This is Part One of The Online Citizen’s (TOC) response to recent remarks made in Parliament by the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, in relation to the issue of homelessness in Singapore.

The minister’s remarks were carried in a report by Channelnewsasia, on 27 April 2010.

First of all, some background on homelessness in Singapore:

Homelessness, potential homelessness, and the availability of public rental flats, are serious concerns. The Prime Minister, various ministers and Members of Parliament have raised these issues. The Minister for National Development spoke of it in on 5 March 2010 (Source). The Prime Minister and MCYS minister weighed in on these issues on 27 March 2010 (Source). People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament have also voiced their concerns in Parliament.  And during the March 2010 sitting of Parliament, opposition MP, Mr Low Thia Khiang, urged the government “to support the housing of homeless families” (Source).

On 6 February 2010, Minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan, made these remarks.

“Yes, there are more applicants than there are people giving up their rental flats. 300 new applicants join the rental queue every month, the number of people returning flats is less than half of that. Over and above that, there are over 500 appeals from MPs each month, from those who do not qualify for rental housing, who are not registered in the queue at the moment. I am sure all of you would know that this is probably the largest item on the agenda, as far as MPS is concerned .” (Source) [TOC note: “MPS” refers to “Meet-The-People Sessions” which MPs conduct in their constituencies.]

Mr Mah also said:

“Going forward, HDB will accelerate its rental flat building programme. So that, by 2012, we will increase the stock of HDB rental flats to 50,000 units, from the current 42,000 – an increase of 20%.”

What was the reason for the increase?  A Straits Times report in January 2010 provides us with a few clues.  Among other things, the report says:

“[the] number of homeless folk picked up by welfare officers driving around Singapore’s housing estates, beaches and streets has doubled in the past two years.”

It is also worth noting, according to a Straits Times report in February 2010, “HDB tightens rental rules”, that the “Housing Board has tightened criteria governing who is eligible for its heavily subsidised rental flats.”

Clearly homelessness and potential homelessness are growing problems in Singapore.  Yet, there is a dearth of statistics and information about the issue.  In a bid to fill the gap, the Online Citizen ran a one-week special focus on homelessness and wrote several stories about homeless people and homeless communities. We spent countless hours with our interviewees. We raised numerous questions through our stories – questions which focused attention on MCYS, NParks and HDB policies. We wanted our readers to better understand the plight of homeless Singaporeans. More importantly, we hoped that our stories would compel our government to rethink some of its rules and extend a helping hand to a segment of society that has fallen through the cracks.

There is little doubt that it is difficult getting a rental flat from the HDB. The waiting list is long (applicants have to wait up to 30 months to qualify) and applicants have to meet some extremely strict criteria.  The Minister for National Development has indicated that he plans to boost the availability of such flats by 20%, to 50,000 units.  But such a move needs to be accompanied by a revision in policy.  Genuinely homeless people should not be excluded from applying for rental flats simply because of “technical issues”.

It is simplistic for the MCYS minister to pick on one story reported by Al Jazeera, and use that to discredit everything else that’s been reported about homelessness in Singapore.

We will now examine the MCYS minister’s remarks in Parliament, as reported by Channelnewsasia.

About Al Jazeera:

Referring to Al Jazeera’s report on the homeless couple, the minister said it was “a clear example where a foreign media has failed to ascertain the facts.”

What were not disclosed in the Channelnewsasia report are the following, from what TOC understands:

  1. Al Jazeera approached MCYS for comments in March 2010.
  2. Specifically, Al Jazeera informed MCYS that it was seeking the ministry’s views on the issue of homelessness in Singapore.
  3. MCYS declined Al Jazeera’s request and instead referred it to earlier statements which it had issued.

Why did MCYS decline Al Jazeera’s request for an interview?  Is it fair of the minister to now accuse the station of failing “to ascertain the facts”?

[Al Jazeera has since responded to the minister’s accusations. Please click here.)

We also note that Asia Calling, a programme on a Jakarta-based radio station, had approached the MCYS minister for comment for its report on the issue of homelessness in Singapore. According to Asia Calling’s eventual report, “Singapore homelessness”, it “requested an interview with the Minister of Community Development, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, but his spokesperson said he was out of the country and unavailable for comment.”

“Some irresponsible websites”

According to Channelnewsasia, the MCYS minister said: “Some irresponsible websites have also caused these falsehoods to circulate widely on the internet.”

Our question to the minister is this:

Will the minister – and indeed, the government – give a public assurance and undertaking that all government ministries, departments and agencies will from now on provide information to members of the public and the media whenever it is requested?

MCYS cannot refuse to engage a media outlet, and then claim that that media outlet “failed to ascertain facts”.

TOC emailed NParks, MCYS minister

In January this year, some homeless people at Changi Beach Park told TOC they were harassed by NParks and MCYS officers.  On the 27th of January, we emailed the Chief Executive Officer of NParks, Mr Ng Lang and the Chairman of the Board, Mrs Christina Ong, about the matter and sought clarification on the rules regarding the use of public parks in Singapore.

TOC also copied the email to Dr Balakrishnan.

We have yet to receive a response from either Mr Ng, or Mrs Ong, or Dr Balakrishnan.

[Additional note: The Online Citizen had also emailed Ms Kee Lay Cheng, HDB’s Deputy Director at its Properties and Land Department, to ask about Block 29 at Havelock Road on 24 January. We received an automated reply which promised to forward our email “to the respective department to attend to it and reply direct to you.”]

We have yet to hear from Ms Kee.

How does the minister expect TOC, or any media organization or websites, to “ascertain facts” when attempts to engage the relevant authorities are met with silence?  The government has rarely, if ever, given us “their side of the story”.

Government ministries cannot decline requests for interviews or information, and then turn around and accuse the media of “not ascertaining the facts” and disparage websites for being “irresponsible”.

What is the point of listing the contact details of government ministers and officers on this government website if answers to queries are not forthcoming?

“[Setting] the record straight”

According to Channelnewsasia, the MCYS minister said:

Now that the facts are out, let us see whether those who have been propagating these falsehoods have the courage and the honesty to set the record straight.”

The minister was referring to the Al Jazeera report on the homeless couple.

Since January this year, TOC has spent many hours with the couple in question. We have approached various organisations, including MCYS, to try to help them find a home. We have done this in the belief that the government would be able to assist the couple.

We are thus shocked that the MCYS minister chose to castigate the couple in Parliament, without having ever spoken to them himself. What is also notable is that Channelnewsasia made no attempt whatsoever to contact the couple to seek their response to the minister’s statements. Perhaps CNA should have “ascertain[ed] the facts” before reporting on the case?

If they did, they would have realized that  “the man in the video” bought and sold his three flats over a period of 20 years.  The so-called “tidy profit” was derived by totaling up proceeds accumulated over two decades. “The man in the video” lost his third flat as a result of a divorce.  He is a single father struggling to support three children.  He is not sitting on a sudden windfall.

The woman in the video is technically co-owner of an HDB flat.  She is also a divorcee. Neither CNA nor the minister mentions this, but is it logical to expect a divorced couple to live under the same roof?

Since the minister’s statements in Parliament, TOC has met up with the couple. We showed them a copy of the CNA report.  We will have more on their story, as well as their response to the MCYS minister’s assertions, in a separate story tomorrow.

In October 2009, the Straits Times published an article, “Tell me, if someone needs help”. The following is an excerpt:

“Of late there has been an increase of such videos and blog postings. Although they may prove to be red herrings, Dr Balakrishnan still wants people to highlight cases they believe to have slipped through the cracks of the social safety system”

‘This just means we have more eyes and ears. Do your homework, but by all means bring them to my attention. I will investigate. My first and paramount duty is to identify and help those who are needy.’”

This is what TOC has tried to do. Yet, instead of fulfilling his “paramount duty”, the minister has chosen to humiliate a homeless couple in public.

Finally, how could MCYS have failed to notice the many tented communities spread out across Singapore?  Some campers tell TOC they’ve been homeless for months. How is it that despite repeated appeals to HDB and MCYS, these homeless people were not given shelter until after their stories were reported?

Did these people suddenly and rather inexplicably qualify for housing?  Why then were their previous applications rejected?

We welcome the minister’s response.

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