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Lily Neo treats the elderly in her ward like her grandma

The following is a translated article from the Chinese newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao. The original article, in Chinese, can be viewed here.

Translation by Yvonne Guo.

In 1997, when Dr Lily Neo was elected to become a Member of Parliament, she became a grassroots consultant in the Chinatown area. She realized to her surprise that in a First World country like Singapore, many people were still living in Third World conditions.

The current Chinatown – Kim Seng constituency is now part of Jalan Besar GRC. It is the constituency with the greatest number of elderly and poor residents in Singapore. Dr Neo had come into contact with poor people in her clinic situated in Redhill. However, the conditions she encountered during her house-to-house visits in Chinatown came as a great shock to her.

During an interview with Lianhe Zaobao yesterday, she said, “I met an elderly man who ate rice with soya sauce every day. He told me that even when he had fish to eat, he would cut in into three pieces and eat one piece every day. I was really sad to hear that.”

Dr Lily Neo was born into a rich Indonesian family, and has studied in Australia and Ireland. When she married a Singaporean, she started a medical practice here. During weekends, she would have tea and chat with a few friends from her social circle.

“Before I entered politics, I was living in my own world. I was a doctor living a comfortable life, and had never had the opportunity to meet residents like this.”

During meetings with the residents, she found that some of them had difficulty fulfilling even their most basic needs.

“One family asked me for money to buy milk powder. Another asked for a bit of money to help them tide over the week. These things do not sound like they could take place in Singapore. Yet I have witnessed them with my own eyes.”

When Dr Neo attends parliamentary sessions, she is always dressed elegantly, each time in a different outfit or cheongsam. But when meeting her residents, she is always dressed simply, with a white short-sleeved cotton jacket.

“I consciously want to dress in a simple manner, because I want residents to feel that I am like them. I don’t want them to feel that I can’t understand them. Actually, I really can understand them. Often I put myself in their shoes and I feel that if I were them, I too would be struggling from day to day. Maybe this is related to being a doctor – I really want to improve their lives.”

Dr Neo said, “Whenever I see thin old ladies, I think of my grandmother. My grandmother saw me grow up, yet she passed away before I was able to respect her. I hope to take care of the old people in my constituency with the respect I had for my Grandma.”

When Dr Neo was 19 years old, before she went to Australia for her university studies, her grandmother had told her they would never meet again. Not long after that, her grandmother died of a heart attack. She was only 67 years old.

In order to take care of the elderly and poor in her constituency, Dr Neo and other grassroots leaders have put into place many programmes with the aim of meeting the basic needs of low-income families and the housing and meals of the elderly.

A new initiative is the setting up of social entrepreneur projects. Housewives and the unemployed are paid 4 dollars an hour to sell their handmade handicrafts in a gift shop in front of The Majestic. Residents who have worked on such projects for more than six months are also given the opportunity to participate in the Workfare Supplement Scheme.

Du Zhende, 75, had not had a stable job in the last 20 years. Last month, she started taking sewing courses at a social enterprise office in Chinatown. Now she works 6 hours a week and earns $24 a week. Yet she is glad to have the opportunity to learn a new skill and eke out a meagre living.

Dr Lily Neo has realised that the problems low- or no-income families face are often multi-faceted. As such, she launched a programme this year to provide assistance and support to families in need. The Ministry of Manpower, daycare centres, family service centres and related organisations provide training, job-matching, childcare services, financial support and other means of assistance.

Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Second Minister for Home Affairs, will be visiting this constituency on 24 October. He will be promoting both programmes.

According to People’s Association statistics, more than 30 per cent of the residents in Chinatown are 65 years of age and older – the highest proportion among all the constituencies in Singapore. At the same time, Chinatown has a population with the highest number of rental flats – 4,800 in total.

The 260 needy residents in the Chinatown – Kim Seng district not only receive public assistance from the Government every month, but are also entitled to $30-vouchers from the constituency, which they can use at participating hawker centres or at Sheng Siong supermarkets.

Hu Qiongdan, 82, and Li Yayu, 83, came to Singapore at a young age, and have lived in Chinatown for more than 60 years. Although old and without kin, they have commented that the assistance programmes launched by the People’s Consultative Committee take into full consideration the needs of the elderly, and has helped alleviate the pressure they faced.

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Pictures not from Zaobao's report.

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