SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 20) laid out plans to deal with the issues that would affect the prosperity and well-being of Singapore in the longer term.
Making the case for every child in Singapore, regardless of family background, to have a good start in life, Mr Lee said the Government would double its annual spending on pre-school education within the next five years.
Annual spending has doubled in the last five years, from S$360 million in 2012 to S$840 million in 2017. It will double spending again in the next five years, to S$1.7 billion in 2022, Mr Lee said.
He made the case for a child’s education to begin “much earlier” than Primary 1, saying a child has specific developmental windows at an early age – for instance, children pick up language skills most easily and rapidly in the first three years.
“Miss that window, and it becomes much harder later on,” he said.
50,000 more pre-school places have already been created in the last five years, Mr Lee said – but the younger towns are still short of places.
An additional 40,000 new places will be created in the next five years, bringing the total number of pre-school places to about 200,000.
Early Years Centres will also be built for children up to the age of four. The Ministry of Education (MOE) will also scale up the number of its kindergartens – from 15 at present, to 50 kindergartens in the next five years.
There will also be a new centralised institute to train pre-school teachers and carers, much like the National Institute of Education (NIE) for primary, secondary and junior college teachers.
The new institute, the National Institute of Early Childhood and Development (NIEC), will provide the full range of diploma and certificate programmes for pre-school professionals.
Mr Lee also stated that the salaries of pre-school professionals need to improve further, as their profession is upgraded.
The Government will work with employers to ensure good career prospects and competitive pay for pre-school professionals, he said.
KidSTART, a programme that helps support children from low-income and vulnerable families, could be scaled up, if the promising early results are confirmed, Mr Lee said.
FIGHTING DIABETES: “IT IS PRECISELY BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT WORRIED, THAT I AM WORRIED”
Explaining why he had chosen to devote a substantial part of the Rally to fighting diabetes, Mr Lee noted in his Mandarin speech that it was because many people did not take diabetes seriously, that it has become a serious problem.
“It is precisely because you are not worried, that I am worried,” he told his audience.
In his English speech, he expressed concern that while Singaporeans have one of the world’s longest life expectancies at 82 years, they also experience an average of eight years of ill health in old age.
Diabetes was one big cause of ill health, he said, adding that three in 10 Singaporeans over the age of 60 had diabetes.
However, Singapore was seeing more diabetes cases among young people as well, including children. “That means big trouble for their health,” Mr Lee said.
SUGAR TAX? NOT CLEAR YET IF MEASURES WORK
Noting the popularity of sweetened soft drinks, Mr Lee said Singapore was scouting for solutions to cut its sugar intake. He noted that several European countries, as well as Mexico and Brunei have tried a sugar tax. The UK and Chile have also put warning labels on drinks with high sugar content, he said.
However, it was not clear yet if the measures work, Mr Lee said.
Nobody has found the ideal solution yet, but if someone comes up with a solution that works, the Government will study it and implement it, he said.
In the meantime, as a first step, the Government has got soft drink producers to agree to reduce the sugar in all their drinks sold in Singapore, Mr Lee said.
He also called for Singaporeans to take responsibility in changing their own lifestyle and diet to prevent diabetes or keep it under control. These involve getting regular health check-ups, exercising more and watching their diet, as well as cutting down on sugar.
MAKING SINGAPORE A SMART NATION
Singapore has the “right ingredients” to be a Smart Nation, but it lags behind other cities in certain areas such as electronic payments, Mr Lee said, adding that e-payment systems here must be simplified and integrated.
Singapore also lags behind other cities when it comes to using IT for public safety and security, Mr Lee said, citing how technology was used to identify the Boston Marathon bombers within three days of the attack in April 2013.
Acknowledging that Singapore authorities had been caught “a little flat-footed” during the Little India riot in December that same year, Mr Lee said there had been too few CCTV cameras monitoring the area at the time.
Since then, Singapore has made progress building an integrated national sensor network, and learning to analyse data combined from various sources, he said.
This would help the Home Team respond promptly in the event of an incident like the Boston bombing, or even pre-empt it, he said.
Mr Lee also outlined how technology was being used in smaller projects to solve daily problems, like paying for parking.
A new app for street parking – called parking.sg – will be launched by October. Users will pay only for how long they park, and have the option of extending their parking remotely instead of having to rush back to their car to add parking coupons.
“IT IS MY GOVERNMENT’S DUTY TO BUILD FOR OUR FUTURE”
Mr Lee ended the Rally with an anecdote of how he presented an Edusave Merit Award to a boy, Adam, only to discover he had also presented an SBC House Union Bursary to his father, Aziz, 31 years earlier.
Aziz qualified for the bursary because his father, Ahmad, had been a gardener with SBC, as Mediacorp was then known.
“It is my Government’s duty to build for our future, so that every family can be like Ahmad, Aziz and Adam,” Mr Lee said.
“It has always been so, and it will always be so.”
Mr Lee continued: “This is the Singapore of the last half-century: Ahmad a gardener, Aziz, a pharmaceutical engineer; and Adam, a bright future ahead of him – every generation striving and building for the next, keeping our eyes on tomorrow and investing in our children, undaunted by challenges and disruptions; instead working together to overcome every obstacle, seize every opportunity and realise a bright future for all of us.”
Watch the full speech: