12 May 2007

Help for the poor: So close, yet so far

Spotted on a mailing list, I thought I should reproduce this to illustrate how the current minimal "public aid schemes" available is not easy when it comes to applying for them. Even with the available aid schemes, how many of them, if applied, are given out in time? Some of the individual stories reveal only tip of the iceberg of how the poor is faring in Singapore. All those bracketed and in italics are my own inserted comments I have also highlighted certain sections by bolding them.


Available online on Asiaone.com website as a free story

May 7, 2007
Help for the poor: So close, yet so far
By Vivi Zainol, For The Straits Times

WHY do needy Singaporeans continue to fall through the cracks despite the Government's array of public aid schemes?

To tackle this question, 18 of my students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic interviewed more than 30 low-income households for a vacation module. They found the biggest bar-riers to be education and language.

Many are illiterate. With little knowledge or understanding of schemes to help them, it's not surprising that some say they know the Government is helping them, but they feel it is not doing enough.

Some would rather get an extra job than ask for help. Others struggle to make themselves understood and say they do not have the time, money or energy to make return trips to their MP or Community Development Councils (CDCs) to ask for more help.

For those who did bother, a common complaint heard by students was that the CDC officers are rude.

Several years ago, as a Straits Times community reporter, I had heard the same comment when I asked a woman with three children, and whose husband was in jail for a drug offence, why she did not ask for help. Describing how her experience with CDCs turned her off, she said a CDC officer had sarcastically asked her: 'Didn't your husband leave you any money?'

'If he had, why would I be asking for help?' said the troubled woman, who had contemplated suicide.

One group of Ngee Ann students decided to observe CDC officers in action after receiving the feedback. At one CDC, officers were unfailingly polite (Only one CDC? what about other CDCs? Perhaps they were not as rude because of the presence of students?) - it was the low-income group which was being demanding and uncooperative. However, all the CDC officers were Chinese - help- seekers speaking Malay and Indian had to struggle to make themselves understood.

At another CDC, student Nurlina Fatima Shafrin, 18, recalled how a CDC officer was heard commenting loudly to another officer nearby on how 'irritating' the people who had come to ask for help were, even when the latter, who were filling up forms, could hear them.

What is interesting to note is that interviews by students uncovered a perception among low-income earners that the higher-educated tend to look down on them and are arrogant. Formally attired CDC officers also unintentionally give the impression that they are less approachable.

Not all CDC officers are trained social workers - there are not enough social workers to go around in Singapore.

Also, some members of the low-income group can be downright prickly, believing they have a right to receive handouts from the state.

But surely everybody deserves good customer service regardless of income group? The poor have their pride too.

Could CDCs perhaps train their staff to understand the sensitivities and psyche of the lower-income group? Steps could also be taken to ensure that staff on duty speak different languages and dialects. Members from the low-income group could even be employed to help.

It's good news indeed to hear that the Government has raised public assistance spending from $96 million to $140 million, and ComCare funding from $43 million to $67 million. (What is the duration for that allocated amount spent? What is the percentage of the assistance that goes to actual assistance? How much of it is dispatched to those who need it, and in time? How much of the public assistance would be offset by the increase in GST?)With that much money allocated to the needy (It appears to be a lot of money but is it enough?)it makes sense to ensure these funds reach the ones who need immediate assistance.

Take Mr Ramasamy Ratran, a 52-year-old Indian man, who was a pitiful sight when my students and I chanced upon him. He was lying on the dusty floor in his rented two-room flat, having been discharged from hospital just two weeks earlier.

Fortunately, a former female neighbour and a male friend had taken it upon themselves to look after Mr Ramasamy, who is epileptic and living on his own. Medical social workers had settled his hospital bills, but he was getting no financial help while he was recuperating and unable to work.

'Can you please help him? He needs help. When I first came two weeks ago, there was no electricity. His flat was in total darkness,'
pleaded the former neighbour, who had helped to top up his prepaid utilities smart key to get the electricity back on.

Mr Ramasamy was not the only one my students and I found in need of assistance. When barber Yahya Pinghani, 39, was hospitalised for a kidney problem, he could not work and had no daily income for weeks. His children skipped school that week because there was no money for the bus fare.

Mr Pinghani's wife Murni, 41, complained how, after three weeks, her single friend who had applied for help with her at a CDC had already received assistance while she and her family were still waiting. She revealed that her family owed a whopping $4,000 in utilities bills.

CDCs do give $200 once-off emergency assistance, after which the needy wait six to eight weeks for CDCs to respond. (Six to Eight weeks? Is that how efficient our civil service is?)So what do they do when help is a long time coming? Many see their MPs, getting a $50 cheque for their trouble, or resort to collecting food from voluntary welfare organisations. How many know that they can get immediate assistance from your Citizens Consultative Committee? I did not either, for that matter, till I asked around. (The question in my mind is, how can the CCC help? How immediate can they help and how much. Unfortunately, the writer does not probe enough.)

Perhaps it is time that bulletin boards in HDB flats were put to better use. They could advertise where the poor can get help and give details of the schemes. Many low-income earners are illiterate, but the ones who are not will surely help to spread the word around.

It could also be made mandatory for medical social workers in hospitals to inform social workers or CDCs when a person who is from the low-income group is discharged so they will give him temporary financial assistance during his recovery period.

Last year, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) set up a community care network for the elderly in Ang Mo Kio. Under this scheme, grassroots leaders are trained by family service centres to identify needy households.(Let's hope the grassroots leaders are not as rude as the CDC officers.)

Perhaps if this outreach scheme is formally extended to include all needy Singaporeans, not just the elderly, it could be used to ensure no one falls through the cracks and to explain the help schemes available to the needy.

MCYS minister Vivian Balakrishnan recently called on Singaporeans to be eyes and ears on the ground, saying 'we need the whole of society' and not 'an army of bureaucratic civil servants', when he outlined $140 million worth of initiatives for the low-income group.

The findings of the 18 Ngee Ann polytechnic students who ventured out of their classroom may not be conclusive, but simple observations like theirs should not be belittled. Like any jigsaw puzzle enthusiast will tell you, even one small piece makes a difference.

The writer is a lecturer at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

posted by Charles Tan,

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