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Assistance for elderly and poor – whither our priorities?

by Andrew Loh

Reading the Lianhe Zaobao article on Dr Lily Neo is indeed heartwarming. It seems there aren’t too many Members of Parliament like her. And that is a shame. In the article, Dr Neo when talking of the struggles some of the elderly in her constituency faced, said, “These things do not sound like they could take place in Singapore. Yet I have witnessed them with my own eyes.”

Dr Neo is not the only one who has witnessed such things. Having worked on stories of the homeless and having volunteered in charitable activities on some occasions when I was a member of the Workers’ Party (WP), I have seen how the elderly lived. I’ll never forget one such instant.

The WP was providing free haircuts and handing out foodstuff to the needy in Hougang one Sunday morning. There was an old man who’d painstakingly trudged his way to the void deck where packets of rice and sugar were being given out by WP members and volunteers. As the old man was handed a packet of rice, which weighed just 1kg, he asked if we could help him carry it to his one-room rental flat just a block away. You see, his hands were too weak to even carry the packet.

As I walked with him, and seeing how he ever-so-slowly took one step at a time, I wondered how he survived all this while. The charity handouts were only once a week, sometimes once a month. What would he do when he runs out of rice? Evidently, going out to get groceries by himself is out of the question.

“When I run out of food,” he told me, “I’ll wait. I eat very little. Sometimes I just cook porridge (which uses less rice) and just eat.” But what made me even sadder was when he said, “I want to die. What’s the use of living? I am already useless,” he said, adding that he’s already almost blind in both his eyes as well. “I want to die but God will not take me.”

The government’s hardline stance on welfare borders on the extreme. It has become a mantra which lacks compassion – even for those who are not able to fend for themselves even if they wanted to. And this was exactly the point Dr Neo raised in Parliament in 2007. The Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, had defended the government’s level of Public Assistance for the needy which at that time was being increased by $1 a day then, from S$260 to S$290. Dr Balakrishnan had said this was “so as not to take away the work ethic.”

Dr Neo replied then: “Surely, this argument cannot be applied to PA allowance recipients because this is a group of people that can never work either due to poor health, old age or disability. Therefore, this work ethic concept does not work.”

Sadly, Dr Neo’s point seems to have been lost on the minister.

Each time the Public Assistance has been raised, it has always been by a mere S$1 a day.

“Sir, my single constituents told me that they needed to skip one meal a day to live on the $260 per month,” Dr Neo said in Parliament. “And now, MCYS is going to give them $1 more a day. But, Sir, $1 a day will not be able to buy them one meal a day in any hawker centre.”

“Am I correct to say that any basic meal in any hawker centre is already $2.50 to $3.00 per meal? Therefore, is it too much to ask for just three meals a day as an entitlement for the PA recipients?”

And the minister’s now infamous retort to Dr Neo: “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

While the government urges Singaporeans, especially those who are 40-years old and above, to upgrade their skills so as to be employable, and that Singaporeans should not think of retirement anymore and to work as long as one is able to, it seems to forget that there is a group of Singaporeans – poor, elderly, weak – which cannot “upgrade” its skills or even get up daily and go to work – even if they wanted to!

And even if they were somehow miraculously able to work in spite of their disabilities, how would they be protected? As it is, older workers are being discriminated against. Even government-linked companies are doing this. As we pointed out previously, Singapore Airlines and its subsidiaries cut the pay of workers who reach 62 – across the board! And when the Union Chief keeps repeating his tiresome tune of “cheaper workers” and rejects suggestions for minimum wage, what is the elderly worker to do? How do they survive without any protection in employment?

Personally I was appalled and aghast when I saw the same ministry, which is suppose to care for the elderly and poor, splurge S$387 million on the Youth Olympic Games without so much as a second thought to what this S$387 million could have been better used for – rather than on a Games which for the most part no one cared about – neither here in Singapore nor anywhere else in the world.

Perhaps we can all take comfort in the knowledge that the MCYS minister had made a promise to the needy. “If you were a poor person, anywhere on this planet, Singapore is the one place where you will have a roof over your head, where you will have food on the table…Even if you can’t afford it,
we will have meals delivered to you.”

One wonders if the elderly and poor in Dr Neo’s ward have had such meals delivered to them by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports thus far.

In the meantime, we should applaud and support those such as Dr Neo who continue to tirelessly care for those in need. Her Parliamentary exchange with the minister was in March 2007. The minister flatly rejected her request to increase the amount of Public Assistance for the needy. The very next month, April 2007, when the government announced pay increases for ministers and MPs, Dr Neo said she would donate the increment in her MP allowance to Public Assistance recipients in her constituency. (Channel NewsAsia)

While this is indeed admirable, I also cannot help but see Dr Neo’s gesture as a slap on the government’s face. Does the government have its priorities right?

In the coming years, as our population ages, as the income gap widens, as older workers continue to have their wages depressed, as the cost of living surges ahead, while our union chief struts around with his “cheaper, better, faster” slogan, how much more will our elderly have to struggle?

What more nasty consequences await us?