Ladies and Gentlemen
1. I am delighted to join you all this afternoon at the 2022 Healthcare Scholarships Award Ceremony. Parents must feel really proud of their children who are receiving the scholarships. My heartiest congratulations to all 120 scholarship recipients.
2. I want to first thank all our healthcare workers for the hard work over the last two and a half years, battling COVID-19 at the frontlines.
3. We are making good progress in living with the disease. We are still in the middle of an infection wave driven by the Omicron variant BA.5, but over the last several days, infection numbers have been falling and week-on-week ratio of infection numbers has dipped below 0.9 over the last couple of days. We should see the wave subsiding further in the coming week.
4. What is more significant, is that we have ridden through this current wave without imposing further social restrictions or imposing border measures. This is because the vast majority of our population has gotten up-to-date vaccinations, which means three shots of mRNA vaccines for most of us.
5. The other reason is that our healthcare system is able to carry the brunt of the current infection wave. Indeed, hospitals and healthcare workers have been very busy. To ease the workload, we have been doing our best to transfer lower-risk patients to COVID-19 Treatment Facilities, and long-term stayers to nursing homes. These transfers have made a significant difference to help hospitals cope with the heavy workload.
6. Hospitals also had to cut down on elective surgeries. We restricted but did not suspend visitors to hospitals. Taking leave was not suspended, so some healthcare workers are still able to take breaks, including flying back to their home countries to see their families.
7. With each wave we are coping better. Remember we have to lock down during the first wave we encountered. This is due to an underlying resilience that we have acquired as a society, with everyone doing his or her part to get vaccinated and boosted.
8. It is also in great part due to the resilience of our healthcare system, which can respond effectively in an infection wave, thus enabling the rest of society to carry on their normal lives.
9. With these conditions we are going through, everyone owes our healthcare workers a debt of gratitude. Thank you.
Healthcare Manpower Challenges
10. A crisis like COVID-19 demonstrated to us the importance of the healthcare workforce in keeping Singapore safe and protecting our way of life.
11. Beyond COVID-19, our longer term challenge is that our population is ageing, which fuels our need for even more healthcare manpower, across various settings, from acute to community.
12. At the same time, due to the pandemic, there is now a higher demand for well-qualified healthcare workers, especially nurses in many countries, who know that Singapore trains our healthcare workers well and will see us as an attractive source for qualified manpower.
13. So a significant change in the post COVID-19 world is that healthcare can no longer be regarded purely as a local domestic service. We need to keep an eye on the international competition for healthcare manpower.
14. We must therefore keep up our relentless effort to build up this workforce, in both size, capability and quality, and continue to make this a top priority. As Nurses’ Day is around the corner, and nurses are in great demand across all healthcare settings and in many countries, let me talk specifically about nurses today.
15. There are a few key thrusts to building up our nursing workforce.
16. First, we must settle two key determinants on the attractiveness of the healthcare sector, namely, remuneration and the professional work environment.
17. On remuneration, we completed a review of the salaries of nurses and allied health professionals in 2021, and the second phase adjustment for nurses has just been completed in July this year.
18. Due to the extraordinary circumstances caused by COVID-19, we have awarded Special Bonuses in 2020 and also a COVID-19 Healthcare Award in 2021. As the pandemic is still ongoing with a major burden falling on our nurses, I think they are deserving of another payment, perhaps structured as a nurses’ retention payment. MOH will be planning an enhanced package for 2022 and 2023, and more details will be announced in a few days’ time – on Nurses’ Day on 1 August.
19. There also needs to be a supportive work environment. Nurses are professionals and want to perform at the highest level of their licence. So we need to continue to support their work, including deploying Healthcare Attendants and encouraging family members to assist in the daily activities of patients, streamline away unnecessary administrative work, introduce technology and improve IT systems. All these, bit by bit, will help.
20. Second, and provided these major determinants can be addressed, we need to continue to attract our young into nursing and train them to be good professional healthcare workers.
21. The good thing is that I believe the standing of nurses has risen significantly in our society over the years. They are often seen as heroes and role models, and it is now common to meet young people, both men and women, who aspire to be nurses or allied health professionals.
22. Our two polytechnics, Nanyang Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic, can take in about 1,400 students collectively now. ITE takes in another close to 500 and National University of Singapore and Singapore Institute of Technology nursing schools take in 400 to 500, from mainly ‘A’ level and Polytechnic graduates respectively. Another 100 to 200 adult workers undergo skills conversion programmes to enter the nursing profession each year.
23. These are all part of the progression pathway for nurses. My estimate is that about 5% of every cohort of about 35,000 students are going into nursing. Amidst the competition for talent by so many industries, this is a very fair share of our precious and limited local talent pool.
24. But we are a small country, and there is a limit to educating and training local nurses to meet our growing demand. This leads to the third thrust of our efforts, which is to continue to recruit good foreign nurses, who are now a third of all practising nurses in Singapore.
25. Our foreign nurses come from a diverse range of countries, mostly within our region. They work alongside local nurses, and take care of all patients, regardless of race or religion. During special days like Nurses’ Day, we celebrate together.
26. As I mentioned, the competition for nurses has become international and more intense. We will continue to find ways to entrench the feeling amongst foreign nurses that they are an integral part of the Singapore healthcare family, and they can continue to develop their careers in Singapore.
27. Finally, to build up manpower, we need good leadership. Nurses have over time risen to lead hospitals in Singapore, drive healthcare initiatives in the community, mentor and train their juniors. This is not just needed in nursing, but across all our healthcare professions.
28. The annual healthcare scholarships is a key initiative to recruit good people in the healthcare industry earlier, and I hope that amongst them, we can groom future leaders for our sector.
29. Today, we are awarding scholarships to 120 recipients. They will be studying in various tertiary institutions, in subjects such as nursing, social work, physiotherapy, diagnostic radiography and pharmaceutical science. Let me say something about a few of our scholarship recipients today.
30. First is Ms Nur Hidayah Binte Sarifudin, who will be receiving the Community Care Scholarship to study Social Work at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
31. Hidayah recently graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) with a Diploma in Social Work. During her diploma course, she underwent an attachment at Bright Hill Evergreen home. The experience resonated with her, as she also has experience as a caregiver and wants to help more people. She has therefore decided to move into medical social work. A wise choice!
32. My second story is about Ms Zelda Chew, who will be receiving the Healthcare Merit Award to study Nursing at the National University of Singapore.
33. Zelda recently graduated from Republic Polytechnic with a Diploma in Pharmaceutical Science. When COVID-19 hit, Zelda worked at Raffles Hospital as a Patient Service Associate, where she assisted doctors and nurses in patient care. She enjoyed this real life experience especially during a pandemic crisis, and decided to join nursing. I must thank her colleagues at Raffles Hospital, who had no doubt inspired her to join nursing.
34. The final story is about Fares Aqil Bin Daniel Khalid, who will also be receiving the Community Care Scholarship to study Physiotherapy at the Singapore Institute of Technology.
35. Fares plays Floorball, and has witnessed how sports injuries can be debilitating and disheartening for athletes. He has also seen first-hand the role physiotherapists have played in helping his grandmother regain some mobility, to be able to enjoy her golden years. After a talk he attended at Victoria Junior College, where he heard more about the work of physiotherapists and other allied health professionals, he made up his mind on his future career. Also a wise choice.
36. Hidayah, Fares and Zelda are three of many stories of young people exploring, considering and inspiring and deciding. I assure you that you are stepping into a very exciting sector that is undergoing major transformation to care for our population better, and embracing the rapid advancing of technology.
37. So keep on learning, keep on embracing opportunities and be a positive force for changes that are for the better. Congratulations once again, and I wish you all the best in your studies and future career.