Delivered in Parliament on 4 June 2020
This is the government’s fourth budget in four months. While there is a need to focus on pumping oxygen into the economy, we must squarely face what the crisis has taught us, if we are to truly emerge stronger. I would like to focus my speech today on what the COVID-19 virus has shown us about blind spots and the implications for long-term recovery. I will then comment on two specific government measures.
Blind Spots and Recovery
As the COVID-19 situation wears on, we are beginning to understand more about the different impact it has on the various segments of society. In Singapore, we see how the mantra of “Stay Home, Save Lives” may actually harm some who are forced to stay home. Homes that are small or over-crowded are unpleasant environments to remain in for most of the day. It was reported that domestic violence cases recorded by the Singapore Police rose by 22% since the circuit breaker measures started, while the NGO AWARE disclosed that calls about family violence in April this year were more than double those of April last year. As far as work is concerned, we see essential workers outside, battling the virus, while highly-paid persons stay safe at home, being classified “non-essential”. Singapore’s foreign worker dormitories have become “ground zero” for the battle, and the fight is not over.
Globally, evidence has emerged that women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. For instance, a United Nations report on 9 April concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic has a “shadow pandemic” – exacerbating gender inequality. How so? Domestic violence has spiked in other countries as well. In terms of economic impact, there has been significant employment loss for women, who hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs. The global health workforce is estimated to comprise 67% women, with many women in roles most exposed to the virus. Unpaid work by women has also increased during this period.
Women are disproportionately affected in other ways too. For instance, there is growing evidence that female academics are publishing less than male academics during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as they are bearing the brunt of family care responsibilities; this would clearly impact their careers where publications are a key performance indicator. Anecdotally, if one looks at Singapore’s Home-Based Learning for students, mothers on the whole appear to be spending much more time with their children than fathers, who may also be at home during this period. With everyone at home all day, foreign domestic workers face overwork and having inadequate rest.
While men appear more prone to succumb to the virus, it is women and girls who pay the social and economic toll. The UN urges Governments to ensure that their response to the COVID-19 crisis does not intensify the gender inequality crisis. To that end, one of the UN’s key recommendations is to ensure women’s equal representation in all COVID-19 response planning and decision-making. In order to build future resilience for the next crisis, there is a need to study gender-aggregated data in all fields from public health to economics to communications.
Besides gender, any agency looking at long-term recovery should include diverse voices. It is especially necessary to include those familiar with segments that bore a disproportionate brunt of the virus. To that end, the government has put together an Emerging Stronger Task Force, consisting of 17 eminent persons. However, the membership of the Task Forcehas a gender imbalance, with only 2 women out of 17, a dismal 11%. This may be a missed opportunity, especially when it has been noted that management of the COVID crises has been particularly successful so far in Taiwan and New Zealand, with women at the helm. In my view, the Task Force could benefit from having more women, especially women who understand gender issues. Also, there is weak representation of multi-racial voices e.g. there is no Malay member. It also does not seem that there is any representation for SMEs as well. With inadequate balance, will the final report and recommendations risk having blind spots, that will prevent us from truly emerging stronger as a nation?
Finally on this point, I hope that the Task Force will not be shackled by models from the past. The ways of the past may be inadequate or inappropriate today. For instance, is it time to include more stabilisers in the system? If there had been schemes such as redundancy or unemployment insurance, the government may not need to spend as much as it is doing today to support workers. If, for instance, CPF members have some access to their excess CPF funds even before they reached 55, some would not be facing the cliff-edge today. These are just two examples of what I mean by the Task Force not being shackled by the models of the past.
I next move on to two particular government schemes which residents have asked me to speak on – the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) and the Seniors Go Digital Movement.
SIRS was announced in the Resilience Budget, promising 9-months income support to eligible self-employed persons, at $1,000 per month. While it was an auto-inclusion scheme, it was announced that NTUC would be helping the government administer appeals from those who were not auto-included. Since then, as SIRS has been rolled out, we were told that more than 60,000 appeals had been received. Questions from the ground have now emerged about the purpose and fairness of the scheme.
As pointed out by my colleague Dennis Tan during the Resilience Budget debate, one issue is what the annual value of the property one lives in has got to do with whether the person has suffered serious income disruption. It is all the more so for those who do not own the properties they live in. To illustrate, I have several residents who are disqualified from SIRS due to this criterion, because they are living in their parents’ homes. Others are renting. Some of their incomes have dropped to zero, as they are service providers for weddings and other events, and will likely not be able to resume their work for months. Others include freelance music teachers, who are unable to conduct physical classes, even on a one-to-one basis.
On the other hand, SIRS is an auto-inclusion scheme that does not require the self-employed person to show income loss. The design of SIRS has thus also resulted in full SIRS payments being made to self-employed persons whose incomes are unaffected by COVID-19.
For those who appealed for SIRS, NTUC has been partially allowed some appeals. In some cases, appeals resulted in payment of a reduced amount, at $800 per month instead of $1,000 per month. Others have been rejected outright. Suffice to say, these disparate outcomes have caused frustration and feelings of arbitrariness and unfairness. Questions asked include: How does NTUC decide? What are the criteria for allowing or rejecting appeals?
SIRS involves public funds; to be exact, SIRS involves the use of Past Reserves. Who should be in charge of the scheme? The government has stated that MOM oversees the scheme, but NTUC helps administer appeals for those who do not automatically qualify. From the cases we have seen, it is NTUC that is fronting all communications in appeals, while the role of MOM is not visible.
From a governance perspective, why was there a need to outsource the administration of SIRS appeals to NTUC in the first place? Was this done due to a lack of manpower, or other reasons? Will this set a precedent for the government to outsource its schemes to external parties to manage? What does this mean for government accountability?
Seniors Go Digital Movement
It was announced in the Fortitude Budget that the Infocomm Media Authority (IMDA) would launch a Seniors Go Digital Movement to support seniors to adopt digital channels and hone digital skills. It was highlighted that the inability to connect digitally during the circuit breaker would lead to isolation which could affect health.
For some years now, well before COVID-19 emerged, the push for a Smart Nation had seen huge efficiencies but also costs. Everyone was channeled towards more and more digital modes of transacting with the government, whether it be the CPF Board, LTA, or Traffic Police. As systems got more sophisticated, citizens were required not only to log in, but also to receive one-time passwords or use tokens for added security. The now default mode of needing Singpass to transact, has alienated those who either cannot afford the necessary devices, do not have the required language skills, or simply cannot wrap their heads around IT environments.
To illustrate, I visited a CPF Branch Office some weeks ago. I observed a typical scenario of an elderly person with his daughter. She told him in Mandarin: “爸爸，我们现在去楼上拿Singpass” i.e. they needed to go to another section to arrange for Singpass. The elderly man looked totally helpless, as he quietly obeyed his daughter’s instructions. In this case, the man is fortunate to have a caring daughter to help him navigate an unfamiliar frontier. But what about those who do not have anyone to rely on? Or worse, those who place their trust in the wrong people and become victims of crime? Has technology, instead of empowering them, disempowered them instead?
A resident wrote to me recently about Singpass difficulties for the elderly. He described the struggles of those who were illiterate, or did not have a mobile phone or computer. For persons with no income, maintaining a mobile phone subscription is a financial outlay. Furthermore, even if family members were willing to assist, each Singpass could only be tied to one phone number. This is understandable for security reasons, but it also means that children could not use their phone lines to transact for their elderly parents, thus requiring more purchases of items simply to transact with the government.
To avoid being misunderstood, let me say that The Seniors Go Digital Movement is well-intentioned, and I support it. However, I hope it will not be approached from the perspective that Seniors are somehow “falling behind” and need to “catch up”, which would stress them even further. How will the government initiatives adapt or customize digital solutions, to design them to be friendly to those who cannot see or hear well, or whose command of English is not strong? Will seniors have low-cost options that are basic in nature? Finally, I believe we all know of some seniors who simply do not wish to transact digitally, for one reason or another. Can we not simply respect their choice in their old age, and always have an option for counter service?
Currently we are preoccupied, almost bogged down, by the health and economic fall-out of the virus. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look to building for the future, and to that end, we need to learn from the blindspots that the virus has uncovered, with humility and grace. Let us not waste this opportunity to amplify the voices of those most affected by the pandemic, in our search for a sustainable recovery. May we emerge stronger.