A Singapore Together movement can’t be powered by just young people

By Sean Lim


Not many would have noticed the final segment of last Tuesday’s (Feb 18) Budget Statement, after the billion dollar announcements to soothe the pain of those feeling the impact of the virus. It’s about partnerships with Singaporeans, which happens to be a pet project of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. He calls it the Singapore Together movement.

Before your eyes glaze over, note that this seems to be a signature plank of the 4G leaders to engage and partner with Singaporeans, be it having a say in policies, advancing causes or collaborating on projects. And unlike the 2012 Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), it’s more about doing than talking — backed by money too. During the launch of the movement in June last year, Mr Heng said: “We need to shift from a government that focuses primarily on working for you, to a government that works with you. Working with you, for you.”

For a movement-in-the-making, it doesn’t seem to be getting a high public profile. There was a burst when Mr Heng announced it and another spurt in January when 4G leaders gave interviews to update the media on progress of this movement which was described as “a new cornerstone of nation-building’’.

But it has been relegated to the shadows by news of economic disruptions and the coronavirus outbreak. In his Budget statement, Mr Heng set aside some $250 million for these partnerships, including $20 million to top up the Our Singapore Fund set up in 2016. The funding was supposed to last till the end of this year but it has been extended to 2025.

What is Our Singapore Fund, you say. The initiative was announced at the 2016 Budget to financially support passionate Singaporeans who want to implement projects that benefit the community.

The fund has committed nearly $4.3 million to support over 240 ground-up projects in culture, heritage, arts and sports. Among these projects is “Read to me”, a campaign in 2018 by Nanyang Technological University students to encourage parents to read to their children regularly through workshops and reading contests. Another project conducted the same year was “Reviving Our Forefathers Disappearing Foods”, which conducts intergenerational cooking sessions between youths and seniors to revive and document food culture of yesteryear.

Let’s say you have a project in mind. Once approved, you may receive funding of up to 80 per cent of supported costs, subject to a maximum of $20,000 a year per project. The project must be completed within 12 months from the day you accept the Form of Agreement.

Existing projects that are successful and already supported by the fund and other ground-up funds will be given another $150 million — part of the $250 million budget. Mr Heng didn’t mention what sort of projects there are, but a check showed examples such as “Konnect Point” — a void deck at Block 683C Woodlands Drive 62 which was renovated with 3D murals showing different eras of Singapore’s development and floor decals for residents to play traditional games like hopscotch. This was funded by the Friendly Faces, Lively Places Fund under the Housing Board.

There was also the Rafusicul by Onepeople.sg, with contributions from the Harmony Fund under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Held in 2016, the event had performances and cultural activities to show the richness of Singapore’s diversity and heritage, which aims to promote racial and religious harmony.

But besides funding individuals and groups who have a brainwave, Mr Heng indicated that the government will also issue “national innovation challenges’’ to get people with interest and expertise to collaborate and come up with a solution, especially in areas of energy, land and liveability, ageing, urban mobility and AI-enabled healthcare.

He cited the National Innovation Challenge on Active and Confident Ageing by the National Medical Research Council, which called for proposals to transform the experience of ageing in Singapore in the future. People were asked, for example, to invent a new model of care that can increase the productivity of home care staff by at least 50 per cent while ensuring the quality of care remains client-centric, responsive and of a high standard.

I am glad that funds for a worthy social cause now have some help. Such partnerships are constructive because it gets Singaporeans more involved in their community, instead of leaving everything to the Government. I believe in the axiom: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Since individuals have constraints and lack agency, it is important for the Government to step in and provide resources.

Progress Nest is one such project, founded by 24-year-old Akram Hanif last June with the help of Our Singapore Fund. The project supports students from low-income families by organising events and outings for them.

Surely, it is the Government’s job to take care of low-income Singaporeans, some may argue. But it is too much to expect that the Government will be able to net everyone who falls through the cracks.

This is not to absolve the Government from its responsibilities, but it is more productive to make actions louder than words by stepping in to fill the void. We also have a stake in this country and it behoves us to contribute when need be.

It is also good for the Government to see that people have “out of the box’’ ideas that would be better carried out at community level than through official channels.

But the Government must be careful not to let the Singapore Together movement be seen as a co-opting exercise, to get people aligned with the Government thinking on why something "cannot be done". National innovation challenges can also run the risk of people thinking that the agenda is being set by the Government to only focus on certain things and force energies into these challenges, while there might be other problems to solve.

Mr Heng cited some specific challenges to encourage ground-up participation. “These include challenges in the social sector, where we have built many community partnerships to better support children from low-income and vulnerable families, and promote youth mental well-being, amongst other things,’’ he added.

These are laudable causes but solutions might require approaches that aren’t quite to the Government’s taste, like abolition of means testing or more spending in another direction.

The process right now is dependent on individual or group initiative. It might be worthwhile for the Government to also reach out to those with divergent views, by challenging them to not just talk among themselves or do among themselves, but do with others. The perception is that the Government is unwelcoming of anti-establishment outfits, as demonstrated by the exclusion of opposition politicians from the OSC exercise.

Anyway, the individual projects seen so far are mostly organised by the young, according to our checks on Our Singapore Fund and other ground-up funds mentioned above. We should have a better balance of projects initiated by both young and old. It will be ironic if the movement emphasises togetherness but with only input from the young.

Perhaps the older folks think they have passed the age to be initiating community projects, or no longer have the energy to do so. Maybe they are bogged down by family commitments, if they are still working to put bread on the table and have to worry about their children. I won’t be surprised if some might even be cynical and think the young are too idealistic to want to make a change in society through such means.

The young have made a start, and may I add that it is time for the older ones to get on board?

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