By Lisa Lee
In March 1995, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, then-Acting Minister for Community Development, introduced Singapore's "Many Helping Hands Approach" at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark.
He explained Singapore's initiative to “develop self-reliance in a society that is robust, yet compassionate and caring” through the government's partnership with “concerned citizens, corporations, community organisations, religious groups and family members” in helping the disadvantaged.1
Every society needs many helping hands in partnership to deal with its multitude of problems. But what is the nature of this partnership in Singapore? And how best can these many hands help?
The Online Citizen spoke to Ms Ho Hoy Fong, Chairman of Kim Tian West Residents' Committee (RC), and Vice-President of Evercare Welfare Centre, a non-profit voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) that provides for the needy in the Tiong Bahru area.
Six years ago, Ms Ho was appointed RC Chairman in Kim Tian West zone. Today, many of her residents from the 11 housing blocks under her care know her, through her regular house visits and community events.
Many residents were in great need of financial help, jobs, housing and even food. However, she was aware that the RC funds are only for large-scale ‘whole-community’ events and cannot be used to help needy residents.
This is why she started Evercare Welfare Centre, a non-profit VWO, in October 2008 in order to provide social and physical support, food rations, befriending, medical escorts and emergency financial assistance to the needy in her community.
The limitations of centralised needs provision by government agencies
What about help from ComCare and the Community Development Councils? As RC Chairman, Ms Ho is involved in writing appeal letters or connecting needy residents with the relevant government agencies. But sometimes it would take time to process the application, she admitted. This is where Evercare Centre and its Emergency Cash Fund come in.
She told us of a recent case she saw – a man who had to take care of his two young children alone because his wife was in jail. As a result, he lost his job. He came to Ms Ho to ask for help because they had run out of food and milk powder.
“I needed to buy him food and milk powder immediately,” she said. “Evercare must do it quickly. When they come to you, that is when they most need your help! In these cases how to wait one or two months?”
Yet, one can see the reasons for the need for processing time and strict criteria of government help agencies. Any welfare provision will inevitably encounter problems of abuse and over-dependence on the system – there is need for stringent checks to evaluate how genuine the cases are.
Furthermore, limits are needed to ensure that government help agencies serve only those who are truly in need and do not create a drain on the government funds for those who are slightly more well-off.
There is also an understandable reluctance to make a compassionate exception for fear of setting a precedent for other cases which will demand for more exceptions to be made. As a result, help agencies have a strict assessment process of paperwork, documentation and extensive checks.
Is it then unavoidable that centralised help agencies will take a long time to process paperwork, given their inability to conduct house visits and needs assessments on the fly? Are the unfortunate cases that slip through the cracks of this safety net merely necessary sacrifices in a system that is rigorous in its assessment?
The value of local connections
Ms Ho’s long-term and personal relationship with her residents allows her to understand the needs of her community. This fosters trust between the VWO (in this case, Evercare) and its beneficiaries, and hence minimises potential abuse of the system.
When Evercare provides assistance to needy residents, Ms Ho is firm that they use the money or food rations well. The residents seemed to agree. “Sometimes when needy residents have more money, they tell me, this month, we don't need food rations!” Ms Ho laughed.
She told us of another time that she visited an old man who had sought financial assistance from the Meet-The-People session. During a house visit, she found that he had a dog, lived comfortably and had three children who give him money regularly.
“I told him he isn't needy and he agreed, but said that his neighbour told him he could get some easy cash by visiting the MP.” she said.
Evercare makes approximately 50 house visits each month, which act as checks on possible abuses of their assistance. Thanks to the relationship that Ms Ho and her team of dedicated volunteers have with the residents and the respect they have for her, there appears to be little such abuse.
Many helping hands
No doubt collaboration between large centralised government help agencies and small grassroots VWOs already exists, but these links can be improved upon to maximise the strengths of each other.
Some small VWOs are already doing good and efficient work, led by grassroots leaders who know their community and are able to minimise abuses of the system. Yet, there is often little support for their work.
For example, in spite of Evercare Welfare Centre's non-profit status and the fact that it does not have any paid staff (Ms Ho is its full-time volunteer Vice-President), the HDB continues to charge Evercare the commercial rate of more than $300 per month for an office the size of a 1-room flat in the void deck of Block 26B Jalan Membina. There are also commercial rate charges for their electricity, water and other utility bills.
To fund its running costs and provide financial aid, Evercare relies on donations from the Management Committee and well-wishers. This is made even more difficult, because it cannot yet apply for IPC (Institution of a Public Character) status as the Centre is still quite new. Its donors thus cannot be given tax rebates for donation.
The difficult birthing process of any VWO thus includes surviving for at least a year without IPC status and managing commercial rental charges – all whilst doing good work in the community.
Perhaps the government can help effective VWOs by providing subsidised rental and utilities charges, quick IPC status, and direct funding. Alternatively, agencies such as ComCare and CDC could enhance their efficiency by decentralising offices and employing help from local support networks and VWOs.
Yes, we need many helping hands to support the disadvantaged people around us, but there should be more transparent evaluation of how hands can better work together. The many hands must take their fair share of the weight, each according to their abilities and unique strength.