Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Clean and green outside, rubbish dump inside.

If you've watched Martyn See's video, you may come away feeling as I do - which is a mixture of sadness despite admiration for the determination of the old folks. Detractors of increasing subsidies to the poor in Singapore usually argue that there are poor people everywhere in the world and it is impossible for Singapore to help all the poor people. They are only half-right. Yes, there are poor people in every country. I saw the occasional beggar sleeping on the streets in New York during my last visit there, and there were beggars outside the train stations in Taipei and Hong Kong.

But there's no reason why Singapore should be like those cities. We are a special little red dot. We have a government that is capable of taking firm action when needed, because it has received a strong mandate from the people. If there's anything that we can do to make the society more equal, and to make the lives of the poor better, I firmly believe that we should do it. 

I think that we can start by improving the living conditions of our seniors who live in one-room flats.

Many of our seniors live in squalid conditions in one-room rental flats. The size of a one-room flat in Singapore is probably around 20sqm. The shoebox size is not a problem if the home is well-maintained. Unfortunately, the elderly are often unable to do proper housekeeping because of their physical ailments. Some homes reek of urine, the floors are grimy, and many homes are infested with bedbugs (bugs that thrive on sucking human blood). Many depend on the goodwill of ad-hoc volunteers to clean their homes, but this, in turn, depends on whether the senior is lucky enough to meet such volunteers.

It is the responsibility of the Volunteer Welfare Organisations to reach out to more volunteers, but Singapore does not have a strong volunteer culture for work involving senior citizens. One of the contributing factors is, I believe, the fact that many youths today feel disconnected from the older generation because of a language barrier. The younger generation prefer volunteering in other areas such as with their religious groups or children's charities. Many Singaporeans also prefer to rest at home on weekends or to go out with their friends. 

In a country that has planned well for its citizens' old age, there should exist a strong home care services sector that provides cleaning to the old folks at a low cost. But the home care services sector in Singapore is suffering from under-development. We are half-heartedly playing catch-up in providing services for the elderly even though we have known that we have an aging population since the 1980s. 

As someone who has observed Ministers' visits to the one-room flats, I see the great disparity between what the Ministers see and the reality. 

On this page, you will see a photo of my favourite Minister, Chan Chun Sing, chatting with an old man. The conditions of the home look well and good. That's because it has been specially selected for the Minister's visit. This means that it's one of the flats that is deemed to be clean and that will give the impression that even the low-income seniors in Singapore are well taken care of.

A significant number of homes, however, look more like the ones on this page. When such photos are printed in the Straits Times, though, the article often portrays the problem as one that is caused by the elderly's hoarding problem rather than one that stems from neglect by society. In Singapore, it seems, it's always easier to blame problems on individual incapability than on society as a whole. 

I know it's not the government's fault that the elderly are living in such sorry conditions. Also, there are logistical nightmares and protests to be dealt with when trying to clean up people's homes and throw away their things. The list of excuses stretches for miles because we simply lack the will to help these people. 

Fundamentally, many of us believe that it is the elderly's fault that they are living like that. And if it's not our fault, there's no need to help them. They deserve it. There's nothing we can do. 

Really? Does an old man in his twilight years deserve to live covered in urine, sleeping on a sticky dirty floor with cockroaches crawling over him at night? 

It's my opinion that something's not right, and we should fix it before we argue about whose fault it is. The living conditions of many seniors in Singapore are abominable and a shocking contrast to the clean and green exterior of the housing estates.

As individuals, we can volunteer more in our free time. But at the governmental level, more attention has to be given on providing hands-on help for the elderly - by supporting the start of many more companies that provide eldercare services and helping the VWOs to gather more volunteers. I see ads on TV telling me to contribute to the nation by having kids and to mind my working hours. Why aren't there any TV ads on volunteer work? No matter how much money the government credits into their Medisave accounts via the Pioneer Generation Package, it doesn't improve their quality of life if their homes are filthy.

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