Straits Times reports TOC’s response to Vivian Balakrishnan

This is the Straits Times report on 1 May 2010.

‘Homeless’ couple still in website’s spotlight.

The Online Citizen gives more details on their housing situation.

By Rachel Chang

A PROMINENT local website has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by a Cabinet minister over the issue of a homeless couple living in a tent.

On Tuesday, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan lambasted a short programme by Arabic TV news network Al-Jazeera in Parliament.

The two-minute clip features a couple allegedly forced onto the streets by government bureaucracy.

Dr Balakrishnan questioned the accuracy of the report, saying that the couple were not as destitute as the Al-Jazeera report alleged, nor had they been left in the lurch by government agencies.

He said the man had made about $220,000 from the sale of three HDB flats, and the woman is still the co-owner of an HDB flat with her ex-husband.

This made her and her present partner ineligible for public rental housing.

Dr Balakrishnan also berated ‘irresponsible websites’ for circulating the clip.

‘Now that the facts are out, let’s see whether these people who’ve been propagating falsehoods have the courage and honesty to set the facts right,’ he said, referring both to the TV station and the website.

The socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC), which has carried a series of articles on the homeless camping out in parks, responded by approaching the couple. The website also revealed that it had been working with the couple since January to help find shelter for them.

The result was a lengthy two-part article on Wednesday and yesterday, which among other things gave details of the couple’s flat transactions. The article carried no byline.

Mr Andrew Loh, the website’s editor-in-chief, told The Straits Times yesterday that the article was a ‘team effort’ and that was why it carried no byline. He declined to provide more information about the couple or how they had come to know them.

The man was identified only by a fictitious name, Eddie, and the woman by her first name, Samiah.

After interviewing the couple, TOC provided its own approximation of how the sum of $220,000 might have been arrived at.

It said this was over a period of 20 years, and much of the profit from each sale went to paying off debts and loans.

Asked for its response to this information yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan’s press secretary Ho Moon Shin said ‘the profits made by selling the flats are a matter of record’.

TOC’s article on April 29 said it had spent ‘many hours’ with this couple ‘since January this year’.

‘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.’

Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament on April 27 that the couple had been offered a place at a shelter run by New Hope Community Services, but they turned it down.

TOC said in its April 30 article that the shelter would not let the couple live together as they are not legally married.

In the meantime, MCYS also called into question Al-Jazeera’s journalistic tactics. It said that the woman had informed them that she ‘was not aware that Al-Jazeera had recorded her statement for the purpose of broadcasting’.

She had thought they were welfare volunteers.

‘If this is indeed the case, then Al-Jazeera… stands guilty of abusing the trust of the interviewee and unprofessional conduct.’

It also slammed as ‘illogical’ Al-Jazeera’s claim that its report was factually correct, and that the real point of it was to illustrate ‘how the safety net in Singapore sometimes fails to catch those who have fallen on hard times… because of the rules governing access to assistance’.

This is because the couple continue to receive financial and social assistance from various help outfits, for example the South West Community Development Council.

In fact, said MCYS, the episode ‘illustrates an accessible, flexible and responsive safety net for Singaporeans’.

‘Homelessness is a complex problem. It is not simply a matter of offering subsidies ad infinitum. The Government is committed to ensuring that every Singaporean has proper housing and will continue to provide appropriate assistance. Our approach is based on the time-tested values of hard work, thrift, self-reliance, family responsibility and community support for those in need,’ it added.

The Straits Times understands that both TOC and MCYS remain in contact with the couple.

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