Debate On The President’s Address At The Opening Of 14th Parliament – Speech by Raeesah Khan

Delivered on 1 September 2020

A seat at the table for young Singaporeans

Mr Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this House. At the outset, I wish to express my gratitude to the voters of Sengkang for sending our team to this House to represent their voices in what is an immensely challenging time for our country because of prevailing systemic problems, tough economic times and the pandemic we find ourselves in the midst of today. Singaporeans know that times are tough. But Singaporeans are also tough people whose resilience runs deep.

When I think about resilience, I think about my Abah, my father – who was an exceptional student but had to drop out of school at 14 after the death of his father. He dropped out of necessity, to support his mother and siblings. His first job was a labourer at a factory, and at night he would wash the petrol station.

Though the story of his rise to success is inspirational, it doesn’t negate the fact that he suffered immensely for it. Not only was he subjected to labour-intensive work at such a young age, he was also unable to continue his education. He often speaks about how he could’ve been a surgeon if not for his family’s circumstances.

On being “not good enough”

My Abah’s story is not unique. Two weeks into my role as an MP-Elect, I received a plea from our resident, a father, for help. He wrote to us and his first line was that he was the sole breadwinner in the house living with his lovely wife, and is a proud father of 4 daughters. He went on to share that his second daughter, a graduate from a local polytechnic, wanted to pursue further studies at a university. She found a place at one of the private universities last year, but has been unable to secure a loan or financial aid. Should she have received the aid she was looking for, she could have been just starting her first year at university, by now.

We must, as a society, ensure that we have equal opportunities in this country. I believe that the meritocracy our past leaders have placed so much importance on has achieved a great deal for generations of Singaporeans. But in the midst of this pursuit, we have inevitably left many behind, short-changed, and sadly, made to believe they deserve their stations because they were simply, ‘not good enough’. The primary school student who feels discouraged from even trying to score in exams anymore while watching kids in other classes go for expensive tuition classes outside of school. The teenager who stops dreaming of what the future could look like. The pre-U student who can sense the condescension from relatives upon telling them he or she will not be going to NUS or NTU. The eager young graduate from a private university who keeps applying to the public service for a job but never gets a call back. And even, the NUS graduate who suffers from imposter syndrome because they think they are simply not good enough to apply for jobs their peers seem to have in the bag.

It is time that we shift our perception of what being a “good” Singaporean means. A “good” Singaporean, to me, is someone who is able to define success in their own way. It is often argued that under our meritocratic system, Singaporeans enjoy equal access to opportunities and that this access drives social mobility. This, to me, is a simplistic argument. From Professor Syed Hussein Alatas in the 70s to Associate Professor Teo You Yenn today, academics in Singapore have long painted detailed pictures of inequality on this island within the frame and context of local reality. Our task moving forward is similar. There are a few questions relevant to our local context we must confront if we want to give young Singaporeans a better deal.

Three questions on opportunities for social mobility

Firstly, we must ask whether we have mistaken the availability of opportunities for the accessibility of opportunities. There is a deep sense prevailing in this country that, even in 2020, one’s socioeconomic background is still too tightly linked to the accessibility of opportunities one enjoys. Reforms have been made and will be made to our education system where grading and testing are concerned. We will need to take steps to better support students, from young. We need to train teachers to be adept in not just providing academic guidance but also holistic support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to be prepared to have open, honest conversations about whether recent reforms in grading, streaming and testing are working, moving forward. And we need to be prepared to go beyond these reforms, in also reforming teaching and learning in a careful but ambitious manner to support learners with different skill sets. But we shouldn’t just stop there. We need to assess and track the accessibility of opportunities at every phase of education, and in the workforce too.

Make jobs in the Public Service and Civil Service more accessible to candidates from a wider range of academic backgrounds which will help improve the diversity of skills, perspectives and talents our administration can draw form. More broadly, introducing schemes like a national minimum wage and redundancy insurance to improve workers’ accessibility to opportunities.

Secondly, we must ask whether the opportunities available to young Singaporeans are complementary to the ways in which they may most productively define their success and vice-versa? Put simply, how can we maximise the opportunities available for young Singaporean students and workers? We need a bolder, long-term approach to creating jobs for young Singaporeans. Let’s look for these opportunities everywhere we can. Let’s give young creatives more opportunities by setting up an independent body for the arts to oversee licensing and funding, and by reforming our media landscape which for far too long has suffered from a lack of competition.

Let’s make a concerted effort to support the creation of green jobs in industries from manufacturing and retail to finance and hospitality, by recognising the reality that economic growth is contingent upon social and environmental needs. And let’s not forget to educate Singaporean students to reimagine the possibilities which lay ahead.

Thirdly, Mr Speaker, putting aside the issue of the accessibility of opportunities, we must also ask whether there are Singaporeans for whom the availability of opportunities in the first place is not as real as we may imagine it to be. Job discrimination is a real problem that has real consequences for Singaporeans. Workers looking to make an honest living to support their families should not have to face employment discrimination in the job market because of their age, gender or race, and certainly should not be discriminated because they wear a hijab. We must legislate to this end, not only because fostering an inclusive job market for Singaporean workers makes economic sense, but also simply because this is the right to do. Many young Singaporeans of all backgrounds I have spoken to have echoed these views.

A seat at the table

Mr Speaker, if we want young Singaporeans to triumph in our next phase of development, we need to enable them to have a seat at the table. These young people are more than willing to start the conversation and contribute their ideas. We see it in the young people who organise rallies and beach clean-ups, who want to see Singapore do its part to tackle climate change. We see it in the young people who, time and again, have stood up to speak out against sexual harassment against women and men, girls and boys. We see it in the young people who’ve been using Instagram, Twitter and even TikTok to convey, convince and correspond on issues that matter to them, in young people whose activism also extends beyond the bounds of social media and in the offline world too. For starters, we should consider lowering the voting age to 18 to give more young people a say in Singapore’s future, compel them to follow politics and legislation more closely, and include their voices in the process.

I believe this is what young people envision for our country. We envision a country that is able to have open and frank conversations about the direction we’d like to see our home move towards. We may be young in age and less experienced in life, but it does not mean we do not understand the important issues that the country faces. Young people worry about their future just as much as any of our country’s leaders do. They worry about their parents’ retirement, about job opportunities, about living a life that is fulfilling. They, too, have anxieties about starting and providing for a family. Young women today, many of whom I have met, continue to be torn between the decision of growing the family, or pursuing a fulfilling career.

I hope that Parliament will listen closer to the hopes and the worries of young Singaporeans and have them inspire us in making the changes we need for a better future, a better Singapore.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.