Public assistance for the elderly – where the ethics lie.

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"There will always be arguments on whether a sum we've decided is enough or not and as I've said yesterday, frankly one limiting factor must be the sum that we give through public assistance cannot be so generous as to erode the work ethic."

That said, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that despite a strict criteria on assistance schemes, no Singaporean needs to starve or be deprived of shelter.

- Channelnewsasia

The Minister of Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS) announced in parliament recently that the amount of public assistance recipients receive will be increased from $260 to $290 – “for an elderly recipient living alone”, $30 more than the current $260.

PAP MP, Dr Lily Neo, is pressing the MCYS to do more. In fact she is asking for $400 for the elderly who live alone and who have no one to depend on.

"I think we should raise it up to S$400 because we did a survey on 32 cases, and they need at least S$400 for basic living….the basic roof over their heads, the three meals a day, I feel that MCYS should be able to provide adequately."

– Dr Lily Neo, Channelnewsasia

Minister Balakrishnan’s concern that “public assistance cannot be so generous as to erode the work ethic” somewhat misses the mark. One would think that such a view, would be more applicable to people who are able to work and not to elderly folks who are incapacitated through old age, and physical or mental disability.

That is, these are people who are unable to work even if they want to. There have been a few reports in the media where some elderly folks even reject help or donations because they want to be self-sufficient. Dr Balakrishnan himself related, in parliament, a case of one such person, who eventually died alone in his HDB rented flat.

Thus, the ‘work ethic’ argument does not quite square up. Besides, these elderly folks are in their 60s, 70s, 80s. Most of them – if not all of them – had had been working all their lives before they had to give it up for reasons mentioned above. Many would no doubt want to be self-sufficient. But will they be able to? Will they have the opportunity to? Not if you’re physically, mentally or medically incapacitated.

These folks brought up families and children, contributed to our economy, stayed out of criminal activities. Lived their lives as best they could. Most are thrifty and not given to excess. What they ask for now is just enough to help them get by daily.

I do not think that “not wanting to erode work ethics” is a good enough reason not to give them more. This is because these elderly Singaporeans have worked all their lives until now.

Is giving them an extra $1 per day enough? That’s how much the increase in public assistance is, as announced by the minister recently - $30. An elderly living alone with no dependents will receive $290.

But as Dr Neo described, minus paying for bills and rent, some folks are left with as little as $80 a monthto get by. Now, does the minister really believe that one can live on $80 a month, here in Singapore?

We have often heard the government declare how we want to be a ‘compassionate society’, “a caring society”, “an inclusive society”. But when it comes to social assistance for our most vulnerable citizens, the government seems to shy away from it – and adopt this so-called “Many Hands” approach.

While having ‘many hands’ is good, perhaps the biggest hand should be that of the government?

I guess SM Goh said it best when he said:

“Indeed, the strength of a society is measured by the compassion and care its members have for each other. The members must know that if they are ever down, others will help them get up. If they cannot turn to the more able for help in adversity, then the bonds that hold us together will snap. Our society will disintegrate.”

– Goh Chok Tong, NDR Speech 2001

We should be more generous in helping the elderly. It is indeed how we will be measured – by how much we do for the least among us.

And that, more than anywhere else, is where the ethics lie.

We can only hope that the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports will agree.