By Parliamentary Secretary A/P Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim
It’s been a long day. You alight from the MRT, relieved to tap out at the gantry because you’re inching closer to home. Easing into a slow walk, you make a mental checklist of what you need to do tomorrow.
The sounds of traffic quieten down as you reach the void deck. You begin your climb up to the 2nd storey where a hot shower and bed awaits.
Someone new catches your eye.
A rugged elderly man, slightly hunched, shuffling towards a corner near the staircase landing. He kicks off his shoes.
Should you take a closer look?
The corner is meticulously prepared. A straw mat marks his narrow territory. Some bulky plastic bags form a small fort at the foot of the mat. The man’s hair has not met the familiarity of a comb for some time. He prepares to lie down, perhaps to quietly spend the night.
Seems like he has settled here recently. But why is he alone? Are his family members looking out for him?
You hesitate. But shouldn’t you do something? At least ask him what is going on?
What do you do?
Take a photo and spread awareness about this? But what about the elderly man’s privacy?
Approach him? What if he brushes you off or scolds you for being kaypoh?
You hesitate again, weighing the choices.
So, why should you care?
Caring for others and helping them is not always as easy as it sounds. In fact, it is entirely possible to be unappreciated for it. And we must be prepared for this.
As you have seen in the video and story above, it can be quite unglamorous work. And sometimes, people may not even want your help.
In October this year, we held the MSF Volunteer Awards and honoured 169 volunteers ranging from foster parents to probation officers.
At such ceremonies, we thank and appreciate volunteers for their tireless dedication. But a lot goes on behind the scenes for them. A lot that we do not know about.
Just like the story above, volunteers may also have started off with some doubts. Or question how they can go about helping.
I think the larger question is not whether we should be helping. That is pretty clear to us.
It’s how we should be caring and helping. There are many ways to address the how, but it requires collective support. For those in need, we should create opportunities for them to get back on their own two feet.
But it is not enough to snap a photo or upload a video, and leave it at that. We are stronger in spirit and richer in our humanity when we can extend a hand in our own way. And for help organisations and Government agencies to complement this with further assistance.
We are releasing the ComCare Trends report today. You can read it here. This report tracks the number and type of households which received financial assistance.
What ComCare aims to do is to provide financial assistance for low-income individuals and families. It is funded by the ComCare Endowment Fund that was established in 2005. The fund stands at about $1.7 billion today.
ComCare has various schemes to meet different needs. We have short-to-medium term assistance, long-term assistance and assistance for children.
But ComCare is only one part of a broader system. Help is also provided via other schemes administered by MOH, MOE, HDB etc. Families may also receive counselling and support from social service agencies and professionals.
Here are some observations I have about the report:
#1 Singaporeans received more ComCare financial assistance
In the financial year of 2014, we provided about $116million in financial assistance (not including other forms of assistance beyond ComCare).
This is an increase of 10% as compared to the previous financial year.
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.
We have built a network of Social Service Offices (SSOs) across the island – one in every major HDB town. Some are co-located with WDA’s career counselling services, or near Family Service Centres.
This has made help more accessible than before. We have also adjusted some of our income criteria thresholds so that more can be assisted.
However, should we be seeing a continuous increase in number of recipients for subsequent years?
#2: More are receiving short-to-medium term assistance
First, let’s look at what has remained quite constant for the main applicants of short-to-medium term assistance across the past 3 financial years:
51.0% were in their 40s and 50s
64.6% had below GCE ‘N’ or ‘O’ level education
26.2% of main applicants are employed
Now, what has been increasing in the last 3 financial years?
More short-to-medium term assistance households staying in HDB 1-2 rooms. This has increased from 43.5% in FY12 to 46.8% in FY14.
There are more 1 – 2 persons households under short-to-medium term assistance from 51.4% in FY12 to 55.8% in FY14.
If one is unemployed for one reason or other, I can understand the financial challenges faced. What we need to understand further is the group where the main applicants are employed, and yet still require financial assistance.
Often, financial difficulties are just the tip of the iceberg. Some families may need help over a period of time because the difficulties they face can be complex and multi-faceted.
We must be holistic in the way we support those who need help. Providing financial assistance is important but only one part of the broader equation.
Do we help them re-skill, or even upgrade their skills so that they take on better jobs and earn higher wages? Do we strengthen Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model further?
For some, do we provide counselling and social work to address underlying concerns? Clearly, for some, we may need to case manage because it involves assistance from multiple agencies.
#3 : Many long-term assistance recipients are single elderly
The statistics from the ComCare trends report show:
65.1% of long-term assistance households were one-person households aged 65 and above
67.9% of long-term assistance main applicants stay in 1-2 room HDB flats
Long-term assistance households by household composition
We all know that our society is aging 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.
Apart from ensuring that the financial support is effective, we need to also strengthen our overall eco-system to look after the elderly. We are already exploring different initiatives and looking at how to better design the social and physical infrastructure. We will also be introducing the Vulnerable Adults Act, and make amendments to the Mental Capacity Act next year. MSF intends to expand capabilities to protect vulnerable adults.
How You Can Help
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, I believe it requires a kampung to look after our own. While the Government remains committed to keeping policies effective and relevant to support the vulnerable, all of us in the community must also do our part.
What can we do?
For a start, if you come across anyone that requires assistance, please talk to them, find out more and refer them to the nearest Social Service Office or to let us know so that we can follow up with them.
Secondly, do continue to donate to support good causes.
Even more importantly, do give of your time. The more volunteers we have helping, the more good we can do. And if we organise ourselves better, we can begin to go upstream and carry out preventive measures, which is even better than catching people when they fall.
Let’s work together to enlarge the community of support for those in need. And in the process, we will build a more caring and compassionate society, and a better home for all.