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  After several good years, our economy faces more challenges this year.  The US economy has run into serious trouble, and this is affecting the whole world.  The difficulties will continue into next year, at least.  Our growth will slow, but I am confident that we can weather the storm.

One major worry of Singa­poreans is higher inflation.  The prices of energy and food have soared worldwide.  In Singapore too, prices of many things have gone up.  Singaporeans are feeling the pinch.  The higher cost of living particularly affects lower-income households, including Malay/Muslim families.

The Government is doing its best to ease the burden on Singaporeans.  We have distributed substantial assistance in this year’s Budget.  Nearly every household received something, but the needy and elderly got the most.  The assistance they received is enough to cope with rising prices.

You can help yourselves.  Shop wisely, and go for house brands instead of more expensive brand name products.  It is also important for families to be frugal and exercise financial discipline. As the Malay proverb goes: Ingat sebelum kena, jimat sebelum habis. (Be mindful of your action before it is too late; save before it is gone)

I spoke about this a few months ago, and am encouraged that the Malay/Muslim community has responded constructively.  For example, many families have participated in the “Talking Dollars and Sense” programme run by the CDCs.  This has helped them to plan their finances, manage their expenses, and reduce their arrears.  The families feel less stressed, because they now know how to cope with financial difficulties.

In these difficult times, I am worried about the dysfunctional families, especially the future of their children.   The Malay/Muslim community is working hard on this problem.  I attended PPIS’s (Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura or Singapore Muslim Women Association) anniversary dinner last month. I was impressed to see many well-educated Malay/Muslim women with careers and families, but who are actively contributing to PPIS.  They are a new generation of professionals.  They organise programmes for single mothers and run family service centres.  This is an example of successful Malays who have come forward to serve the community.

Helping dysfunctional families is a long-term effort.  Mendaki is working with Malay/Muslim organisations, through the Community Leaders’ Forum, to mobilise the whole community.  The Govern­ment is strongly supporting this.  The Malay/Muslim community should also support it.  In line with this, we should allocate more resources to this effort through Mendaki, from the MBMF or Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund.  Then we would be able to achieve even more.

Besides funding Mendaki, the MBMF also supports the mosque building programme.  This has been a very successful community initiative.  For 30 years, through the MBMF, the Malay/Muslim community has built new and modern mosques, one by one, all over Singapore.  22 mosques have been built, and the 23rd, Al-Mawaddah Mosque in Sengkang, will be ready this year.  Many visitors from neighbouring countries have seen and admired our mosques, and how they are run.  This is indeed a tribute to our Malay/Muslim community.

Now the mosque building programme is almost complete.   The question is what we should do next?  I suggest we start a new programme: a mosque upgrading programme.

The older mosques are showing signs of wear and tear.  I remember an occasion about 25 years ago, before I entered politics. Then, I was driving. On my way home from Johor Baru, I saw An-Nur Mosque in Woodlands for the first time. It looked beautiful with its blue minaret. I thought to myself, “This is a nice mosque.’’ Older Singaporeans might remember that An-Nur Mosque was built in 1980. It was among the first six “new generation” mosques built under the Mosque Building Fund. Today, it is still beautiful but I have visited An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan and its Harmony Centre. I have also seen the design of Al-Mawaddah Mosque which is very impressive. These new mosques are in a different class.

It is apparent that the old mosques need a new lease of life. This can be done by upgrading and adding new facilities to our old mosques.  For example, we can provide activity rooms for youths, and lifts and ramps for the elderly.  The community can then enjoy mosques which are up-to-date, and meet the needs of the modern Muslim community.

Our mosque building and mosque upgrading programmes need to be complemented with good religious education programmes. Last year, three full-time madrasahs (Aljunied, Al-Irsyad and Al-Arabiah) came together to form the Joint Madrasah System (JMS).  They will work with MUIS to upgrade their programmes, and raise the quality of madrasah education.  But to do this, the three madrasahs will need more resources.  They intend to raise funds and have asked MUIS for support.

The Government has considered this carefully.  The madrasahs are not part of the state school system, so it would be difficult to justify government funding.  However, there is merit in tapping the broader Malay/Muslim community for support. We can consider earmarking part of the MBMF for religious education, including for initiatives such as the JMS.

I have touched on three major initiatives for the Malay/Muslim community – first, to enhance Mendaki’s efforts on dysfunctional families; second, to launch a mosque upgrading programme; and third, to fund religious education from the MBMF.  To do them, we need to raise the MBMF contribution rates.  At the same time, we will ensure that the rates are affordable, especially for workers earning less.  

I have discussed these ideas with Minister Yaacob Ibrahim and the Malay MPs.  They have sounded out community leaders, and received support for these ideas.  Dr Yaacob will work out the details and announce the specific proposals this week.

In making these changes to the MBMF and religious education, we should remember our multi-racial and multi-religious society.  As we maintain our traditions and practise our religious beliefs, we also need to strengthen our togetherness as one nation.  This is how we have kept our society cohesive and harmonious.  We must treasure this precious achievement, and do our best to keep it this way.  

So, as the Malay/Muslim community upgrades the mosques, you should continue to participate in other grassroots activities. The mosques too should organise events with other community organisations.

A good example is the Rahmatan Lil Alamin (Blessings to All) event, which I attended at Al-Iman Mosque in Bukit Panjang recently. The event held a blood donation drive and provided meals for poor Singaporeans of all races and religions. The food was cooked by volunteers from all the mosques in Singapore.  I did not donate blood but I was lucky to enjoy the delicious nasi briyani.

Similarly, while the community upgrades madrasah education, you must also put more resources to improve the study of English, mathematics and science.  This way the Malay/Muslim community will continue to make economic and social progress to ensure a bright future for the next generation.

The Malay/Muslim community is building a progressive and well-integrated Community of Excellence.  The spirit of the community is strong, united and confident.  With the Govern­ment’s full backing and support, let us continue to improve on what we have achieved, and strive for even greater success for the community and for Singapore.

1. After several good years, this year will be more challenging a.  US financial crisis yet to be resolved, affecting the rest of the world
b. Fuel and food prices have risen sharply, causing global price inflation

Inflation concerns 2. Singaporeans are concerned about rising cost of living
a.  This year, inflation has gone up by 6-7%, the highest in 26 years
b. Middle-income households have seen their dollar shrunk. Low-income households feel a heavier burden

3. Government fully understands this serious concern of Singaporeans
a.  We have been monitoring prices since last year
b. We have taken concrete measures to help Singaporeans to cope

4. Special package in Budget to address cost of living
a.  The Ministry of Finance has distributed part of the Growth Dividend and GST Offset.  A further Growth Dividend package will be given out in Oct
b. Given out $3 billion – enough to make big impact
c.  Total benefits for a 3-roomer household is about $5,000.  This is a substantial sum.  If spent carefully, the benefits can help a great deal in this time of inflation
d. Govt cannot give “hongbaos” every year, but fortunately this year we have the budget surplus to do it

5. Govt is also focusing its efforts on helping low-income families
a.  CCCs in each ward can tap on “ComCare Fund” to help poor families
b. Many grassroots organisations give out hampers, food and other assistance.  They will give more this year, to help combat the increase in cost of living
c.  Some CDCs even install energy-saving light-bulbs for poor families, to help them save on electricity bills

6. Despite Govt help, there is still anxiety.  Some even blame the Govt for not doing enough.  Why is this so?
a.  Perhaps because Govt did not make a big show that it was giving out help
b. Perhaps because Govt help is indirect, people do not connect what we have done with the prices that they see going up, and do not realise that Govt help was precisely to help them cope with inflation
c.  Some even feel that Govt policies have contributed directly to price inflation
i.   Many Singaporeans would like Govt to restrain increases whenever possible
ii.  Indeed we do this, where it is possible
iii  Some increases have been held back
    (1) No increase in Town Council and S&C charges in PAP wards this year
    (2) Increases in water tariffs have been held off

d. But some increases cannot be prevented
i.   Because energy and other operating costs have increased
ii.  Workers also need salary increments
iii. Govt will try its best to keep any increase small
e. E.g. Healthcare costs
i.   Hospitals – control costs stringently
ii.  Each year, doctors have to prescribe new medicines and use new procedures requiring new machines.  All these are more expensive
iii. Govt has increased its medical subsidy; MOF has given MOH a higher budget for this
iv. But the subsidy can only meet part of the costs, so users will see some increase

7.  The increase in ERP has generated debate
a.  I will talk about the broad concepts behind the ERP policy, and not go into the details
b. But do not misunderstand:  The ERP is a Cabinet decision, not just MOT policy
c.  Since 2000, the Government has progressively reduced vehicle-related taxes, and released more COEs.  As a result, many more Singaporeans can now own cars.  
d. With more cars on the road, we need to increase ERP to keep traffic flowing  
e. Jack Neo’s “Money No Enough II” featured the ERP issue.  Jack Neo is quick to make use of topical issues.  The Govt may not be as fast, but is certainly “I Not Stupid”, and had taken steps to mitigate the impact of the increase
f. When ERP was increased, we also reduced road tax and improved public transport
g. Jack Neo did not mention the overall picture nor the steps by Government to help Singaporeans, so I will explain further in my English speech

Foreign workers and new immigrants
8. On top of cost of living pressures, Singaporeans also feel the pressure from foreign workers and new immigrants  
a.  Some say that foreign workers and new immigrants take away jobs for Singaporeans and depress wages
b. NTUC has given me the same feedback
c.  There has been hot debate on this in Lianhe Zaobao, with some advocating “pro-local” policies
d. I can understand these sentiments

9.  I want to reassure Singaporeans that
a.  The Government’s responsibility is to Singaporeans.  Our duty is to improve the lives of Singaporeans
b. We allow in foreign workers and new immigrants because doing so will benefit Singaporeans

10.  Our economy has become more vibrant and diversified because of foreign workers.  Without their participation, there will not be enough Singapore workers to grow the economy  

11. Our problem is not enough workers
a.  Our unemployment rate is only 2.3% - considered by economists to be full employment
b. Elderly workers have also found it easier to find employment
c. This shows that foreign workers have not taken away the rice-bowl of Singaporeans, but have instead helped to enlarge the pie.

12.  Let me give some practical examples.
a.  The two IRs will need another 20,000 workers.  They will not be able to recruit Singaporeans to fill all these positions.  In fact, they would not have decided to invest here had we required them to recruit only Singaporeans
b. Foreign finance specialists help us to grow our financial centre.  London and New York are global financial centres because they draw talent from all over the world.  Tokyo is in a lower league because it does not have the same draw   
c. Foreign workers keep many SMEs in business, by lowering their cost.  Without them, local workers and SME bosses will also lose their jobs

13.  Outside of economics, foreign talent also strengthen our ranks in sports
a.  Out of 25 Singaporean athletes participating in the Beijing Olympics, half of them are new Singapore citizens
b. China has 1.3 billion people, we have 4 million.  Based on populations, China would have to win 300 medals before Singapore has the chance to win a single medal.  So we cannot rely on only local talent
c. Our performance at the Beijing Olympics demonstrates this.  We now have Tao Li reaching the swimming finals and the Table-Tennis team playing for either Gold or Silver in the finals tonight  
d. Because we welcome talent, we can compete above our class.  So we can all take pride in Team Singapore, and cheer for our athletes
e. Team Singapore all the way!  

Encouraging Singaporeans to Start Families 14. Inflation and foreign workers are immediate concerns.  But we must not neglect long term challenges

15. One important concern is our low birth rate
a.  In 10 years’ time, we may not remember the inflation rate in 2008
b. But we will still be thinking about how we can have more babies

16. The numbers are worrying
a.  2.1 is the replacement level
b. But Singapore’s TFR is only 1.29
c. Problem is acute for Chinese, whose TFR is 1.14
i.    This means each family only replacing either the father or mother
ii.   Numbers will decline rapidly in a few generations!

17. Low birth rate is a problem in many societies
a.  Many East Asian societies face the same problem
b. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea all have lower birth rates than Singapore
c. South Korea has a slogan: “get pregnant within a year of marriage and have two babies by 35”.  Reality is much harder

18.  Powerful social and economic forces are affecting all these Confucian societies
a.  Men used to be masters of their households
b. Some even take a few wives
c. That time is past
d. Women want to be treated as equals.  They are no longer satisfied with traditional role of staying at home to look after the family
e. But men have not changed their mindsets fast enough

Relate experience of a single manlooking for a partner
Dating agency noticed he had not found anyone interesting after several dates, a asked him about his expectations

Man: I want someone who is also doing well in her career
Dating agency: OK, should not be a problem; what else?
Man: I want her to be independent
Dating agency: Also OK, most career women are also independent; any other requirements?
Man: She must also be submissive!
f. Luckily, such conservative men are less common nowadays
g. More men today do their share of housework.  They also help to look after children – feeding them and changing nappies

19.  On the other hand, attitudes of many modern women have seen astonishing changes
a.  In major Chinese cities, young women are not in any rush to get married
i.  A Canadian academic interviewed 3 young women graduates from Beijing, and published an article about it
ii. He asked the 3 Beijing young women:  If you found a good job in Southern China, but your boyfriend is in Beijing, what would you do?
iii.  They told him:  We will choose the job
iv. He further asked:  What if he is an intimate boyfriend?  Would you leave him for the job?
v.  They said:  We will still choose the job
vi.  He then asked:  What if he is your fiancé?
vii. Their answer was the same:  We will choose the job

20. Men or women, young people need to see marriage as an important stage in life
a.  Achieve the right balance between career and marriage
b. Otherwise, may miss out on chances to find love and happiness
c. May miss best window to have children and the happiness of family life

21. Some people are marrying later, not because they want to wait, but because they find it harder to find the right partner
a.  They may have smaller social circles, and a busy work schedule
b. Not everyone knows how to woo the opposite sex

22. In the old days, parents arranged marriages for young people, and relied on the “mei po” to find the right partner
a.  Young people today say marriage as a private matter, and that parents should not get involved
b. And the “mei po” has become extinct

23. But many young people still cannot find partners.  What do worried parents do?
a.  In Beijing, parents secretly go to “Parental Matchmaking Sessions” to find suitable partners for their children.  They exchange photos and educational qualifications of their children, and take down phone numbers.  Such activities attract thousands of parents
b. We do not have “Parental Matchmaking Sessions” in Singapore.  Perhaps we ought to ask PA to organise something

24. I hope parents will encourage their children in a sensitive manner  
a.  And that children will see take this matter seriously
b. Ultimately, this is a personal matter, and Govt can only facilitate

25.  I have spoken at length about cost of living concerns.  This is on the minds of many Singaporeans

26.  But we must not ignore the long term problems
a.  Not just our low birth rate
b.  Also how to deal with challenges brought about by the Internet
c.  And how to promote gracious living

27.  We need to pay attention to both short term and long term challenges
a.  This is the Singapore model
b.  This is how we will tackle all challenges that come our way