Monday, 24 March 2014

Response to TOC's article on March 14.

The Online Citizen published this article on March 14 about Minister Chan Chun Sing's claim in Parliament that some families applying for financial handouts in Singapore are not really in need of help.

According to TOC, the Minister had on March 13 stated in Parliament that it is "difficult" for the government to help Singaporeans who apply for financial help "with other reasons". What are the "other" reasons? The Minister gave an example of an old cardboard seller who had rejected financial help from her children. The example suggests that some Singaporeans ask the government for financial help, even though they have family members who are willing and able to support them. The conundrum that the government apparently faces is: "Should we still help the needy who have willing and able family members?"

According to TOC, however, it is "meaningless" for the Minister to bring up one example of an elderly who rejected her children's financial help when there are many other elderly folks who are living hand to mouth without any other source of financial support. The TOC writer also noted that the old cardboard seller's children might have not been telling the truth. It was unlikely that when they were interviewed by the Minister or his staff, they would openly admit to not supporting their parent. Saying that she rejected their help might have been their way of shirking responsibility.

TOC is right. It is clear as day to many of us that there are needy families who are struggling to survive and it is not helpful for the Minister to generalize based on one example. Understandably, the TOC article has resulted in numerous rants on Facebook accusing the government of shirking responsibility by bringing up a case that does not represent what the low-income families in Singapore are going through.

Fewer people, however, would realise that the Minister is also right in that there are people who seeking help despite having alternative sources of income to support themselves. This doesn't mean that they are necessarily trying to "con" the government, as some Singaporeans would think. Some of the old folks might be doing so because they believe that they have contributed much to Singapore in their youth and feel that they deserve some welfare in their old age. Others might be doing so out of love for their children - many old folks do not want to burden their kids and their kids' families, as they are fully aware of the challenges posed by rising costs of living in Singapore. A common argument among the elderly is that the government should provide help for them because their children have families to support too.

(This is off-topic, but there are a number of articles online about how fabulously affordable Singapore is, because we can get meals below $10-15 dollars. But such articles usually assume that the diner is alone. Had they included family members, a meal of $15 dollars for one person will mean a bill of $60 for a family of four, and $72 if grandpa and grandma are included.)

Despite the Minister implying that there are people seeking help who are not "genuinely needy", it is questionable as to how many people are actually able to get away with it successfully. Although I think it is possible to get financial help from private organisations - as such organisations have no authority to check an individual's bank accounts or CPF account - it is surely a steep challenge for a financially able person to get any assistance from the omniscient Singapore government without being a "genuine" case.

In my interactions with old folks living in rented one-room flats, I have encountered only a small handful of old folks who are recently successful in applying for the Public Assistance scheme (PA). These old folks have never married, do not have kids and do not have CPF savings.

The elderly who do have kids or CPF savings, however, have had their applications for PA rejected. Some elderly who are deemed marginally needy (e.g. they may have CPF payouts but do not have other sources of support) may be placed under Comcare, which is also a government scheme but provides less money. Others may only be receiving help from organisations which provide them with groceries and the occasional festive red packet, but they do not get any monthly handouts from the government at all.

So, yes Minister Chan, it is true that there are people who apply for help even though they have kids who are earning decent income. But this can be attributed to the "no harm trying" mentality - like how we wouldn't mind trying for a lucky draw. Yet how many actually succeed in their applications? The numerous checks by the government on bank account statements and CPF savings will ensure that they are found out quickly and told to, "Ask your son/daughter to support you."

If such applications have only been made but have not been successful because of effective means-testing, it should be clearly stated in the Minister's communication with the public, so as not to give unsympathetic Singaporeans a chance to hurl unjustified accusations. Without mentioning that those who are not needy have been sieved out by means-testing, the government is prejudicing the public's view of the needy in Singapore. Those who are not in the know may wrongly infer from the Minister's words that the "cheats" have managed to hoodwink the government and that many recipients of Public Assistance are people who do not need help.

Responsible communication is a must for a government. I do not blame Minister Chan, however. I think the PAP government, because of its anti-welfare stance, has been too used to communicating negatively and unfairly about low-income families, and this will not change overnight.

To end off, here's one of those wild-allegations type comment by someone who thinks that the PAP is powerless against Singapore citizens.

You think the Singapore government dunno that you sell your flat meh?

And here's Chan Chun Sing's speech on how the government is finally revising Comcare and the PA scheme. For the PA scheme, Minister Chan stated that the government now recognises that some old folks have CPF payouts that are below the amount deemed appropriate for survival - which is $450 a month. Thus, if an elderly eligible for PA has only a CPF payout of $200 monthly, the government will top up another $250. (Of course the Minister did not mention that if an elderly lives in a bigger flat, he/she will be first asked to sell the flat.) I am not able to find the clip of the Minister's reply/speech on March 13 that TOC was referring to. 

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