Prof Chong Yap Seng, Dean, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
Mr Lee Poh Wah, Chief Executive Officer, Lien Foundation
Mr Tan Chee Wee, Chief Executive Officer, ECDA
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good morning. It is my pleasure to join you this morning for the inaugural Conference organised by the Centre for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development or CHILD.
2. CHILD is the first of its kind in Asia. It occupies a unique position of leveraging science and data to analyse the outcomes of children in our context, towards improving their health and development. I’m glad that CHILD has been active in sharing scientific knowledge with local policy makers to support the translation of evidence-based findings into policies. And addressing the knowledge gaps of practitioners, helping them to deliver interventions to achieve better outcomes among our children.
3. I would like to congratulate CHILD on this significant milestone of your inaugural conference. Today’s conference brings together different experts from the region to share insights and exchange views on child health, learning and development.
Evidence-based findings inform upstream preventive approach
4. The research and efforts in this field come at a critical juncture. Today, I would like to situate it by sharing three ongoing shifts in society and in Government: going upstream, integrating health and social domains, and placing the family at the centre of all that we do.
5. First, going upstream. Through research, we are learning more about the importance of preventive measures. And gaining more insights into the early years. This is why we are going upstream in our interventions. This is a key shift in Government policies. Instead of waiting for problems to arise, we step in early. We want to prevent problems from emerging in the first place. Intervening when there are early warning signs, before they snowball into bigger problems later. To do so, we need to be informed by research so that we can plan our interventions towards effective outcomes.
6. For instance, we have embarked on Healthier SG to encourage the population and all of society to be actively involved in preventive health. We are also applying this approach in the early childhood sector. Informed by findings on the importance of the early years, the Government has been investing much more into early childhood education. To make quality preschool education more accessible and affordable, even to lower-income families. Last year, we spent $1.8 billion on early childhood education. Because the research tells us that the early years of life are a critical window for development. We also piloted the KidSTART programme in 2016, equipping lower income families and parents with the skills to provide a good home environment and working with the community to strengthen support for families. Encouraging families to enrol their children into preschools from around age 3. So that every child can have a good start in life. We have since started to expand KidSTART nationwide.
7. Equally important as research is its translation into interventions. I’m glad to see many tapping on the findings of the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes” or GUSTO study and developing initiatives to address areas of concern.
a. For example, GUSTO showed that 1 in 5 pregnant women are at risk of developing gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) and together with their children, they are both at higher risks of developing health conditions like obesity and hypertension. To address this, KKH initiated the Temasek Foundation GDM Care Programme to provide enhanced care for mothers with GDM.
b. GUSTO also found that maternal mental health during pregnancy can affect the foetal brain development, giving rise to vulnerability to mood or anxiety disorders in the child’s later life. To address this, we are enhancing maternal mental health screening for pregnant women at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and the National University Hospital (NUH). This enables more women with depressive symptoms to be identified early for treatment and support, to avert any potential downstream issues in their children when they grow up.
8. I encourage more of such efforts, where academics, policymakers, and practitioners work together to deliver interventions to achieve better outcomes for our children, mothers, and families.
Enhancing social and health Integration
9. Second, we are building an integrated ecosystem across the health and social domains, to support children and their families. Beyond medical science, the social determinants of early childhood development are just as important, informing our support for children and their families. Ensuring that the support is holistic.
10. This is a key objective of the Child and Maternal Health and Well-being Taskforce that I lead. Since many of the issues extend beyond healthcare and cut across social domains, the Taskforce comprises partners across different agencies who work together to develop a national Child and Maternal Health and Well-being Strategy.
11. So far, the Taskforce has reviewed evidence-based research findings. We have examined the health needs, risk factors and the wider health determinants across the developmental stages of a child, starting as early as pre-conception through adolescence. We have also tapped into the rich insights from other studies such as the Singapore Longitudinal Early Development Study, or SG LEADS. SG LEADS examines the influence of social-economic factors, cultural background, familial relationships and the environment on child development.
12. The Child and Maternal Health taskforce has also reviewed our service delivery model to improve accessibility to services. Bringing together healthcare agencies and social services to extend more holistic support to mother and child. We started mother-child dyad service pilots at our polyclinics, where mother and child can access services during the same visit, ranging from vaccination to childhood developmental and postnatal depression screenings. At the Committee of Supply Debate this year, I announced the plan to scale the mother-child dyad services to 14 polyclinics by 2025.
13. We need to continue to bring the social and health domains together, both in research and practice, so that we can comprehensively and holistically support children and their families.
Whole-of-society effort to support families
14. The third shift is on placing families at the centre. We are designing policies and programmes around the family. Because individuals are embedded in families. And families form the strong pillar of support for all Singaporeans. They are the primary source of our emotional, social and financial support. Studies show that stability in families is very important to a child’s development. So it makes sense for us to design programmes around families, not just the individual.
15. The government is committed to strengthen families and build a Singapore that is Made for Families. We want to strengthen the foundations of all families. And support those who need additional help.
16. We have already done this through ComLink, where we re-organised ourselves and re-designed support around families, in particular families with children living in public rental housing. Playing a coordinating role, the Government brings together government agencies, social service agencies, and community partners, pooling together local-level resources at the backend. Together with befrienders, we proactively outreach to the family to understand their needs and to tailor support for each family.
17. We continue to design services and programmes around families. We are introducing an integrated family support programme which provide wraparound services for families, allowing them to access health and social services at a one-stop community node near their homes. The node could be a polyclinic, a General Practitioner clinic, or a Social Service Agency. We call this programme ‘Family Nexus.’
18. Family Nexus will enable families to attend parent support groups organised by Families for Life @ Community and receive childhood developmental screening for their children – at the same location. We are expanding the Families for Life @Community (FFLC) to more regions and strengthening Families Programme @ Family Service Centre so that more families can benefit from these efforts.
19. As we continue this Year of Celebrating SG Families, we encourage all of society to step up to strengthen families and ensure that our children are well-supported to be healthy and happy, enabling them to achieve their maximum developmental potential. I’m glad that community partners such as Centre for Fathering and organisations like MENDAKI and SINDA are tapping on findings from research like GUSTO and SG LEADS and designing programmes to better support children and families.
20. We welcome more partners, practitioners, community, and parents to come together to strengthen families and help our children thrive.
21. In closing, today we are presented with an opportunity where we can mould the next generation, through our efforts in going upstream, integrating the health and social domains, and placing families at the centre of what we do. Whether we are academics, practitioners, or policymakers, let us all work together to build good paths of growth and development and enable our children and families to flourish.
22. I wish you all a fruitful conference ahead.