and other schemes like Medishield Life is that society must take collective responsibility for one another, instead of living it to a divided society where the rich often end up better off than the poor:

"We cannot leave each other to fend for ourselves. We cannot say that everyone decides for themselves, and somehow things are going to end up rosy."

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Top image from PAP.