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Our System Should Not Fail the Poorest of the Poor

BRYAN CHOONG: We are 4 days to the polling day for General Election 2015. Many of my friends have decided on whom they are voting for and why. Everyone is entitled to his own reason. Most people are concerned about the practical things like transportation, housing cost and medical cost. Here’s one issue that I am making my decision on and I believe it is an issue only a small segment of people think about, simply because most people do not see it.

My family has always believed in being self-reliant and get by with what we have. The only time we went to our MP for assistance was in 1996. My parents were divorcing and my late father made the process a painfully slow one. Meanwhile, we went to Mr Peh Chin Hua, who was MP of Jalan Besar GRC to appeal for a rental flat. It did not take too long for us to get a rental unit, which became home for 3 years. I always had a good impression of Mr Peh, even though Jalan Besar GRC had only one election.

By the time I am a working adult, we moved out of the lower income bracket and rental flat estate. After I left the rental housing estate,I remember the profiles of the families there but like most people, eventually it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.

When I was in my early 30s, my 19 months work experience as a social assistance manager allowed me to revisit this issue again. From Telok Blangah to Teck Whye, and to Taman Jurong, I have seen cases and cases of families struggling to make ends meet, especially during the financial crisis of 2007. However, the most heartbreaking cases are always the applicants for the Public Assistance Scheme.

Most Singaporeans do not realise that PA recipients are really the poorest of the poor. In order to qualify for the scheme, one would have no capacity to work, mostly due to old age, chronic medical condition or physical disability.

In this mega rich city-state, we have an estimated number of 3000 PA households. According to a 2012 MSF reply to Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef, PAP MP for Marine Parade GRC, these are the figures:

2012 – About 3000 households
2010 – 2942 households
2009 – 2930 households
2008 – 2886 households
2007 – 2930 households

MSF also added that in 2010, 354 households exited the scheme. 40% of the cases are because recipients passed away. 40% were admitted to government funded nursing homes or institutions, which essentially meant they do not need to receive the money anymore. Only 2% exited because their financial status improved and 1% because their children are now grown up and started working.

Chen Show Mao, WP MP for Aljunied GRC asked about these PA recipients again in 2014. MSF responded with this:

“In 2013, the Ministry received 629 new applications for PA. Of these, 510 were placed on PA, while another 23 were assisted under other ComCare assistance or linked up with local assistance schemes. Of the 629 applicants for PA in 2013, 541 were aged 55 and over. Of the 510 persons placed on PA in 2013, 442 were aged 55 and over.”

In other words, we do not see significant changes in the number of recipients in the past ten years and it is near impossible for the recipients to exit the scheme until their deaths. Which brings me to my next point. If the number of recipients is so low and their needs are so real, why is it that MPs have to fight so hard to get more help for the poorest of the poor? Why is it portrayed as a huge national burden to give more?

In 2007, Dr Lily Neo, PAP MP for Jalan Besar GRC (whom I have great admiration for) broke away from her usual politeness to demand an answer from then MSF Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on why the PA amount per person was $260.00 or $5.00 per day. She spoke to 32 recipients and concluded that bare minimum had to be $400.00. And to that, Balakrishnan made his infamous remark: “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” According to media report, Balakrishnan expressed his regret on his poor choice of words. One can only imagine how his words sounded to the 3000 recipients.

(It is important to note that there was no official record of this parliamentary exchange left on MSF website but ex NMP Siew Kum Hong has archived it on his blog. UPDATE: Someone pointed to me that the parliamentary report related to the Dr Lily Neo and Vivian Balakrishnan exchange is available on the Hansard. The link is provided at the end of the article)

MSF increased the assistance amount gradually in the subsequent years. In 2011, 4 years after Dr Neo’s heartbreaking appeal, it finally reached $400.00. And in 2013, it was increased to the current $450.00 per recipient. In any usual situation, a 73% increase would be very exciting but let’s remember the baseline was $260.00 in 2007.

There are two important points to note even as MSF announced the increase triumphantly:

a. As per previous years, the recipient has to pay out of the $450.00 for his own rental flat, utility and SCC charges. Although as a PA recipient, he is also entitled for free transportation and medical service. That still leaves the recipient not more than $10.00 per day.
b. If there are 4 recipients in one household, the maximum amount will be $1180.00 per household or $295.00 per person. So the more poor people live together, the less you get. The weak official argument is that the cost of living, rental, utility and SCC are distributed.

Since the statistic by MSF in 2007 to 2012 is given in terms of households, it is hard to tell if it was 3000 individuals or 3000 households of 4 recipients. I checked through the budget report, which does not reveal much. A rough estimation will mean that $16.2 million to $42.5 million is given out annually under the PA scheme. This sounds like a lot of money until you remember that we spent $387 millions on 13 days Youth Olympics and $9 millions for the SG50 Celebration fund.

MSF has also explained that PA recipients are also receiving cash or donation in kind from other charitable organisations and foundations. We need to reflect on why we are not able to provide fully for 3000 of the poorest households in Singapore, given our estimated operating revenue in 2015 is $64.7 billions.

My final point is then what kind of a society do we want to create and are our parliamentarians capable of co-creating it with us. We can always blame everything on a Minister or a Ministry, but shouldn’t we have more Dr Neo, Chen and Lateef who will check, ask questions and demand explanations instead of parliamentarians who attend sittings and not say anything useful? Can our parliamentarians see what we are not seeing, and fight for those who voices is unheard? Or they would take any Minister’s words as absolute truth without doing basic calculation?

I know some MPs will give direct assistance to their constituents without the media fanfare. I also know some grassroots leaders go the extra mile to help their own residents because I have worked with some before. However, our disadvantaged Singaporeans should not be subjected to better or worse treatment based on who is his MP. It should be based on what we can give as a country.

Our system should not fail the poorest of the poor but it has. It is time for us to decide if the thinking process behind it is working.



This commentary was written by Bryan Choong.
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