Social investment early in life

19 December 2017 | General News
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Prof Sherraden shared his insights on more inclusive social policies

The focus for Singapore right from the beginning since independence “was on developing our people, growing our people, strengthening our people; because our people are our only true asset,” said Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development as he began his keynote speech as the Guest of Honour at the “International Symposium on Inclusion in Asset Building: Policy Innovation and Social Impacts” held on 15 December.

The symposium — organised by the Next Age Institute, a partnership on social innovation between Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) and NUS — facilitated discussion on social policies that can enable the less advantaged to move beyond survival towards growing into and leading productive lives. Centre to the discussion were Child Development Accounts (CDAs), an emerging social policy tool implemented by several countries, including the UK, Israel, South Korea and Singapore, to encourage investments in children early in life.

“As social issues continue to become more complex, we have to constantly innovate so that our social policies remain relevant and impactful,” Mr Lee urged in his speech.

Emphasising that social mobility is a critical objective to Singapore’s social policies, Mr Lee shared anecdotes of elderly blue-collar worker residents whose children move on to high-flying careers as examples of how policies have succeeded. However, he cautioned that “although we may be doing relatively okay for now, ensuring social mobility will continue to get more difficult with time, and we need to actively ensure that those from lower income families do not get left behind in society.”

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Mr Lee gave attendees a broad sketch of Singapore's social policies

“Why not asset-building for the whole population?” was the question Professor Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor, and founder and director of the Center for Social Development at WUSTL, posed near the start of his lecture titled “Asset building as social innovation: Challenges and potential”.

He pointed out that most policies enable asset-building only for a certain segment of the population, identifying policy design as a central issue in order to work towards this goal.

“The keys are seeing all of these defined contribution policies as one policy system, not as a lot of separate policies. Know who is included and who is not. Bring everyone in,” he added.

CDAs are an important step in attaining the goal of lifelong asset building, he opined, revealing that discussions to develop CDAs have been in progress in many countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as various cities in the US.

As social issues continue to become more complex, we have to constantly innovate so that our social policies remain relevant and impactful.

Using the example of Singapore’s public housing and its influence on integrating different races, Prof Sherraden also highlighted that the outcomes of asset-building policies go beyond financial impacts. “We need to think about how we use social policies can lead to other kinds of social goals,” he told the symposium attendees.

Some 130 scholars, policy makers and social work practitioners attended the symposium, which also featured two panel sessions examining the impacts, results and challenges of CDAs and inclusive asset building policies for adults.