Tuesday 1 March 2016

Poverty in Singapore: The faces behind the financial aid figures

At least 91,000 people received a helping hand in the form of financial aid from the state in 2014. Insight looks at six families and individuals who typify those on social assistance in Singapore.
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent and Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Two months ago, the Government for the first time released detailed figures on the breakdown of citizens who received financial aid from the state.

In the financial year ending March 2015, 91,093 Singaporeans - or about 2.7 per cent of the citizen population - received $116 million in some form of social assistance.

This was a sharp jump from the 54,041 who received $61 million in aid in 2010.

"The increase is not too surprising because we have increased our efforts in the last few years to bring help closer to those in need," Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said last December.

The criteria to determine who can benefit from ComCare - the Community Care Endowment Fund - have been revised "so that more can be assisted", he explained.

ComCare was tweaked to benefit more families who require short- to medium-term assistance.

Among others, the household income cap was raised from $1,500 to $1,900, and the per capita income criterion was reviewed so that families with more dependants could qualify.

Some observers have described this as a government "shifting to the left". Yet it is worth noting that much of this aid is not just a handout, but also targeted at helping struggling families and individuals get back on their feet.

The Sunday Times looked at six cases of people receiving some form of social assistance from the state.

At the practical level, they all have a roof over their heads. Hearteningly, they look beyond that, too, expressing a desire for a better life for their children. And they show resilience and resourcefulness to not just rely on the financial assistance.

"I am upgrading (my skills) to provide more for the family," declared one of them, security guard Vengatalakshmi Velusamy, 34, a mother of two young children, who is training to be a healthcare assistant. She is the sole breadwinner as her husband is an Indian national who cannot currently work here.

When Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announces the annual Budget next month and MPs debate government spending for the year ahead, some attention will turn to whether this pool of citizens continues to get adequate support.

Some perennial questions will likely also be asked. Among them: Who are these poor Singaporeans who are receiving financial help from the state? How did they land in dire straits, and how likely are they to be able to escape their plight?

Some answers came last year, when the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) released the demographic profile of those receiving ComCare help. ComCare provides three broad types of assistance: long-term help, largely for the elderly poor; interim and short- to medium-term help for those facing crises like illness or retrenchment; and kindergarten and student-care subsidies for children.

About half of the households receiving short- to medium-term help live in one- or two-room HDB flats. One in four households has the main breadwinner working; one in four households has the breadwinner looking for work.

The MSF did not elaborate on their racial backgrounds, or what led to their financial hardship.

But questions remain: Do these folk constitute what passes for "poverty" in affluent Singapore? Might there be others like them who need help but have not received it?

Singapore has no official national definition of poverty, unlike some countries such as the United States which have poverty thresholds based on household income and size.

Three years ago, then-Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing explained that the Government has "multiple lines of assistance across the entire spectrum rather than having one line".

The ministry's website points out that its help schemes typically cover the bottom 20th percentile of households, with the flexibility to go beyond if the family's circumstances merit consideration.

However, in the absence of an official definition of poverty, the 2.7 per cent of citizens receiving ComCare help could be seen as a proxy measure of the extent of poverty here.

As to what lands people in the poverty trap, a study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation last year identified some root causes: Low-wage workers' wages are depressed due to the influx of cheap foreign labour, and workers are left out of economic growth.

Help for these affected workers has been stepped up. Those earning $1,900 or less a month receive Workfare income supplements in cash and top-ups to their Central Provident Fund accounts.

Some 372,245 workers received $422.8 million for working between January and September 2014, up from about 320,000 workers who received $343 million in 2009.

Thanks to these schemes, the incomes of the bottom fifth that stagnated between 2001 and 2010 have improved, growing by an average of 2.1 per cent a year from 2010 to 2015 after taking inflation into account.

Social workers note that there remains a group of core poor in Singapore - mostly the elderly and sick who cannot work. This group on long-term ComCare assistance has remained relatively stable - 4,134 in 2014, up from 3,479 in 2010.

Then there are those whose incomes have not caught up with rising costs. "Many people still live from hand to mouth because their income levels fail to catch up with the cost of living," says Mr Wee Lin, chairman of Sunlove Abode, which runs a network of seniors activity centres and clinics.

The number of those getting short- to medium-term ComCare help grew from 30,908 in 2010 to 67,926 in 2014.

Mr Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, said unemployment and medical or family issues could have driven more to seek help.

Some of these underlying causes and issues were found in the five families and one individual whom The Sunday Times spoke to.

Five of them are on ComCare and one family could have qualified for such aid, but did not seek help.

Their stories - the faces of the social transfers that have become a key part of today's Budgets - highlight the necessity of such financial help, as well as the role charities and others in society can play.


Family of 7 live on $1,300 a month
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Some people call sole breadwinners like Mr Ong Leong Hock the "sandwiched class" because they have young children to take care of and elderly parents to support.

But Mr Ong, 49, is literally sandwiched between his wife and three daughters on two beds joined together in a room every night. His family of five would squeeze in a room because the other room in their three-room flat is occupied by his parents.

Though he promised his wife when they got married 13 years ago that they would get a place of their own, it has yet to materialise because finances are tight.

"I have applied for a two-room rental flat nearby because the kids are growing and need their own space and my parents can rent out the room for some income," says Mr Ong in Mandarin. His three daughters are aged four, 12 and 13.

To make ends meet, Mr Ong puts in long hours as a cooked food stall assistant. He starts work at the economical rice stall at the nearby Kovan Hougang market and food centre just after 7am and knocks off at nearly 9pm on weekdays.

Yet he brings in only $1,300 a month, barely enough to provide for all seven family members. So his 73-year-old mother, until recently, has been working as a cleaner to supplement the household income.

Last week, she quit her $1,000 a month cleaning job to help care for her husband, 80, who has lung and heart problems, diabetes and other chronic medical conditions.

Together with her daughter-in-law, a homemaker, they wipe him down every day and cook for him. Last Sunday, he was admitted to hospital after coming down with a viral infection. He has since been discharged.

"We scrimp and save by sharing packets of food and getting donated clothes from the aunties at their schools," says Mr Ong.

"But the bigger headache comes when one of the children gets a fever in the middle of the night, as the hospital bills and taxi fares can come up to a few hundred dollars," he adds. For such situations, he borrows money from friends, as he has no savings.

After dropping out of Secondary 2, he worked as a food delivery man and a food stall assistant.

"It is stressful coming home after a long day having to worry about the health of my parents and putting food on the table for the children, but this is reality," he says.

When asked about switching to a better-paying job, he says: "With my age and educational qualifications, who wants to hire me? The most I get is $1,800 as a delivery man, but the sums work out to be the same. As a stall assistant I get free meals and it's walking distance so I save on transport."

He has not applied for the ComCare financial assistance scheme as he has not heard of it. "My English is not good and I don't have any computer so I don't know what all those are," he says. However, his three daughters are on the Ministry of Education Financial Assistance Scheme that covers textbooks, school attire and transport expenses.

He does not have any ideas on how to plan a better future. "By the time I come home, I am too tired to think. I can't go for those skills upgrading courses because my pay will be cut if I take time off work. The economy is so bad, what if I get retrenched? Better to stick to what I am familiar with," says Mr Ong.

"I would rather look for extra part-time jobs during the weekend, as they give me immediate cash, than worry about the future."

The loving father makes a point to set aside time to bond with his family. Last Monday, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, he had a day off, so he took his family out to nearby provision stores to stock up on household supplies.

"Since I can't give them much, I always nag my kids to study hard so they can find good jobs," says Mr Ong. "For myself, I don't dare to dream because there are no savings, no starting point. I will take one step at a time."


NAME: Ong Leong Hock

AGE: 49

FAMILY: Lives in a three-room flat in Hougang with his wife, three young daughters and his parents.

JOB: Cooked food stall assistant

HEALTH: Family healthy except for his 80-year-old father who has lung and heart problems, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Children on Ministry of Education Financial Assistance Scheme


PER CAPITA INCOME: $260 (excluding his parents who dig into their savings to help support themselves)

EXPENDITURE: $800 on food, household expenses

• Mr Ong belongs to a lower-income group in the "sandwiched class" who support both their parents and children, and struggle with living expenses.

• However, the term sandwiched class is used more commonly here to refer to the squeezed middle class who pay personal income tax but do not obtain sufficient government subsidies to achieve their aspirations.

• Both the lower- and middle-income sandwiched groups who have young children and elderly parents to take care of face added financial and care-giving stresses.

• That is why last year's Budget had measures to help them with the cost of living, including halving the monthly $120 concessionary maid levy for those with children or elderly parents, removing fees for all national exams, top-ups to education accounts and a 50 per cent personal income tax rebate for last year, capped at $1,000.


Teen hopes to break long cycle of struggle
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Mr Md Ridzwan Azmi, 18, wants to break out of three generations of struggle. His parents are in jail for drug offences.

Since birth, he has been raised by his 74-year-old grandmother, Madam Pon Md Nor, and his 85-year-old grandfather, Mr Ahmad Taman.

Until this month, Mr Ahmad was the main breadwinner, earning around $1,500 a month as a security guard. But he has just been diagnosed with lung cancer, after he had a fall at work and was taken to hospital.

Mr Md Ridzwan had dreams of being a modern dance performer, but he put them on hold to study chemical technology at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). His dream now is to go to polytechnic and be a laboratory technician.

"If I achieve that, I will be the first in the family to graduate," he says.

Home is a one-room, second-storey Housing Board rental flat in Marsiling. It is about the size of three parking spaces, and Mr Md Ridzwan shares it with seven people - his grandparents, an uncle, three siblings and a cousin.

However, the family has another one-room rental flat on the ninth storey of the same block under his parents' names.

"I only go there at night with my brother (Rizan) to sleep. I spend most of my time in my grandparents' flat," he says.

Mr Md Ridzwan and his sisters - 15-year-old Ratwa Sari and nine-year-old Nur Diana - receive a total of $1,400 in ComCare assistance a month as they are still in school. He also works part-time.

"Wedding decorator, waiter, operating rides at Uncle Ringo's funfair, I have done all that before," Mr Md Ridzwan says. "What I earn, I give half to my grandmother."

He had to stop work this year after starting on an internship.

He does not invite friends home because he is reluctant to tell them about his family.

His brother, 24-year-old Md Rizan, has started work as an operations executive in a security agency, but his income is unstable.

Madam Pon, who manages the family finances, says most of the money goes to food.

She does not know whether her husband is entitled to financial assistance now that he cannot work.

The elderly couple also supports their son, Mr Kamal Ahmad, 53, who has a mental disability.

Mr Md Ridzwan says: "I cried when I found out my grandfather was ill. He is my role model because he worked hard to look after the family. He puts everyone else first.

"I had dropped out of Secondary 3 and met with bad company, but my grandfather did not give up (on me)." Mr Md Ridzwan subsequently finished his N levels on a Mendaki programme and got into ITE in 2014. But the worries over his family have affected his grades.

His grade point average slipped from 3.5 out of 4 in his first year to 2.2 in the first term of his second year. "I need to improve if I want to go to polytechnic," he says.

He knows that money is tight.

"I don't have a watch or cellphone," he says.

He uses a 7-inch Samsung tablet for schoolwork and messaging.

"I need a laptop for schoolwork, but I cannot afford it. It would cost $400 even with the school's subsidy," he says. "So I ask for more time to do computer work in school."

When The Sunday Times visited, his sisters were playing at the staircase and lift lobby, as their grandparents' flat is poorly ventilated. Nur Diana was riding a scooter with a broken seat.

"It is very difficult to study here," Mr Md Ridzwan says. "I want to be the first person to change.

"The family can't keep doing the same things over and over again in this environment."

But he has not given up his dreams of dancing, which he picked up in secondary school from a group of boys at the void deck.

"Maybe I can take part in a competition. I heard there are some with good prizes. Do you know of any?"


NAME: Md Ridzwan Azmi

AGE: 18

FAMILY: Lives in a one-room rental flat in Marsiling with his grandparents, three siblings, an uncle and a cousin. His parents, who are both in jail for drug offences, have another one-room rental flat in the same Housing Board block, where he and his brother Md Rizan Azmi, 24, go at night to sleep.

JOB: Full-time Institute of Technical Education student

FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Monthly ComCare short- to medium-term assistance scheme allowance of $1,400 for Mr Md Ridzwan and two younger sisters aged nine and 15.



EXPENDITURE: Food, transport and school expenses

• Those on short- to medium-term assistance are mostly those facing crises such as illness or retrenchment.

• Financial aid is typically given out in six-month blocks. Families with monthly household income of $1,900 and below, or a per capita income of $650, can qualify for assistance if they have little or no savings or lack family support.

• In the financial year ending March 2015, 67,926 people were on the scheme. It is the ComCare scheme with the largest number of recipients - three out of four people who received ComCare help received short- to medium-term aid.

• It is also the scheme that saw the largest spike in numbers - the recipients in FY 2014 more than doubled from 30,908 in FY 2010.

Spending on short- to medium-term help quadrupled from $16.62 million in FY 2010 to $68.67 million in FY 2014.


From own 5-room flat to 2-room rental
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Life used to be comfortable for Mr Leck Wee Nee.

The 52-year-old owned a van and ran a one-man courier company, and wife Geraldine Chen had a small gift-and-flower stall in Clementi. They lived in a five-room Housing Board flat in Pasir Ris with their three children. They could even afford a maid.

Today, the couple and six of their now seven children live in a two-room HDB rental flat in Clementi about the size of four parking spaces. Mr Leck is unable to work because of a heart problem and high blood pressure, and his wife stays home to look after the children. Their only income is $1,200 a month from ComCare.

Mr Leck used to volunteer at the weekly Meet-the-People sessions at the People's Action Party branch in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, helping residents with financial problems write appeal letters.

Now, he has had to see his Clementi MP Tan Wu Meng to appeal for financial help.

Their problems began when courier deliveries dried up during Sars in 2003, and his business folded a year later. He took to driving a taxi. "I drove about 18 hours a day without a relief (driver)," says Mr Leck.

Still, he could not keep up with the mortgage on his five-room flat, so he sold it and downgraded to a three-room flat in Boon Lay in 2006. In 2007, he was jailed after chalking up more than $1,000 in unpaid court and traffic fines. In jail, doctors found he had heart problems which led to breathlessness.

After jail, he returned to taxi driving but his vocational licence was revoked by the Land Transport Authority after a passenger complaint.

Mr Leck's health deteriorated and when he tried to work as a security guard, he almost fainted on his first day during patrolling. Doctors have since certified him to be unfit for work, he says.

Without a regular income, the family fell behind on mortgage payments. The HDB repossessed the flat and allocated the two-room rental flat to them in 2011.

Besides ComCare help, the family also receives $150 from Touch Community Services each month.

The Community Development Council has been trying to get Madam Chen, 42, back to work. "I tried working at Sheng Siong supermarket but had to stop because they wanted me to work night shift," says Madam Chen. "If I work nights, I cannot look after the children and my husband in the day."

Five of their children, aged between seven and 18, study full-time - three in primary school, one in secondary school and one at the Institute of Technical Education.

A 21-year-old son works as a part-time packer and attends night classes, after dropping out of secondary school. The Lecks also have a 22-year-old daughter - their eldest child - who got married and moved out last year, to another rental flat in the same block.

Mr Leck says the family's finances worry him. He shows The Sunday Times two bank books - a POSB one with a balance of just 66 cents as at December and an OCBC one with a zero balance as at last month. The ComCare payment is made to the OCBC account.

"The (ComCare) money comes in at the start of the month and runs out around the 20-something of the month," says Mr Leck.

The family spends about $20 on food each day, or $600 a month, out of the $1,200 they get from ComCare. About $160 goes to utility and service and conservancy charges, $165 to rent, and the rest to the children's education.

Madam Chen lost three of her four front teeth two years ago because of decay, but she cannot afford dentures. "That's why I don't smile," she says apologetically.

On why they had so many children, she says she thought about abortion, but could not go through with it as she is a Buddhist.

Still, she feels depressed when she sees her husband and four sons having to sleep on mattresses in the living room. She shares the bedroom with her seven-year-old daughter and the 21-year-old son, who sleeps on the floor.

The parents are pinning their hopes on 18-year-old Jun Jie, who is studying at ITE, and 12-year-old Jun Hao, who is in Secondary 1. Jun Jie hopes to go to polytechnic, while Jun Hao is good in his studies, says Madam Chen.



AGE: 52

FAMILY: Wife Geraldine Chen, 42, and six children, living in a two-room Housing Board rental flat in Clementi. The six children are: Risis, 21, working as part-time packer and attending night classes; Jun Jie, 18, ITE student; Jun Hao, 12, Secondary 1 student; Jun Long, 11, Primary 6 pupil; Jun Wei, 10, Primary 5 pupil and Jun Hui, seven, Primary 1 pupil. Eldest daughter Vivian, 22, has married and moved out of the family home to another rental flat in the same block. She is not working.

JOB: Unable to work because of illness.

FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Monthly ComCare short- to medium-term assistance scheme allowance of $1,200.

HEALTH: Poor health. Suffers from heart problems and breathlessness.



EXPENDITURE: $600 on food, the rest on transport and utilities.

• Mr Leck's family of eight is one of the largest households receiving ComCare short- to medium-term aid.

• About half of the households receiving such aid have sizes of one or two members. Only 7.4 per cent of the households have six or more members, like Mr Leck's.

• About one in four households which receives such aid has the main breadwinner working, and one in four households has the breadwinner looking for work. Only about one in five households, like Mr Leck's, has the main breadwinner medically unfit to work.

• While Madam Chen is able to work, she has to look after the five school-going children and her sick husband.


'No money for food at end of the month'
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

It is 9pm on a Monday and Sasha (not her real name) has not only skipped dinner, but breakfast and lunch as well.

"I haven't eaten all day because there is no money for food towards the end of the month," says Sasha, who is in her 40s and a single mother of four children. She has been married three times.

"Usually, I just drink water and let the children have instant noodle or $2 packets of food," she adds, breaking into a hacking cough.

Sasha wakes at dawn each weekday to prepare her children for school, then leaves for her job as an administrative assistant. The mum and two daughters, aged seven and 14, together with a 15-year-old son, live in a two-room rental flat in Woodlands. She also has a 21-year-old son from her first marriage - the husband died in an accident- but he is estranged and lives with her mother.

Sasha is bringing up the three children singlehandedly as her current and third husband, a former warehouse packer, was jailed in 2014 for drug offences. He will be released only in 2019.

On how she copes with day-to-day living, she says: "Thankfully, the older children are sensible and they pick up the youngest child from student care in the evenings when I am at work. They also supervise each other's homework and help with housework."

But then there is the other struggle - finances. Or lack of them. Her $1,200 pay does not cover the family's monthly $1,500 expenses on food, cellphone bills, transport and debt repayments.

The debts - about $11,000 to electronics and furniture retailer Courts - are from her second marriage. That husband, a drug addict who was in and out of jail, was physically abusive. They divorced about 10 years ago and Sasha took out a Personal Protection Order.

Sasha pays it off in $200 instalments each month. "Since 2001, I have been paying little by little but there is still $9,000 left because with the interest, the money owed keeps snowballing," she says.

She does not know how much interest she is being charged. When asked why, she replies: "They have been asking me to come to discuss this but I have no time and I am stressed enough already."

She also owes nearly $2,000 in credit card debts, but the bank has waived its interest charges.

To cope with daily expenses, she has asked her boss for pay advances for the past two years. Most of her gold jewellery has been pawned and she manages debts by borrowing from friends.

She does not turn to her parents or siblings for help because they are not on good terms.

For three months last year from September, the family received $1,000 a month from the ComCare short-term assistance scheme. Though those payouts have ended, they are on another form of ComCare help now. All rent, utility and service and conservancy charges are being covered but that ends this month.

"My neighbours have asked me to go together and renew the ComCare application but I have no leave to take and if I take time off, my pay will be cut," says Sasha.

Touch Community Services has also been providing weekly tuition to her children at home.

Sasha admits: "In the past I had depression and suicidal thoughts, and sometimes, those feelings come back. But I think about my children and of others worse off than me and I tell myself I can do it."

Smiling, she then tells The Sunday Times that the family can collect the keys to a four-room flat in Yishun by the year-end. She and her husband had booked the $350,000 flat in 2013. It is being paid for with the money from their Central Provident Fund accounts, and they have taken a housing loan.

When asked why she did not cancel the application for the new flat given her financial constraints, she says: "I don't want to waste money renting a place and the children need something long-term. There are a lot of drug addicts here.

"With the new house, we hope to start a new life. I want to give the children a good life."


NAME: Sasha (not her real name)

AGE: In her 40s

FAMILY: Lives in a two-room rental flat in Woodlands with one son, aged 15, and two daughters, 14 and seven. Her husband is in jail for drug offences and she has an estranged son, 21, who is living separately with her mother.

JOB: Administrative assistant

HEALTH: Family all healthy


• ComCare covers rental, utilities and service and conservancy charges for six months

• Weekly tuition for the youngest child provided by Touch Community Services



EXPENDITURE: $1,500 on food, cellphone bills, transport expenses and debts

• Single parents are defined as a sole parent caring for dependent children. They parent alone because of various circumstances. Some are unwed mothers, while others are divorcees, widows or have separated from their partners.

• Lone parents may also be temporarily parenting alone due to their husbands being in jail.

• Single parents are caregivers to their children as well as the breadwinners. They bear responsibilities usually shared by two adults and so face huge time pressures and financial strain.

• In July last year, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said that the benefits for single unwed mothers are being reviewed.

• Unwed mothers currently are given only half of the 16 weeks of paid maternity leave that married mothers get. They must also wait until they are 35 years old to buy an HDB flat under the singles scheme.


78 and nearly blind, but 'very resilient'
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Rag-and-bone man Lee Pang Kiab is 78 years old and nearly blind, but neither age nor illness deters him from pushing his trolley on the roads to collect discarded items to sell.

Confidently hobbling along his route, Mr Lee barely breaks into a sweat as he navigates across roads, up bridges and even against the flow of traffic - even though, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all he can see are hazy outlines of trees and buildings amid shadows. He makes out the flashing green man at pedestrian crossings by squinting.

"I have been using this route for the last 30 years and I know it by heart," says Mr Lee in Hokkien as he guides this reporter along the familiar circuit - from his one-room rental flat in Redhill to the blocks of flats in Telok Blangah - that he makes three or four times a week.

"Weekends are when families clean their houses and discard more things," he says, craning his neck to scan the void decks for ripe pickings.

His karung guni runs give him up to $100 to supplement the $450 he gets monthly under the ComCare assistance scheme. He spends about $100 on cigarettes and $150 on beer, with the rest going to food-related expenses.

Mr Lee's eyesight started to deteriorate four years ago when an infection set in after cataract surgery. He is completely blind in his left eye and his right has only 20 per cent vision.

Though his is a one-trolley operation, he can amass up to 50kg of things to sell on each trip. He collects newspapers or electronic items like fans, TV sets and radios.

On this day, he gets his hands on cardboard boxes, a speaker, computer parts and fluorescent lights. He has a workstation in his flat dedicated to ripping up electronic items to harvest copper or aluminium to sell.

He sells the items to a "higher class" karung guni neighbour who has a van to transport them to second-hand dealers. "It gives me the pocket money to drink coffee and I can walk around and enjoy the fresh air. Otherwise, sitting around is sian(boring)," he says.

His disabled wife died some 40 years ago and he is estranged from his three sons who are in their 40s. His five siblings have all died. "I don't know how to locate my sons and I don't want to. Anyway, this problem is common in many families," he says. He hardly talks to his friends or neighbours as he does not know what to talk to them about.

When loneliness strikes, he nurses a bottle of Tiger beer or Guinness stout and daydreams. "I dream of all that is impossible now - being a prime minister, being a big boss or having a girlfriend. The beer helps me fall asleep more easily," he says.

His jocular nature belies long years of hard work. The tips of his fingernails are black from dirt and grime. Dark calluses line his palms.

Mr Lee has no savings as in his younger days he was a low-wage earner and found it tough to save. He dropped out of primary school and had been an odd-job worker, provision store assistant and fish farmer.

Though finances are tight and he has not bought any new clothes in the last five years, he is resourceful.

During Chinese New Year, he notes when charities and grassroots groups hold festive events and collects hongbao there. He does not have a phone, so social workers from a nearby daycare centre have to visit his flat if they wish to contact him.

Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities provides him lunch and dinner through its daily delivery services. Once a week, its home-help team does housekeeping chores for him.

Twice a week, he goes to the daycare centre run by Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing for physiotherapy, social activities and medical consultations.

Hua Mei social worker Wang Yu Hsuan says: "He is a very resilient man and though we worry about his safety when he goes on his karung guni rounds, we know he is familiar with the environment. He seems to be coping well now but when he loses his sight completely, he may need help with caregiving or require more befriending services."

As for Mr Lee, he says: "Life's tough. I don't have any family to take care of me, but I'm happy. When my eyesight goes, I hope to leave the world and not be a burden."


NAME: Lee Pang Kiab

AGE: 78

FAMILY: Living alone in a one-room rental flat in Redhill. His wife has died and he is estranged from his three sons who are in their 40s.

JOB: Part-time karung guni man

HEALTH: Left eye blind, right eye 20 per cent vision. On medication for epilepsy.


• Monthly ComCare long-term assistance scheme allowance of $450 since 2007

• Daily meals' delivery

• Weekly housekeeping

• Physiotherapy, medical consultations and recreational activities at nearby daycare centre



EXPENDITURE: $550 on cigarettes, beer and food

• Those on the ComCare long-term assistance scheme are mostly the elderly poor unable to work due to old age, illness or unfavourable family circumstances and have no stable income. In the 2014 financial year ending March last year, 3,846 people were on the scheme.

• Majority of applicants are 60 and above and live alone in one- or two-room flats. Most are single, with primary or no formal education.

• Spending on long-term help grew to $18.7 million in 2014, up from $17.3 million the year before.

• Says Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in a blog post: "We all know that our society is ageing and we may see more vulnerable elderly among us. The financial challenge is but one of several. As we age, our physical and mental capacities will decline. There is risk of social isolation. Family caregivers may struggle to cope. To make matters worse, some may even face financial exploitation."


Mum's burden with husband on visit pass
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

Singaporean Vengatalakshmi Velusamy met and married driver Betthi Raj in India in 2009. She gave birth to a son in India a year later - but more than half a decade later, living in Singapore now, things do not seem so rosy.

This is because her husband, a 34-year-old Indian national, is not able to work here. He and their son, also an Indian national, are on visitor passes which they need to renew every month. The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) has also rejected Mr Betthi's application for a long-term visit pass, and also for a student pass for the couple's son, Balakrisha.

It falls on Ms Vengatalakshmi to provide for the family - which has also expanded, as the couple had a daughter, Lineysha, born in Singapore in 2014. The 34-year-old mum works as a relief security guard for about $70 a day, earning about $1,600 a month.

She says: "I do not have many job options. I have only Secondary 3 education. If I stop working for one day, the family has no money."

They live in a one-room HDB rental flat in Marsiling, rented under her name and that of her daughter. "The Housing Board needs two Singaporeans, and we are the only Singaporeans in the family," she notes.

Ms Vengatalakshmi says life has always been tough. When she was four, her mother was paralysed after a motorcycle accident: "I grew up without a mother to look after me. I had to look after her instead."

Her father worked as a postman, and she has a brother as well.

On her 21st birthday, she got married, but divorced seven years later. "The only good thing was that we didn't have a child," she says.

The family's financial prospects improved last year after Ms Vengatalakshmi got help from ComCare. The Social Service Office and Community Development Council found her a spot on a healthcare attendant course and she has been receiving a monthly allowance of $850 for six months, which expires next month.

She has put her security guard job on hold while she attends the full-time course, working only during the weekends or during breaks between modules. She has completed half the course and is waiting for a two-week attachment before starting the latter part.

On completion, she will be able to work as a healthcare attendant. "The long-term prospects are better," she says. "There is job stability and I can sponsor my husband's stay with a stable job."

Latest salary data from the Manpower Ministry shows that the median gross monthly wage of healthcare attendants was $1,705 in 2014.

Ms Vengatalakshmi plans to juggle between being a security guard and a healthcare attendant, with one job during the day and the other at night.

"I will do it even if it means seeing my family for one hour each day," she adds, her eyes welling up with tears. "I am prepared to work hard."

Indeed, while pregnant with Lineysha in 2014, "I found an employer, Concord Security, that was willing to hire me and I worked until I delivered my daughter".

She recalls that when she was in secondary school, she was "quite good" with computers, but did not get to pursue her interest. "It is too late for me now," she laments.

For now, she is hoping to give her two children a better life.

"Balakrisha wants to be a policeman, but he cannot even go to kindergarten here," says Ms Vengatalakshmi. "I don't know why ICA rejected the student pass application. I gave birth to him and I am a Singaporean."

She does not have time to teach him at home and her husband does not speak English.

When The Sunday Times visited two weeks ago, the five-year-old was playing games on a tablet.

Besides the student pass for her son, the mum hopes to get her husband on a special category of the long-term visit pass that allows foreign spouses of Singaporeans to live and work here.

In the long run, she wants both to become permanent residents and, eventually, citizens, buying their own Housing Board flat.

"My husband was earning a good living in India. Life is harder now but I do not regret coming back," she says. "This is our home now and all I want is for my children to have a better life than me."


PROFILE NAME: Vengatalakshmi Velusamy

AGE: 34

FAMILY: Lives with husband Betthi Raj, 34; son Balakrisha, five; and daughter Lineysha, two; in a one-room rental flat in Marsiling. Her husband and son are Indian nationals. Balakrisha was born in India, while Lineysha was born in Singapore.

JOB: Security guard

FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Monthly ComCare short- to medium-term assistance scheme allowance of $850 when Ms Vengatalakshmi attends a healthcare attendant course.



EXPENDITURE: $1,600 on food, transport and visa applications

• About 28,000 marriages are registered in Singapore each year and about three in 10 involve a Singaporean and a foreigner, according to the latest available statistics.

• Foreigners who marry Singaporeans do not automatically qualify for long-term stay here. Not all who get to stay are allowed to work. Only those on the Long-Term Visit Pass-Plus (LTVP+) scheme introduced in 2012 can work and enjoy some healthcare benefits. There were 7,300 foreign spouses here on the scheme at the end of September 2014, up from 3,900 in 2012.

• Ms Vengatalakshmi is attending a six-month full-time course certified by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency that will qualify her to work as a healthcare attendant earning more than $1,700 a month.

• Her course fees are about $12,700 at the HMI Institute of Health Sciences, but Singaporeans and permanent residents get 90 to 100 per cent subsidies. She did not have to pay for the course and has four months to go before completing it.

Stories of hardship, resilience and hope
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Sunday Times, 28 Feb 2016

The two reporters behind this project - one covering the community beat and the other, low-wage workers over the past five years - wanted to go beyond the big-picture trends, numbers and government announcements in tackling the poverty issue in Singapore.

It was conceived around the simple idea of letting those struggling with their finances tell their stories.

The reporters would craft their life stories to give The Sunday Times readers a broad, unvarnished ground-up picture of what living in financial hardship is like.

It was not easy coaxing these people to talk. For every family who agreed, at least two said no.

Some who said yes changed their minds, while others were busy working in the day or too tired at night to speak to the reporters.

One interview started at 10.30pm and ended at close to midnight.

Those with children often asked not to be named or photographed, so as not to draw ridicule from their children's schoolmates.

The parents felt a sense of shame, or even guilt, for not providing for their children better.

Listening to the stories left the reporters drained.

Both of them were almost in tears over the plight of an 85-year-old man with lung cancer.

He had been his family's main breadwinner even at that age, till illness struck him down.

These families have much in common. They live in Housing Board rental flats, have big families and suffer either health problems or have experienced setbacks in life.

Some of their life choices are baffling, like why the elderly karung guni man would spend over half of his $450 monthly government handout on cigarettes and beer, or why the single mother would commit to the big purchase of a new four-room flat despite mounting debts, or why a couple with primary-school education have seven children.

While resigned to their lives, most still harbour the hope of breaking out of the poverty cycle.

The project may have started out giving voices to various people living in poverty in Singapore.

However, it also found stories of dignity, resilience and, very importantly, the desire for a better life.

Lifting families out of poverty: Focus on the children
Study ideas to enhance living environment, and expand earn and learn schemes
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2016

When I was in Primary 1, a teacher corrected me when I wrote in an English test that I slept under the bed. On the bed, not under the bed, she said, despite my protest that I was telling the truth.

I was born in a one-room Housing Board rental flat in Stirling Road and lived there for nine years with my parents, an older sister and two younger brothers. The mattress I slept on was partially tucked under my parents' bed.

Forty years later, there are still families living in such cramped conditions. My colleague Janice Tai and I reported in The Sunday Times this week the stories of a family of seven living in a one-room flat in Marsiling and a family of eight in a two-room flat in Clementi.

The breakthrough for my family came in 1978, when we upgraded to a three-room HDB flat in Queen Street, in which my parents still live in their twilight years.

My father, who dropped out of secondary school, worked extra shifts as a forklift driver and my mother, who is illiterate, had multiple jobs as a babysitter, maid and office cleaner. They scrimped and saved to put four children through university. Three of us are now married with our own families and homes.

As society progresses, it should be easier for families like mine to break out of poverty, not harder.

The social safety net today is much stronger than 40 years ago, as is the generosity of government help, despite it not having an official definition of poverty.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development is setting up Social Service Offices to provide direct help to those in need. ComCare provides short- to long-term financial help; Workfare tops up the earnings of low-wage workers and Silver Support gives stipends to help poorer elderly folk cope with costs of living.

Official statistics show lives have improved too. The incomes of the bottom fifth that stagnated between 2001 and 2010 have grown by an average of 2.1 per cent a year from 2010 to 2015 after taking inflation into account. The rich-poor gap has narrowed, especially after taking into account government transfers. Still, some are stuck in poverty.

The most heartbreaking story in The Sunday Times' feature was the four children whose parents are in jail for drug offences. The youngest child, now nine, was born in prison.

There was also a 22-year-old bride who moved into another rental flat in the same block as her parents.

It is an uphill struggle for these children to break out of poverty. How can these families be helped?

Not all poor children are like my siblings and I - blessed with hardworking parents who made sacrifices to give their children a good education and future.

Some parents we spoke to had made poor choices: repeated marriages and divorces, taking drugs and committing crimes that landed them in jail. Others were struck by illnesses rendering them unfit to work.

For some families, it may be courageous but ultimately futile to try to lift the parents out of poverty. The efforts can be focused on the children instead.

It is vital to give the children of such low-income families hope, said Mr Lawrence Tan, manager at Touch Community Services. The voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) runs a weekly tuition programme for children from poor families at 23 centres islandwide. "They start their lives disadvantaged. They need more help to break out of poverty cycle," he said.

Here are three ideas to pull the children of poor families out of poverty. One: Offer three-room HDB rental flats. The largest so-called "two room" rental flat for families has a living room and just one small bedroom. It is a squeeze for any family larger than five members. The children may sleep on mattresses on the floor. There is scant space or money for even a proper study table.

The heavily subsidised public rental housing is meant for interim help and the HDB wants even low-wage earners to own their own flat. The board is naturally fearful that once the families get used to cheap three-room rental flats, they may lack the incentive to move out.

A concession is to offer larger rental flats under strict conditions - for those with school-going children and only for the duration when the children are in school.

Two, expand the "earn and learn schemes" to secondary schools where the students are most at risk of dropping out. While it is not ideal for students to be working, those from poor families often work part-time to help the family or to earn pocket money. Schools or VWOs can introduce structured and supervised schemes to help these students juggle work and school. For example, a school can tie up with nearby employers to offer four hours of part-time work three times a week and offer tuition classes on the two days when the students are not working.

This helps firms overcome the labour crunch, allows students to earn pocket money without being exploited, and lets schools or VWOs supervise the students' progress.

Three, introduce affordable boarding schools for secondary students from low-income families. These hostels can offer a conducive environment and even a community of support that those from low-income families lack. Nothing can replace family ties, but when family support fails, a hostel environment can provide a lifeline. And secondary school is about the right age for boarding because the students are gaining their independence. Those under 12 may be too young for hostel living.

The secondary schools with boarding facilities now are mostly elite schools like ACS, Hwa Chong and Raffles Institution, and Boys Town for boys in trouble. What is needed is something in between.

These ideas merit further study. The main issue is cost: Should tax payers foot the bill for the larger rental flats and hostels? But think of the alternative scenario: It is going to cost society much more if future generations of poor families sink their roots in rental flats, mired and trapped in poverty.

Lifting families out of poverty: Ease stress of day-to-day survival so poor can plan a better future

By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2016

When people think about poverty, it is often viewed in the context of money. How much does he earn? Is it enough for the family? But in the course of speaking to people from low-income households last week for a Sunday Times report ("The faces behind the aid figures"; Feb 28), I was struck by something more than their shortage of money: a tendency to shy away from planning for the future, because they are so stressed and concerned about immediate financial worries. This sometimes led them to make decisions that the better-off find hard to understand.

For example, it is baffling why a couple struggling with finances would want to have seven children, and why the single mother would commit to the big purchase of a new four-room flat despite mounting debt. Or why the elderly karung guni man would spend over half of his $450 monthly government handout on cigarettes and beer when he has no savings.

Researchers have found that very poor families throughout the world spend more of their income on alcohol than on educating their children - or even on food. Studies have also shown that they do not plan for the future compared to better-off folk, and some have less self-control and are quicker to turn to instant gratification. While some may take a deterministic view, thinking that people become poor because they have such innate traits, recent research suggests otherwise: that it is the state of poverty, and the stress that comes with it, that pushes very poor people to make bad decisions.

Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, in their 2013 book Scarcity, found that economic stress robs people of cognitive bandwidth - the portion of mental capacity used to make decisions. Rushing around worrying about bills, food or other immediate problems leaves people with less cognitive capacity to make good decisions, think ahead or practise self-discipline.Urgent demands of the moment override planning for the future.

That is perhaps why a food-stall assistant featured in The Sunday Times would rather take on extra part-time jobs in the weekends to get fast cash than go for a skills upgrading course to get a better- paying job. And why the single mother is reluctant to take a little time off work to renew her application for government grants, or meet her debtors to negotiate better repayment plans.

Under overwhelming circumstances, people living in extreme poverty lack the time and mental will to assess their situation or think of alternatives. They may not even realise they have choices.

This creates a vicious circle because people end up making decisions that leave them worse off, such as taking out high-interest loans or buying on instalment. In settling today's problems, they create debts for tomorrow.

The question then is: How can the poor be relieved of their cognitive stress of day-to-day survival so they are able to plan for a better future?

If extreme poverty exacts a mental toll, the most direct way to help them would be to help them cancel their debts. Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) started a programme in 2014 for low-income families that matches debt repayment dollar-for-dollar up to $100 a month.

It found that the 34 families given such help reduced their debt from a total of $256,000 to $175,000 over a year. In comparison, another 34 families not given the funds saw their collective debt increase by $18,000 over the same period.

MWS assistant director Cindy Ng said: "Chronic debt is one of the major factors that perpetuates their poverty and if they are always fighting fires and thinking about putting food on the table, their ability to deal with longer-term issues is limited. For instance, they are less likely to seek skills upgrading which may help them break out of the poverty circle."

Another practical way would be to make it easier for the needy to access help. The poor often work long hours and can apply for aid only after work. Yet most of the 24 social service offices are open only during office hours and are closed at weekends.

A third solution is to make it easy for those in dire straits to opt for good decisions. For example, they can be automatically enrolled in a savings scheme, with part of their pay or government grants channelled into a rainy-day fund.

Last, improving their living environment can reduce mental stress. The poor, such as the featured family of eight who squeeze into a one-room rental flat the size of three parking spaces, often have to deal with living in small, crowded spaces. Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that a cluttered environment reduces one's ability to focus and process information.

Mr Cayden Woo of Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home, which runs home improvement projects for low-income families, said: "Adults often bring their stress back home from work and when they see the physical mess at home, their frustration escalates. But after helping them declutter and reorganise the space, they become more positive when communicating or parenting."

Poverty has a clear link to bad choices. Rather than blame the poor for making such choices, it is more constructive to understand that the mental stress of coping with day-to-day needs drives them to make bad choices - and then work to reduce that daily stress. Helping struggling families cope better in the present will help them reach a brighter future in which their children will not be propelled towards bad choices.

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