Sunday 20 November 2011

Helping the Needy in Singapore

Some needy families not seeking assistance
Govt working on better outreach and making it easier to get help
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2011

There is a range of government help available for people at the bottom of the income ladder, but it seems many families in financial straits would rather go it alone than seek assistance.

Figures made available to The Straits Times show that only one in 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income ladder may be getting social assistance payments.

Even when they do not earn much, they seem to prefer to rely on themselves rather than seek help from family, friends, charities or the Government.

A study by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) earlier this year of 2,000 lower-income families revealed that more than six in 10 were able to manage without outside help.

Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob said: 'They said they don't need it. They said they would rather work.'
ComCare - the Community Care Endowment Fund - was set up in 2005 to assist families that cannot support themselves get back on their feet.

Singapore has no official poverty line, so it is hard to estimate the number, but as of June last year, there were around 200,000 households at the bottom fifth of the income scale with at least one working member.

Their average monthly income was $2,681, but Department of Statistics figures showed that the poorest 10 per cent - numbering around 100,000 - earned a household income of only $1,400 per month.

MCYS figures as of end-March showed that only about 20,300 families were getting help under various ComCare schemes. A year earlier, at the height of the recession, there were around 25,000.

Aside from those who prefer not to ask for help, around one in 10 low-income earners did not know where to get aid.

'This is where we are working very closely with all our agencies to increase outreach and publicise our programmes,' said Madam Halimah, who chairs the ComCare Supervisory Committee.

These agencies include the community development councils (CDCs), family service centres, grassroots organisations and voluntary welfare groups.

The Government is also trying to make it easier for people to seek help. It plans to have 'service hubs' that will put state and charity providers on the same premises, so that those in need will not have to go from office to office.

Two different service models are being explored, said Madam Halimah. The first will be programme-centred, for example, locating various programmes for the disabled in the same place. The second will be client-centred, focusing on such groups as the elderly, the disabled, dysfunctional families or at-risk youth.

These hubs could be in CDCs.

'At any point people need help, any agency they approach, help should be extended to them,' said Madam Halimah, reiterating her call for a 'no wrong door' policy. 'Anybody who comes to the door needing help must get it.'

Her remarks come in the wake of a new report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation calling for a review of the principle of self-reliance that forms the bedrock of Singapore's social safety system.

The research centre at the Singapore Management University was set up to help the non-profit sector.

As Singapore ages and wages stagnate for those on the lowest rung, more people may need help, the report says.

The Government is aware of the changing demographics and is slowly strengthening the social safety net.

It has increased public assistance payments from $290 to $400 in the past four years. The destitute elderly with children can also get help.

Earlier this year, it turned its attention to the young, lifting the income ceiling for families that qualify for subsidies from $1,800 to $3,500.

Funds disbursed under ComCare have also risen, from $42 million in the 2006 financial year to $61 million last year.

'The social assistance part is not the only component of the social safety net,' said Madam Halimah.

There is housing, education, health care and the Central Provident Fund as well. The bottom line is, if someone really has no savings, he will get help.

Besides, the existence of 'many helping hands' means charities significantly supplement the help provided to beneficiaries, said Madam Halimah, who cited the example of an elderly man she visited recently who lives alone in a one-room rental flat and gets $400 public assistance.

A charity also gives him two free cooked meals a day, someone cleans his flat a couple of times a week, and another helper escorts him to the doctor.

'He gets $400, but the value of services extends far beyond $400,' Madam Halimah noted. 'There is support provided, but unfortunately because of the way we capture information, it may not be accurately reflected. Frankly, I don't think the dollar value of all these services is reflected anywhere.'

However, she acknowledged that the rapid pace at which Singapore is ageing is the biggest challenge facing policymakers. The problem of ageing is compounded by the fact that family support structures are not as strong as before.

Asked if Singapore should consider a pension scheme for the elderly poor who work in menial jobs into their late 70s or 80s, Madam Halimah said Singapore would continue to consider aid for the needy on a case-by-case basis, rather than set blanket rules.

'If you are that age, if you are tired and have no savings, you will get help,' she said.

But should there be an institutionalised subsidy scheme for the elderly poor? Could, say, some of the subsidies now directed to maternity programmes be redirected to the elderly poor?

MCYS has allocated nearly $860 million - almost half its budget - to baby bonus and maternity benefits, childcare and other family development schemes this year, whereas $92.3 million will go directly to the needy.

Madam Halimah said: 'The real point is not how much is going here or going there, but whether by providing here, we are depriving there.'

So are we depriving the needy?

'The answer is no. We are not robbing Peter to pay Paul.'

Groups that need special help

GROUPS such as the disabled, mentally ill or even single mothers are known to be vulnerable, marginalised and in need of special help.

But as Singapore ages and the pressures of globalisation deepen income divides, there are emerging groups who may need more help, said the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Madam Halimah Yacob.

Key among them are the 'silent workers' at the bottom of the income scale. They embody self-reliance, but have a tough time making ends meet.

'This is a group that really needs a tremendous amount of help,' said Madam Halimah.

Just improving their skills through training will not be enough. 'After reskilling, they should be able to land better-paying jobs.'

Instances of lower-income families who marry late, have children late and often fall chronically ill were another 'emerging challenge'.

Citing the case of a family she met recently, Madam Halimah said:'First, the wife fell sick, then the husband, and all at once their income went from $3,000-plus to zero.'

Young people in lower-skilled jobs and unable to afford their own home were another group in need of help.

'The parents were able to afford a flat. But their children can't because they can't catch up in terms of capabilities and because they end up in low-skilled, low-paying jobs,' she said. 'These groups will need more handholding. And that is something we must provide.'

More people apply for ComCare help
Reasons: higher income cap, greater awareness and economic slowdown
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2011

THE number of needy Singaporeans applying for government ComCare funds jumped 25 per cent in the July to September period, compared with the same period last year.

A total of 13,090 people applied, up from 10,487 last year.

Three reasons were identified for this:

First, more people are now eligible for aid after rules for two schemes were liberalised in April, according to a statement released yesterday by the five community development councils (CDCs).

Second, the economy is slowing down, which could have led to more people seeking help, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Mayor of North East District.

Higher inflation this year also propelled more to step forward.

Third, there is greater awareness of help available in the wake of the general election in May, said the CDCs.

Most of the ComCare applications were for self-reliance schemes, which give temporary aid to help families and individuals get through difficult times.

There were 8,049 applications - 20.5 per cent more than in the same quarter last year. This could be due to the higher inflation and cost of living this year, said the CDCs.

Meanwhile, the income ceiling for two ComCare schemes was raised in April, making more families eligible. These are the Centre-based Financial Assistance Scheme for Childcare and the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme.

Before, households with monthly net income of under $1,800 were eligible. Now, households earning up to $3,500 gross income can also receive tiered help based on their income.

From April to last month, 2,385 more applications for both schemes could qualify due to this change. Mr Teo said: 'ComCare itself is becoming a bit more flexible, to cater not just to the lower-income but also to the middle-lower income.'

Also, more people now know to go to their MPs for help after the GE in May.

CDCs have seen more referrals from grassroots organisations and advisers.

From July to September, the number of referrals went up 37 per cent, compared with the same period last year.

There were 612 more referrals, out of a total of 2,266. This was also 34.7 per cent higher than in the previous three months.

The rise might be because residents are more aware that they can seek help through grassroots advisers after the recent general election, said the statement.

The grassroots adviser in a constituency is usually an MP from the ruling party - the People's Action Party.

Mr Teo said most ComCare applications are successful. The People's Association - the umbrella under which CDCs fall - does not reveal the exact percentage of rejected applications.

Are they strong enough?

By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2011

FOR five months between March and August, Mr Ang Seng Hwee, 65, and his wife, Madam Lee Siew Moi, 53, lived on the $297 he got every month in Central Provident Fund (CPF) payouts.

Then in September, the local Community Development Council (CDC) approved Mr Ang's appeal for financial help by granting him $200 a month for three months, together with $80 vouchers for power and water bills.

Even then, their joint income is well below the subsistence payment of $700 that a couple on public assistance gets these days.

The couple's difficulties began early this year when Mr Ang lost his job as a toilet cleaner. Madam Lee, who used to work at a hawker centre, has been jobless since she broke her wrist in a workplace accident in 2006.

Before the CDC assistance came through, Mr Ang would take a 30-minute walk to a Buddhist temple almost daily for free meals. At the end of each month, when money was tight, his wife would go too.

They consider themselves childless, having given up their only son for adoption when he was young.

Last month, after they paid off their bills and some debts, their bank balance shrank to $3.44.

The CDC aid is not permanent, but is usually reviewed every three months.

'We try not to worry too much,' says Madam Lee as she flicks through the pages of her husband's bank book.

Self-reliance not enough

SELF-RELIANCE and the family as the first line of support to those in need have long been bedrocks of Singapore's low-tax, low-entitlement social safety system.

But a new report by a local research centre calls for a judicious review of these long-cherished ideals, as the savings of some families dwindle, family ties fracture, and those on the bottom rung of the income scale find it harder to combat rising costs with stagnant wages.

Compiled by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University, the 74-page report chronicles 'unmet social needs' in Singapore. Among other things, it reviews the support structures that directly relate to those who need help in the community. The centre was set up to advance capabilities in the non-profit sector.

The report highlights four key issues:
- Self-reliance is not enough to overcome the vulnerabilities of some to global economic movements. 
- The public housing and CPF system, which have proved to be robust safety nets in the past, are fraying at the edges. 
- With fewer children, rising divorces and increasing numbers of single elderly, family cannot always be counted on for support. 
- The 'many helping hands' approach - where the Government, charities and the private sector join in helping the needy - is undermined by overlaps, resource constraints and piecemeal intervention.

One of the key points in the report is that self-reliance has its limits, particularly in a society that is ageing faster than most in the world.

While the CPF system helps meet housing, health-care and education needs, it was originally set up to encourage people to save while they work and build up a retirement nest egg, the report points out.

But with more than 40 per cent of savings withdrawn for housing, the CPF is proving inadequate as a cover for the retirement needs of poorer members.

A quarter of CPF members are projected to have less than $40,000 in their accounts by the age of 55 in 2013, precluding them from an annuity scheme that provides lifelong income from age 65.

This group can opt in to the scheme, but willing family members, friends or employers must top up their accounts.

Referring to the elderly poor, the Lien report says: 'For a constituency such as this, where family and community support seem to be weak, the savings scheme presents a shortfall. What's more, long-term unemployment is especially an issue for job seekers aged 40 and above.'

The report adds that it would be worthwhile to 'revisit the CPF system and assess how it is serving the needs of an ageing, and hence larger, retiree pool'.

The Government is mindful that some elderly folk may get CPF payouts too meagre to live on. So it changed rules last year to enable those with monthly CPF payouts that are less than the public assistance rate for an individual - $400 currently - to be entitled to top-ups. But top-ups are not automatic. Beneficiaries must know the rules - and ask for the benefits.

Mr Ang would qualify, but he had no idea.

In 2008, the Government also changed rules to allow the elderly with children to be eligible for public assistance. But between then and now, only 135 additional households have been granted public assistance under the new rules, according to figures from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

'With so many constantly changing schemes, sometimes even social workers don't know all the rules,' acknowledges Mr Choo Jin Kiat, executive director of O'Joy Care Services, which encourages its social workers to delve into the financial situation of its elderly clients, even if they do not ask for help.

The Lien report says: 'Singapore adheres to a strict policy of self-reliance, but there are genuine cases of self-help falling short.'

Suffering in silence

MEANWHILE, as Singapore ages and people live longer, families are already feeling the pressure of supporting their elderly. A 59-year-old preschool teacher's assistant, who wants to be known only as Mrs Tan, says she and her 60-year-old husband are finding it hard to support her sister, 77, and his mother, 91.

Her sister, who is single, suffers from diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis and schizophrenia.

The Tans have a combined monthly income of about $2,300, and about $800 goes towards supporting their two relatives.

But Mrs Tan is likely to lose her job in January. The kindergarten she works for is raising the minimum qualifications for staff, and her O-level results do not qualify for the mandatory upgrading course.

The Tans have two children in their 20s, who have just started working.

'It will be unfair to ask them to support their aunt and grandmother as well as us,' says Mrs Tan.

Homing in on housing

MEANWHILE, home ownership rates - among the highest in the world - are at their lowest level in more than 20 years.

About 87 per cent of resident households owned a home here last year, down from 92 per cent a decade earlier. While this could well be a result of the record influx of immigrants in recent years, some first-timers may be finding homes too expensive - the report notes the marked rise in home prices in recent years.

According to the Housing Board, the average selling price of a new five-room flat in 'non-mature' or newer estates such as Bukit Panjang, Hougang, Jurong West, Sembawang and Woodlands - about $190,000 in 1995 - is about $380,000 today. Flats in mature estates typically cost more.

In comparison, the real median incomes from work, taking inflation into account, grew by just 2.2 per cent per year during the same period.

At the same time, some older folk are finding it hard to downgrade.

When The Straits Times dropped in unannounced on Madam Gan Hee at her four-room Jalan Bahagia flat, the 57-year-old housewife and her retired construction worker husband Tan Ah Choi, 75, were sitting on the floor at the entrance to the flat. To save electricity, they had switched off the fan.

They share the flat with their three grown-up children, a son-in-law and granddaughter, as well as Madam Gan's unmarried younger sister Gan Ten, 50. She is jobless and gets her meals from a free-food distribution centre run by the charity Willing Hearts.

The family's battered fridge was empty except for some fever patches and Yakult for granddaughter Joey, some tomatoes, chye sim, and a small packet of frozen pork.

They say money is tight, but they cannot downgrade as their two older children, both in low-paying contract jobs, cannot afford their own flats. Their youngest son is a student at the Institute of Technical Education.

'How can eight of us fit in a three-room flat?' asks Madam Gan.

The demand for subsidised rental HDB flats, meanwhile, is on the rise, with 45,000 households renting such flats, up from 40,500 in 2008. The Government is ramping up supply, and waiting times for a flat have fallen in recent months.

Elderly people with little or no savings are given priority over those who have family. But getting a rental flat may not always guarantee a roof over one's head.

Just ask Madam Salamah Ahmad, 73, who rents a flat through the HDB's joint singles scheme, through which two single people share a flat, one as main tenant and the other as occupier.

Only Singapore citizens can be the main lessee. Madam Salamah was born in Singapore but says her birth certificate went missing during the Japanese Occupation. So although she has lived here all her life, she is considered stateless and holds a blue identity card - usually reserved for permanent residents.

Shortly after getting the flat in 2008, she claims, her flatmate kicked her out. Since then, Madam Salamah has drifted from flat to flat in her Chai Chee rental block, looking for kindly neighbours to take her in.

She says she has gone to HDB's office to try to cancel her name so she can be eligible to rent another flat, which HDB confirms. 'But I was told that under their rules, I can't do so without consent from my flatmate.'

HDB says it offered to mediate in the dispute. 'But my former flatmate won't come with me to sort out the problem,' says Madam Salamah.

Compulsory savings and public housing may have worked well for many industrious individuals. But the challenges of city living mean that complementary social support structures need to be more robust and creative, says the Lien report.

'The minimum level of social security provision needs to be reviewed.'

Streamlining 'helping hands'

To be fair, there is no shortage of help on the ground, with more than 100 schemes available to help the elderly, sick, needy or the disabled. But the report points out that take-up rates remain lower than the 'visible vulnerabilities'.

The schemes are funded and run by the Government, voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs), grassroots bodies and self-help groups. But coordination falls short, and someone who seeks help may be referred to multiple agencies.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, who has raised the issue in Parliament, acknowledges an urgent need to tweak the 'many helping hands' policy and streamline the array of schemes. 'Help is mostly still piecemeal, even if it is not for lack of trying,' she says. 'Family service centres are beginning to grow as the coordinating hub. But the truth of the matter is, it is often too little, too late.'

Former nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, who has worked with Sinda, the Indian community self-help group, believes the Government must play a more proactive role in the help ecosystem. He says the current 'plethora of schemes and multiple nodes of contact' is too complex to navigate, and confusing for those in need.

Besides, many who need help could be juggling two jobs: 'They would not have the time or the energy to learn how to seek help.'

The Government is aware of the situation, and Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob recently called for a more effective and uniform enforcement of the Government's 'no wrong door' policy to prevent help-seekers from being bounced from one agency to another.

Community leaders like Mr Viswa hope that such discussions - which have been taking place since 2004 - will translate quickly into action.

'There is a misguided fear that making it easy to seek help will create an entitlement mentality. That is simply untrue,' he says.

'We need to realise that making it easy to seek welfare is very different from our becoming a welfare state. Providing welfare to those who can't help themselves is the basic responsibility of any responsive government.'


Companies should minimise outsourcing services they need daily: A decade or more ago, a cleaner who mopped floors at a government agency was a government employee, with the state looking after his every need. Not any more. Cleaners these days are mostly freelance service providers hired by external contractors, who often land a job by offering the cheapest rates - and wages. As a result, real wages for workers at the lowest rung of the income scale have stagnated for more than a decade.
The Government could take the lead by going back to the old practice and not outsource services such as cleaning and security that are needed daily.

Encourage fair wages: The National Trades Union Congress is already actively promoting what it calls 'best sourcing' to discourage companies from awarding contracts to bidders who cut costs and snag deals by paying their workers very little.
More companies - or 'service buyers' - must be encouraged to award contracts only to service providers who guarantee a pre-arranged 'fair wage' for their workers. This wage must take into account costs of living and could also reward productivity.
Put Singaporeans first: Mandate policies that put Singaporeans first, as low-income and older workers are usually most at risk of losing jobs to younger, cheaper foreigners.

Share productivity gains: Expand programmes to incentivise companies to share productivity gains with their low-wage workers.

Enact laws to ensure that companies take care of welfare needs of even contract workers: New laws could be passed to ensure that service buyers are legally responsible for ensuring the welfare of even contract workers who work for them.

If nothing else works, revisit the case for a minimum wage.


Consider giving companies tax breaks to hire the disabled as is done in Japan.

Stop treating the disabled as 'welfare cases'. Help those with mild to moderate disabilities to become self-reliant.

Hire job coaches who can help mentor the disabled at work.

Extend the Workfare Income Supplement, which encourages low-income workers above the age of 35 to work regularly, to younger people with disabilities as well.

Provide transport subsidies.

Ramp up home-care services for the disabled.


Increase flexi-work options: Many single parents, particularly mothers, prefer flexible working arrangements. There is a need to have more enlightened and supportive employers to offer such options.

More help with housing: Housing remains one of the biggest problems single parents face. After splitting the sale proceeds from their marital flat, they might not have enough money to buy a new flat. If it was bought from the HDB, they must have satisfied the five-year minimum occupation period (MOP) if one of them goes on to be the new single owner. They cannot even rent a subsidised flat from HDB within 30 months of selling their previous flat.
Under a programme started last year, the Subordinate Courts now refer low-income divorcing couples or their lawyers to the HDB for help with housing issues. Such programmes should be expanded and single parents with children must be given priority in rental flat queues.

Childcare support: The Government recently enhanced childcare support, and families earning up to $3,500 per month can now get help with childcare fees under the ComCare Grow scheme. However, priority must be given to the children of single-parent families for them to get accepted by the centre that is most convenient for them, so that they do not have to incur additional travel expenses.

Education support: Schemes offering subsidised tuition for the children of single-parent families could be increased as these children may not be supervised enough when their parent is away at work. Free textbooks, story books and stationery help offset education expenses.

Help for unwed mothers and foreign mothers: Foreign women are not eligible to rent subsidised flats from HDB, which is why many foreigners formerly married to Singaporeans face housing woes. In keeping with the policy of promoting 'intact families', unwed mothers also cannot apply for a flat with their children. These policies might end up hurting children - and need to be reviewed.


Train more mental health professionals: As of 2007, there were about 115 practising psychiatrists in Singapore, giving a psychiatrist- to-population ratio of about 2.6 per 100,000, which is low compared with other developed countries like the United States (13.7 per 100,000), Britain (11 per 100,000), and Australia (14 per 100,000). Singapore needs not just more psychiatrists but also allied mental health professionals like nurses and counsellors.

Expand early detection programmes: As part of the National Mental Health Blueprint, the Government is already ramping up community schemes to detect mental health problems early in specific groups, such as the youth. Such programmes need to be expanded.
Expand community outreach for families: Caregivers need more support, whether it is counselling or having centres that offer respite care, should they want a break from the daily burden of caregiving.

Build more drop-in centres for patients: It is common for mentally ill people to disappear from home for days. Many drift on the roads, simply because they have nowhere to go. Increasing drop-in centres for such folk - so that they have a place to rest, take a shower, possibly even have a hot meal - is another way forward.

Launch public campaigns that target stigma: Corporate sponsors or even the Government should step up initiatives to run advertising and other awareness campaigns that target the stigma that the mentally ill face, sometimes even from their own families. These campaigns could focus on how most forms of the illness are treatable, and that with timely intervention, patients can lead meaningful and productive lives.

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