Speech on the Annual Budget Statement 2023

MP He Ting Ru

Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang): Mr Speaker, after last year’s Budget of “Charting Our New Way Forward Together”, it is fitting that this year, we are “Moving Forward in A New Era”, with the focus being about looking to a new era – even if it is one that is uncertain and unpredictable. I agree that the sense of post-COVID-19 normality is more than welcomed, but we must slow down and give pause. We must ask ourselves about the important lessons from the last three years and ask if we as a society have really “returned to business as usual”.  

 Recovery from COVID-19 has not been equal for all of us. Some have lost loved ones. Some close to us may still be suffering the debilitating effects of long COVID. I would be surprised if anyone in this House can say that they do not have residents still seeking assistance because of lingering economic or other adverse effects of the pandemic. 

 “Resilience” has been a key word used to describe the ambition of this Budget – and the ambition that we as a nation need to trek down to ensure we are ready to navigate future challenges that might come our way. Yet we can take lessons from psychology on what “resilience” really looks like and apply that to how we build resiliency as a nation. 

 In psychology, resilience is not just about harnessing our own individual inner strength. It is also about strengthening our ability to deal with challenges. This is done through building a connected network, learning from our experiences and taking care of our own mental and holistic well-being.

 Applied to the context of a country, this means that we must not find resilience by simply looking inward or becoming more insular, but by continuing to stay connected within the communities around us in Singapore, but also with the world at large. We must be open to constructive criticism and be enlightened enough to translate mistakes into lessons learned. We need to walk together, bringing every corner of Singapore along equally on the journey forward. We cannot go it alone. 

 That is why it is critical that we have policies that holistically ensure the well-being of our economy, our society and our planet. 

 Focusing on our economy, we know that our most vulnerable may find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis, moving from the pressure that movement controls had on incomes, to the inflation that accompanies the loosening of restrictions and economic recovery. In particular, there is concern that poorer segments of the population are facing greater food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, something exacerbated by recent increases in food and hawker prices.  

Various NGO-commissioned studies have recently found that up to one in 10 Singapore households are food insecure. I note from a reply to a Parliamentary Question I posed last year that the Ministry for Social and Family Development does not specifically track the food insecurity experienced by our vulnerable households, although there are various workgroups and initiatives to provide support. I believe that there is room for our Ministries and agencies to specifically track this issue to measure the effectiveness of our support schemes.

We should strive to understand shifts in nutritional consumption that occur in response to fluctuating macro-economic circumstances. It is imperative that we ensure that lower-income households do not end up drastically cutting back on nutrition given ever-increasing costs. In this, I am reminded of a retiree who came to my Meet-the-People Session who told me that he was sometimes reduced to filling his stomach with white bread because anything else was a luxury.

The impact of this falls disproportionately on children and the elderly, with many adverse health effects taking root from poor nutrition. If left untackled, it has the potential to further entrench generational poverty. Poor nutrition also has an effect on outcomes for various chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer. In the wake of Healthier SG’s launch and the pivot to preventative healthcare, we must pay more attention to this.

Aside from the support packages announced this year, there may be many initiatives and support schemes available to help these residents, but a lack of awareness and the scarcity effect means that vulnerable residents do not always get the help that they need when it is most needed.

Next, I move on to the well-being of our society and people. This year’s Budget emphasises the family and its well-being. Enhancements to the tax and financial incentives for young couples to have children, along with the introduction of tripartite guidelines to allow parents to request flexible working arrangements are undoubtedly welcome. However, economic incentives and tinkering around with the way our workforce is structured, are only part of the greater picture when it comes to building a Singapore for families not only to survive, but also to thrive.

Additionally, headline announcements in Budget 2023 appear to leave out groups of our population, namely, those of us who are unmarried or childless. They are Singaporeans too and are and will continue to be part of our families. This is concerning in an age where we trumpet greater inclusivity and claim to celebrate diversity, especially as the number of single Singaporeans has increased across all age groups, according to the 2020 census.

In particular, single unmarried mothers are left out of the enhanced baby bonus tweaks and our singles are generally more adversely affected by increasing rental prices. It therefore behoves us as a society to ask that our enhanced baby bonus and parenthood policies are extended equally to all parents.

Children of unmarried mothers do not have a choice. Most single, unmarried mothers, given a choice, would also hope to be part of a stable, fulfilled marriage. Yet, in our haste to ward off the hex of “encouraging single parenthood”, we appear to either be punishing innocent children born to unmarried mothers, or encouraging hasty, possibly unsuitable marriages. This may lead to further difficulties down the line, ending in strife within the home, or even divorce. Moreover, children born to single unmarried mothers only form under 1,000 of live births each year, according to 2021 statistics and thus the fiscal impact each year of the equalising of financial support to children of single unwed parents would not be significant.

Changing demographics that lead to more singles across all age groups is also why we believe that singles should be allowed to purchase new flats from the age of 28, rather than the current 35. My Sengkang colleague, Mr Louis Chua, spoke about the limited impact of the housing shortage on married couples seeking homes since statistics show that singles tend to apply for smaller flats.

COVID-19 and its aftermath, seems to have left behind epidemics of loneliness and mental health struggles. These are threats to the progress that we hope to make in strengthening our country’s resilience. Recent studies indicate that larger numbers of Singaporeans are feeling isolated in a post-COVID world: from working adults speaking through Zoom, to students missing out on the crucial years of social life that tertiary education usually brings, to the 30% to 40% of senior citizens who still feel isolated even while living with family. A recent Duke-NUS Medical School study also quantified what psychologists have known for a while: that loneliness has real, measurable consequences on physical health, negatively affecting life expectancy and healthy life expectancy.

While loneliness is something we may associate with retirees, studies found that younger people were in fact more likely to report loneliness across cultures, genders and geographies. I hope that we look into this phenomenon urgently here in Singapore, as I believe more must be done to understand the scale of the problem, its effects on the well-being – physical and mental – of our people.

I was also alarmed to read that the initial report from the Singapore Youth Epidemiology and Resilience Study found that one in three youth in Singapore report internalising mental health symptoms like sadness, anxiety and loneliness, and that one in six externalise symptoms such as hyper-activity and aggression. This is compared against the one in seven estimated to suffer from a mental health condition in the general population. An estimated up to 75% of these people never seek professional help or treatment.

These are sobering facts, and while our Ministries and various agencies are aware of the magnitude and severity of the issue and are working on it, it is no secret that even if individuals or their families are willing and can afford to seek help now, wait lists for professional help are long. Untreated mental health issues in children and adolescents can leave lasting damage into adulthood. These also correlate strongly with poverty, reduced life expectancy and reduced potential and achievement in all aspects of life.

Compared with adolescents, mental health struggles may be even harder to spot in children under 11. Young children can struggle to describe their emotions and often the only way they can express themselves is to “act out”. These signs can be so subtle and easily characterised as “bad behaviour”, which means that adults often try to punish or discipline these children to make them “behave”. These children consequently miss out on getting the support and treatment needed. In fact, the problem may be exacerbated by well-meaning but ultimately erroneous interventions to treat the behaviour rather than the cause.

Indeed, many educators and mental health professionals that I speak to have shared anecdotal observations that our youngest members of society do seem to be struggling recently and are unable to communicate to us how bewildering they have found the last few years.

We owe a debt to those who work with children as psychologists, counsellors and therapists in our schools, our medical institutions and private practices. They often go over and beyond in trying to secure the well-being of our children. Yet many of them speak of concerns stemming from a lack of central regulation and of burning out due to a lack of resources and manpower. More awareness and sensitivity, both at the individual and systemic levels, is required to spot issues early and to get our children and people the help they need.

Compounding the problem are knock-on effects that having a family member struggling with mental health has on the rest of the household. As the saying goes, a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. 

It is so easy to forget that in order to care for kids – especially kids that are struggling, whether because they are differently-abled, or living with mental health conditions – we also need to care for our parents. Yet, there is often little discussion on and even less support for this aspect of the parenting journey. Parents and carers can themselves overloaded and overlooked as they strive to do everything, sometimes inhumanly possible to support their struggling child. This is despite research showing the important role that the home environment plays in helping children learn to regulate themselves. And we know that a dysregulated family often causes challenging situations to spiral.

Even as we continue to ensure that our existing networks and services provide the necessary support for our parents to lean on, an overwhelmed parent is going to find it challenging to navigate the myriad schemes and agencies that provide the help needed. We need to help our parents along, to offer them support, compassion and non-judgement.

We need to let our parents know that it is alright to struggle along with our children. We need to let our parents know that sometimes it is ok to not enjoy being a parent – especially when the going is tough – and that non-judgmental help and a listening ear is available to offer suggestions and strategies to make the tough hours and days a little easier.

I fear that sometimes in our haste to encourage more young Singaporean to have children, we focus so much on how fulfilling the journey is and neglect to address and normalise how we as parents do not have all the answers and can find it really difficult too.

This may have an inadvertent consequence of adding to the stress that parents feel, especially when faced with glossy social media feeds of how everyone else seems to “have it together” when reality leaves them feeling exhausted and terrified. Psychological and medical research indicate that stress and clinical burnout can be equally damaging to physical health. Stress is not just in the mind, but can affect people physiologically too, especially chronic stress, which leads to high levels of cortisol, which in turn affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, reduce inflammation, regulate metabolism and formulate memories. Just on the work front, Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Survey found that Singapore workers were highly stressed, with 85% feeling at risk of burn-out, and one in five feeling de-energised at work; double the Asia average.

For parents, there appear to be fewer studies on the severity of this phenomenon in Singapore. While platforms such as Parentwise have highlighted the real presence of and danger posed by parental burnout, more accessible and effective measures must be in place, particularly as COVID-19 changes from pandemic to endemic.

Among lower-income groups, research in the last decade shows links between stress, deprivation and how this can sometimes lead to bad choices, including counterproductive economic behaviours.

One of the forms of chronic stress facing Singaporeans is the lack of sleep. Singapore often ranks high amongst the echelons of sleep deprived cities, coming in third out of 43 in one of these latest surveys. Sleep deprivation, like chronic stress, has adverse effects on an individual’s ability to function.

And sleep deprivation also extends to our children. Duke-NUH recently found that teenagers are only sleeping an average of 6.5 hours a night rather than the recommended eight hours for optimal development and functioning. Many of us have children who cry when woken up before the crack of dawn for school, because they are just not getting the required sleep that their growing bodies and minds need. We must pay more attention to this issue and mitigate some of these ill effects, while recognising that they are not a panacea.

One possibility is to implement later school start times to align with the natural body clocks of our children and adolescents. My colleague, Jamus Lim, previously put forward this proposal and I hope we seriously move to implement later school start times, particularly when less of the workforce is now required to be at the workplace at 9 am.

Our policies and systems need to be flexible and compassionate enough to keep up with the rapidly changing and challenging environment that our children, parents and families find themselves in. While we have policies with good intentions, our systems have to be mindful of the amount of mental effort and resources needed from individuals to battle challenging situations. Our systems also need to work together with the people whom they serve to reduce the stress that our people and families are facing in this uncertain world. It is only when we and our systems are optimised to extend help and support without judgement, that we can lay that crucial feeling of security that is essential for us to build resilience.

Moving to the macro, the topic of climate resilience was briefly mentioned in the Budget. Yet, climate resilience goes beyond energy security and adapting to rising sea levels. It encompasses building the resilience of our people and businesses to navigate the climate crisis and ensuring a smoother transition to a more equitable and sustainable future.

Blue-collar workers, migrant workers and gig workers will bear the brunt of rising temperatures more than others. With Singapore’s temperatures rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, more measures will be needed to enable them to adapt to the effects of extreme heat.

Extreme heat and weather events also affect our families. Households in rental flats report that the temperatures in their homes during the day can be quite unbearable, particularly during the dry and hot seasons. More needs to be done to sustainably cool down our buildings, and we need investment in better cooling infrastructure when building flats.

So, it is that even as we support this year’s Budget, I hope that we will make true and meaningful progress that our people will feel supports them to better navigate the challenges facing us as individuals, as families, as a society and as citizens of the blue planet that we call home.

23 February 2023


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