Public Service: Employment of Differently-Abled Persons

Parliamentary Question: 7 March 2019

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Prime Minister (a) what is the current employment rate of the differently-abled, including persons-in-recovery from mental health conditions, in the public service; (b) what support structures are in place to ensure upgrading and retention of these employees; and © how can the public service as the largest employer change the mindset amongst employers to take advantage of the Open Door Programme and employment credits to support more employment of our differently-abled.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Chan Chun Sing) (for the Prime Minister): Mr Speaker, Sir, as at 31 December 2018, there are more than 300 persons with special needs employed in the Public Service. We do not track the number of officers who are recovering from mental health conditions.

As an inclusive employer, the Public Service is committed to supporting the employment of persons with special needs to take on meaningful jobs in accordance with their abilities. Public agencies have been working closely with SG Enable to drive the hiring of persons with special needs in the Public Service. Our efforts include advertising suitable vacancies on SG Enable’s job portal and participating in career fairs and programmes such as job shadowing, internship and mentorship organised by SG Enable. Agencies can also tap on SG Enable’s Workplace Disability Inclusive Index, advisory and consultancy services, attend disability management workshops and training, or access SG Enable’s online resources.

Once these individuals are in our employment, public agencies also work with SG Enable to train and integrate them into the organisations through employee training, workplace modifications and job redesign. For instance, MCCY had installed magnifier software and equipment to help two officers with special needs read documents on the computer screen and in hard copies more clearly and easily. MOM had also modified its workplace to improve wheelchair accessibility for an officer with limited physical mobility and provided a modified telephone and headset to enable her to make and receive phone calls with greater ease.

Beyond tapping on the support schemes provided by SG Enable, the Public Service is also committed to providing opportunities for our officers with special needs to develop their skills and enhance their ability to perform work in different areas. One good example is Vital, which employs a number of persons with special needs in the Payroll and Claims division. Initially, these officers were assigned duties in claims verification. Once they were familiar with claims verification, they were exposed to payroll processing and eventually were able to take on work in this area as well.

Our officers with special needs are also given a fair chance to be considered for promotion, if they demonstrate good performance and the ability to take on a larger role. In fact, more than 70% of the officers with special needs in the Civil Service had been promoted at least once.

We hope that our commitment to supporting the employment of differently-abled individuals, and the positive experience that we have had doing so, will encourage other employers to come on board in this effort. To this end, some of our public agencies like MOM and GovTech have worked with SG Enable to feature some of our officers with special needs in their outreach efforts.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Speaker, I thank the Minister for the clarification. I am very heartened to hear that we have 300 differently-abled persons within the Public Service. Can Minister share a little bit about some of the challenges that the Public Service may face in having more of such differently-abled persons to join the service? Because I understand that the Service is 170,000 strong and 300 is an amazing effort but I am wondering if there are challenges that are preventing the Service to bring in more? That is one. The other question is, if you could share some of the successes. So, success stories of working with the differently-abled within the Service so that the other employers can also take heed.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Speaker, Sir, on the challenges that the Public Service sector faces, I think they are no different from any other in the private sector. Basically, we look for a job fit, and, in line with the Member’s second question, the issue is really not to look at what the people cannot do, but to look at what the people can do; and then, to design the job scope to fit it with the abilities of the people. So, we look at the abilities rather than the disabilities.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng (Jalan Besar): Sir, I thank the Minister for his answer. I know he is also very supportive of this community. I just want to take this opportunity to honour the good Public Service agencies that are very progressive and very inclusive as well, like National Library Board (NLB), Vital, MOH Holdings and so forth. They have been doing good work. I would ask the Minister and the Public Service to share some of these success stories as my fellow colleague, Ms Anthea Ong has mentioned.

I want to ask Minister, if he would consider to put in perhaps a more ambitious target. Because what we are seeing is 300 out of more than 100,000 employees. I know the Government is generally quite allergic to quotas in this aspect but I am hoping that at least the Public Service can set an example, a model. Perhaps install some targets, for example, maybe even 1% to 2% as a start, so that the rest of us in the country can look towards learning from what is possible. I feel strongly that when the Government puts its heart to something, it always gets done and done fairly well. So, I hope the Minister will consider my suggestion for at least a target to hire persons with special needs including those with mental health.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank Ms Denise Phua for her suggestion. This is something that is close to my heart and I have discussed this long and hard with my staff as to whether we should set a target. Today, we do not set a target, but we have something better than that. Let me explain.

If we set a target, people usually try to meet the target. But I really do not want people to meet the target for the sake of meeting the target. I want people to look at the people based on what they can do; to focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities and fit them into the job, redesign the job to fit the person.

The best incentive for the Public Service to do this in a manpower crunch situation is this: we have a separate quota; in a sense, we do not count in against the usual manpower headcount. So, you can employ more people that is not under your headcount. And every agency has great incentive to do this when there is a manpower tightness in the labour market.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng: I am really heartened by Minister’s sharing of that particular scheme, and I think it is one of the best kept secrets, and I want to honour the Minister for promoting that. But looking at the outcomes, which is about 300 out of more than 100,000 staff in the Public Service, I think that even the scheme must have been facing some obstacles or barriers to achieve the kind of targets or results that we would like to see.

So, I would like to ask the Minister to consider actually setting a bit of a target and really also honoring and recognising those agencies, leaders who actually adopt inclusive employment practices, to their peers. Even if the Public Service starts by saying, “It might end up as tokenism”, there will be some who feel like they might as well make it worthwhile if they were doing it anyway. So, I would seek Minister’s favourable consideration to at least set a soft target.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: I think I did not use that word but Ms Denise Phua used the word. We do not want tokenism. That is not what we want. We want people to really focus on the abilities of what this community can provide. Today, as for the Public Service, it is not a secret as in nobody knows about it. Actually, they all know about it. But I think what we can encourage people to do is to see the examples of those who have embraced the community with special needs and how they have played a constructive and positive part in this whole journey. And that will encourage more people to come on-board.

Today, I looked at the numbers, they are not under any constraints. In fact, they are free from the manpower constraints. They have not hit anywhere near the, if you like, the pool of available quota that we have made available. This is over and above what the usual manpower quotas will be. So, I think there is great scope for us to do more and I will take the Member’s suggestion that we can definitely do more to promote good practices and share some of the best practices in many of these jobs available.

Personally, I have visited some of the call centres including the private ones where people think that people with special needs are less efficient. But actually it is not true. Because sometimes when we have a disability in one of our faculties, we become much more focused in another, and they end up being even more productive than what we call normal people. So, I think, there is some stories that we can share to encourage our people to embrace them. At the same time, we all need to take some effort to redesign some of the jobs in our respective organisations. So, my assurance to the public is that, for the Public Service at least, they have the latitude to go forth in this, and they are not constrained by the manpower quotas in the usual sense.

Mr Speaker: Ms Denise, I will permit this only if it is different from the points you have made earlier.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng: I thank the Minister. I think we are sharing from the same side so I do not think it is an argument but really how far do we go. I think besides the good scheme that you have mentioned just now, I wonder if you could also install a recognition programme —

Mr Speaker: I think you made the point earlier.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng: When I was in some countries, in the public school system, for example, inclusive schools, were actually recognised. The schools who got awarded felt like they really made a difference, and I do not know if that feature or culture can be installed in the Public Service as well. It is not just having an extra headcount, it is doing something really right and doing it well and that they can be recognised and be seen as models.

Organisations like NLB, MOH Holdings, Vital and so forth, they are really doing a good job, and I think we should uphold them, raise them, let them be recognised and others in the rest of the sectors can learn from them.

Mr Speaker: Ms Anthea Ong.

Ms Anthea Ong: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Minister Chan earlier mentioned that he did not actually have the information on persons recovering from mental health conditions within the Public Service. I may be wrong and I stand corrected, I understand that the Public Service still requests for a declaration of medical history which includes mental health conditions. I wonder if that could also be a reason why that information is not known and whether the Public Service is also looking to prohibit that practice if it is actually still going on.

Can I also take this opportunity to formally apologise for being late, to the Speaker and also to Senior Parliamentary Secretary Faishal. Sorry.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: Many of the declarations on medical things are in confidence, so when we ask people to let the organisation know, it is not with the view of a punitive action. It is in fact to make sure that there are some special needs that the organisation should be aware of, then to make sure that we can better take care of the person. Let us say the person, for whatever personal reason, decides not to declare medical in staff confidence questions, I think we can understand that.

But I also want to reassure the House that it is not for punishment or to blacklist anybody. In fact, if anybody declares a medical condition, it is so that we can better take care of the person and that we will not unnecessarily stress the person beyond the point of their capability.

Just to follow on Ms Denise Phua’s point, I agree with her that we can do more to help our people be aware of the opportunities and the potential of the special needs community. I think the greatest rewards for our public servants who embrace such things is because they know deep in their hearts that they are doing the right thing. They are upholding the kind of values that we exemplify and this is much more important to them than any tangible, physical awards. I think that should be how we go forward as a society. It is the kind of values that we want to express rather than tangible rewards per se.

Mr Speaker: Assoc Prof Walter Theseira.

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira (Nominated Member): Mr Speaker, thank you. I thank the Minister for his reply. I think the concern that people may have when filling in these forms to declare their health conditions to their supervisors is that they are concerned they may be perceived as perhaps, not up to the task if they declare a pre-existing or past mental condition. Therefore, that may affect their promotion opportunities and advancement opportunities. So, what can the Public Service do to assure individuals that this should not be a concern, that they should declare everything so that they can be appropriately managed and that they will not be at any risk of not advancing as far in their careers as other people?

Mr Chan Chun Sing: The greatest assurance is what I have just spoken. I am the Minister-in-charge of Public Service and I tell everyone that when we ask people for their medical condition, it is not to blacklist anybody or will this in anyway limit their progression. In fact, we want the person to be safe, we want the workplace that they work in to be safe, so we need to understand their medical conditions and we see how we can help them in that sense. I think that assurance come from me, down to every level in the Public Service. The safety of the individual, the safety of the team and the crew is of utmost concern to us when they conduct any jobs.

We always teach our people, even from my own organisation, I grew up in the SAF, that we must make sure that we know ourselves, know the capabilities of ourselves, know the capabilities of our team members so that we do not put each other in danger, so that we can all accomplish the mission together. I think that philosophy remains that we should not see their declaration of medical condition as a blacklisting exercise or in any way impeding the progress. It is an exercise to make sure that we know the capabilities of the respective members, the limitations of the respective members, so that we can put everyone’s potential to good use.

Mr Speaker: Ms Denise Phua.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng: Last time.

Mr Speaker: Only if it is a fresh perspective.

Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng: Yes. Minister is usually very analytical, perceptive and strategic. I want to ask the Minister what he thinks are the factors behind the dismal employment rates of persons with special needs including for mental health in our Public Service.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: I would put it down to job fit. The job fit requires us to understand the capabilities of the individuals concerned. The job fit also requires the organisations to have a clear understanding of what the individual is capable of. From my experience, in MSF, it is not just in the Public Service sector alone. I think many organisations can do much better than in our efforts to try to understand the capabilities, the abilities of the people that we are talking about and not the disabilities of the people we are talking about. So, that is the first part.

The second part, it does and it is true that organisations will need to take on a bit of work, responsibility to redesign some of the jobs from the type of tools that are being used to the workflow that is being used. That requires a bit of effort and that is another area that we can do much more together with SG Enable’s help to see how we can redesign the job processes. Sometimes, it is not as difficult as we imagine it to be. So, I think these are the two key factors as to why it is so.

The third factor that I have come across is this. We also need to be able to do a much better job in helping our people with disability to profile what they can do to bring out the best in them. And this is something that we all can help, together with SG Enable. These are my own experiences of how we can lift the numbers of people with special needs in employment.

Ms Anthea Ong: I thank Minister Chan for giving the assurance to all that the practice of the declaration of medical history, including mental health condition, is not one that is exclusive, but one that is inclusive. However, in the job market, generally, that is being seen as discriminating to a large extent. It is both coming from a stigma that is in society as well, to self-stigma of the individual. Would Minister Chan be open to considering not having a practice as such but, once a candidate or applicant is employed, to then have the HR team work with the person to give him or her support once he or she comes forward to declare their conditions?

Mr Chan Chun Sing: First, I would like to reiterate that the exercise is one for the safety of the team and the crew and also to bring out the best from each. So, I think the correct way for us to do is that when someone comes into a job, the HR will work with them confidentially to see whether there are any limitations that that person might want to highlight, so that HR knows how best to put the person into the correct fit. It would be quite bad for us to put someone into a job that demands something from that person which is beyond what that person is capable of doing. We should be very careful to do that for the safety of the individual and the safety of the organisation.

So, I think these are things best for us to work confidentially between the HR and the respective individuals. But I just want to say that nobody should feel that by revealing your medical record you would in any way impede your career progression. The revelation of the discussion of one’s medical history with the HR is for the purpose of the safety of the individual so that the organisation can extend the necessary help and design the appropriate job scope for the individual. And that is my assurance to the House.


Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities.

She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion, environment — and volunteerism in Parliament.policy



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