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The poorest in our society

With the increasingly fast pace of life in Singapore, there perhaps is a tendency for us to forget those who are left behind, those who can’t run as fast as the rest of us – even if they want to.

The government, to its credit, has set up various help schemes and even organizations (such as the CDCs) whose roles include helping the less fortunate of our society. The many NGOs as well are doing a commendable job.

But even with all these channels, there still is a group of people whose predicament I would like to highlight.

This is the group of elderly people on public assistance schemes.

The reasons for their circumstances are varied – being abandoned by their children, or having no savings, or their children themselves being unable to help care for them, or physical or medical disabilities have incapacitated their ability to work.

Whatever the reason, they are reliant on the public assistance programme for their daily survival.

Unfortunately, a check with the CDCs websites does not give much information, except general declarations such as this one:

“The Public Assistance Scheme provides a monthly grant to financially distressed Singaporeans who by reason of age, illness, disability or unfavourable family circumstances, are unable to work and have no means of subsistence as well as no one to depend upon.”

These elderly folks are given monthly cash grants. How much they receive depends on various factors. Unfortunately, what these factors are and how they are determined, are not easily available.

How much is needed?

From my understanding, recipients receive between $200 to $300 per month. Again, this is dependent on the ‘factors’ involved, or their circumstances.

Is $300 a month enough for our elderly folks? That is an average of only $10 per day. All of us know that it is almost impossible to survive on that amount in a city like Singapore. Although they may also receive free medical care and special assistance in purchasing special-needs equipment like wheelchairs, it is their daily meals that they worry about.

And at such small amounts in public assistance, it is no wonder, really.

Although they may also receive food donations from VWOs, NGOs and even individual singaporeans, this may not be enough.

How one qualifies for public assistance is also murky, mostly dependent on assessment of each individual’s circumstances. One wonders that if there are close to 300,000 elderly folks above 65 years old presently – as indicated by MCYS’ website – how many of these folks actually are on the public assistance scheme?

In 1999, according to this Asiaweek report, there were 2,238 people on the scheme, given “usually about $115 a month”. (I understand that it is now between $200 to $300 a month).

It is no wonder then that we see an increasing number of elderly picking up cardboards and tin cans on the street.

Welfare sometimes is the only choice

The oft-repeated refrain from the government is that we do not intend to be a ‘welfare state’ and that we should not create a ‘dependency mindset’ among the population. I do not think that anyone would or could argue with that. But when you are unable to work to fend for yourself, especially when you want to, it is no longer a case of welfarism. It becomes a matter of how compassionate our society is.

It is said that a society is judged upon how it treats the least of its citizens. And in this respect, perhaps we could do more for elderly folks who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are in a predicament – but one which we can help with. As the details of the Workfare scheme will only be out at the Budget in parliament later this month, it is not clear if these folks will be included or how they will be included – or whether they will be left out altogether.

Thus, it is my hope that in looking to help the less fortunate, less able Singaporeans, we will start with those who have struggled and strived to help give us this prosperous, progressive metropolis that we call Singapore.

Some of these folks have been abandoned by their own children. Let not our society abandon them as well.

Lets see if we can give them a bit more and let them live their twilight years in peace, without having to worry about each day as the sun rises.

Let not our elderly folks’ twilight years become an Age Of Despair.