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Dr Lily Neo – a rare PAP breed

by Andrew Loh

“[I] just felt I needed to shout for these people,” MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Dr Lily Neo, told The New Paper in 2008.

She was referring to her questions to the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) in Parliament over its assistance schemes for the needy. Dr Neo estimated that the number is some 90,000 to 100,000 households.

In that debate, Dr Neo called on the ministry to institute “something more permanent for these people that can lift them out of the poverty cycle.”

The response from Ms Yu Foo Yee Shoon, Minister of State for MCYS, did not satisfy Dr Neo. When the Speaker wanted to move on to the next question from another MP, Dr Neo jumped to her feet and called for the MCYS to do more for those who need help.

Her concerns for the poor followed the global financial crisis which hit in 2008/2009. “The plight of poor Singaporeans has got worse,” she said in Parliament. “Those seeking financial help have jumped to 30%.  Direct social safety net is most urgently called for now.”

She suggested MCYS took a more holistic approach to helping the poor.

Both Dr Balakrishnan and Ms Yu-Foo Yee Shoon trotted out the usual defence of their ministry’s policies and schemes in response to Dr Neo.

“Is it true that, according to one survey, there are about 100,000 households of such families?” she asked the Minister of State.  “May I ask the Minister of State whether there is any better long-term solution to get them out of the poverty trap and whether their children can be given a better chance to climb the social strata?”

Ms Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, after giving her reply to Dr Neo, then asked her:

“If you do a calculation, we cover slightly more than the bottom 20% of Singaporeans.  Our Ministry's concern is: how far do you want to cover?  Do you want to cover up to the bottom 30%, 40% or 50%?  So far, the cut-off point is about $1,500 or the bottom 20% of our population.”

That led to a sharp exchange between the two, with Dr Neo jumping in at one point to stop the Speaker from moving on to other MPs’ questions.

Here is the exchange which took place after Ms Yu-Foo Yee Shoon had answered Dr Neo’s original question, and the Speaker was ready to move on.

Mr Speaker:  Dr Lam Pin Min.

Dr Lily Neo:  I am sorry, Mr Speaker.  Can I be allowed to come in here, because I was asked a question?  Therefore, I should be given a chance to reply.

Mr Speaker:  Your question was not answered?

Dr Lily Neo:  No, Sir.  One, my question was not answered and, two, I was asked a question.

Mr Speaker:   Yes.

Dr Lily Neo:  Mr Speaker, I like to object to the fact that I was asked a question on what I wanted. Was assistance for 20% or 30% enough?  No, that was not what I was asking for.  I was asking for 100,000 households which are only 3% of the population.  I could not be asked a question.  We have already given 20% of ComCare, and may I just qualify that ComCare was temporary assistance, and that was really out of the question.

Mr Speaker:  To cut it short, your question was not answered then?

Dr Lily Neo:  Sir, the questions I asked were:

(1)  Was it correct to say that there were 100,000 households that require long-term assistance, whereas the assistance schemes we have at the moment are all temporary?

(2)  Can they be helped with long-term solutions to get them out of the poverty trap; and

(3)  Can their children be given a better chance?

But I have definitely never asked for assistance for 30% or 40% of Singaporeans, and I object to being asked that kind of question.

Mr Speaker:  Mrs Yu-Foo, would you like to answer that question?

Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon:  Mr Speaker, Sir, I did not say that Dr Lily Neo asked for 30%.  I just said that, generally, we have one million households.  If we say 100,000, it is about 10% of the households.  After we have the ComCare scheme, actually the Government covers the bottom 20% of households in Singapore.  My question to Singaporeans is whether we want to cover beyond the bottom 20%.  I am not saying that Dr Lily Neo asked for more than the bottom 20%.  I just want to clarify that.

Another point is that, for the very, very poor, it is about 3,600 persons who are under Public Assistance.  Some are under the interim ComCare scheme while others are under the Workfare Scheme.  Together, if we add the 4,000 or 5,000, those are the really poor cases.  But those with income beyond $1,500 who can manage but have difficulty when their children go to school.

Mr Speaker:  Mrs Yu-Foo, you are actually repeating your replies.

In 2009 and 2010, Dr Neo drew attention to the needs of the low-income once more.

Photo credit: Kreta Ayer Senors Activity Centre

“We need to shift away from jumping immediately to the comfortable defensive policy-line that we cannot breed a crutch-mentality society each time there is a call to help the lower-income group,” she told the House then.

Dr Neo explained how education, which the Government sees as a social leveller for the less fortunate, has “lost its effect”. “The children of the resource-poor families do not enjoy the same access to help in their education,” she said. “These children enter school disadvantaged and it is never a level-playing field for them at all. The parents are too resource-poor to give their children a leg-up in their education.”

“Could MCYS apply a hand-holding approach to assist the children in these families,” she asked the minister.

In the latest clash in Parliament on Wednesday (2011) with the MCYS Minister, Dr Neo reiterated her call. “May I urge the minister to improve the plight of the children from the lowest income families through such a permanent and constructive safety-net?”

Specifically, she wanted a systematic programme to help children from the bottom 5 per cent of earners.

In his reply, which according to a Straits Times report, the minister “passed over her specific suggestion” and instead “highlighted various existing schemes.” The minister also emphasised his oft-repeated mantra of “self-reliance”.

Dr Neo would have none of it.

“Does he see that the many assistance schemes he mentioned earlier are not addressing this vulnerable group’s predicaments? Does he believe in the opportunities of levelling up and the chance of social mobility?”

Dr Balakrishnan stood his ground and said that the Government’s position is to avoid a “permanent, unconditional, needs-based social safety net.”

Dr Neo replied: “I am very encouraged when minister said earlier that we are not short of resources. Therefore, I hope the minister will reconsider giving these resources we are not short of to these vulnerable groups that are really in need.”

The minister then said his ministry also does so.

The most famous clash between Dr Neo and Dr Balakrishnan is perhaps the one which took place in 2007. In that exchange, Dr Neo called on the MCYS Minister to raise the amount given to those on Public Assistance. Dr Neo questioned if the amount given was enough.

“Minister yesterday announced that PA allowance would be increased by $30 a month, from $260 to $290,” she said in Parliament. “[My] single constituents told me that they needed to skip one meal a day to live on the $260 per month.  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.”

Dr Balakrishnan replied that “one limiting factor must be that the sum that we give through Public Assistance cannot be so generous as to erode the work ethic.”

Undeterred, Dr Neo rebutted the Minister. “[This] work ethic concept does not work,” she said, “because this is a group of people that can never work either due to poor health, old age or disability.”

She then asked the minister: “May I ask him: should providing three meals a day not be a priority of his promise?”

Dr Balakrishnan explained that the Government does not want to foster an entitlement mentality. “Entitlements will always be low, ie, the person has to ask you for help and not bang on your table for help,” he added.

The minister then took questions from other MPs. However, Dr Neo was not done yet. After the rest have finished, she rose to her feet and asked the minister:

“Sir, I want to check with the Minister again on the strict criteria on the entitlement for PA recipients.  May I ask him what is his definition of "subsistence living"?  Am I correct to say that, out of $260 per month for PA recipients, $100 goes to rental, power supply and S&C, and leaving them with only $5 a day to live on?  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 Dr Balakrishnan replied:

“How much do you want?  Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

In April that same year, ministers and top civil servants’ salaries were increased by 4 to 21 per cent. Honorariums for Members of Parliament were also given a hike.

Dr Neo donated the increase in her MP allowance to Public Assistance recipients in her constituency.

Photo credit: Young PAP

One can almost feel the exasperation of Dr Neo in trying to get a little more assistance for the poor. This is particularly so when Dr Balakrishnan seemed to have had no qualms in busting the kitty for the Youth Olympic Games last year to the tune of almost S$400 million. He also was the minister who, not too long ago, proclaimed, “Tell me, if someone needs help.”

Yet, each time Dr Neo seeks help for the poor, it seems his only response is to mouth-off a list of schemes which his ministry already has in place and defend his position to the death, as it were.

The recipients of Public Assistance, who have to go through strict qualifying criterias, have seen the allowance increase by S$30 to S$40 per month, the last several years.

In 2007, the amount was S$260.

In 2008, it was increased to S$290.

In 2009, it went up to S$330

In 2010, it was S$360.

In 2011, it is now S$400 – the amount which Dr Neo first asked for in 2008.

It has taken 3 years for the Government to raise Public Assistance – by a mere S$140 a month - to what Dr Neo felt the poor required.

With inflation expected to be at a high 4 per cent this year, such meagre increases barely allows PA recipients any breathing room. I’m not even certain if it can be considered subsistence-level assistance.

Yet, in Parliament last week, ministers, including Dr Balakrishnan, are to get 8 months bonuses – in just one year.

Dr Neo’s constituency, Jalan Besar GRC, was recently erased from the redrawn electoral map for the next General Election. She and her team received almost 70 per cent of the vote in the elections in 2006. Her fellow MPs in that ward are said to be moving on. Dr Lee Boon Yang, for example, is retiring from politics. Mr Heng Chee How is expected to contest a Single-member Constituency.

Will Dr Neo, who first contested an election under the PAP banner in 1996, be fielded again? Which constituency will she be moved to?

Or will she too be retiring from politics – or be asked to step down in the name of “renewal”?

Whatever it is, Dr Neo should be proud of her work and for speaking up for the less fortunate. It is rare indeed that any PAP MP would so doggedly champion the poor.

It is not an easy task to seek help in Singapore, especially from a Government – and a minister – which is possessed by its own mantra of “self-reliance” to the point of becoming oblivious to the realities which the poor face.

I hope Dr Neo will still be around when the 12th Parliament sits after the next elections.

Indeed, among all those who wear white, she is a rare breed.

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Read also: Lily Neo treats the elderly in her ward like her grandma.

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