The unbearable yoke of the cornerstone called family

by: Ravi Philemon/

In the State of the Family Report 2009, then-Minister for Community Development Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said, “In a fast changing environment, the family remains as an anchor for individuals and the cornerstone of society. Strong and stable families are crucial to our well-being. They serve as the first-line of care and support for an individual.”

Behind this statement (which seems fine on the surface – even inspiring), is a mantra -a philosophy – which the government of Singapore has not deviated from for a long time.

The former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, Lim Soo Hoon clarified what this mantra actually meant when she said, ” We do not believe in social handouts. We believe the family is the basic building block of our society. It should be the first line of support in our social safety net if the individual needs help. Only if the family cannot help would we consider help from the community and the government”, while addressing the United Nations in the year 2000.

Our Prime Minister himself affirmed his belief in this philosophy when in 2005 he said, ” We must not breed a culture of entitlement, encouraging Singaporeans to seek Government support as a matter of right, whether or not they need it… The state will provide a safety net, but it should be a last resort, not a first resort… We thus avoid state welfare, which will erode our incentive to achieve and sap our will to strive. ”

The poor and the disadvantaged are already disadvantaged by the imposition of over 20 years of ‘Asian values’ which exhorts the virtues of hard-work and self-reliance; and when the constant reminder to take care of your own family – even your extended family – is added to that, it places an unbearable burden on the poor and the disadvantaged and it becomes a double whammy.

Those that dish out help in government (and affiliated) agencies are extra cautious that they do not erode the value of self-reliance and allow a culture of entitlement to breed, that they often overlook the obvious difficulties the individual or the family is facing while endeavouring to keep helps to bare necessities. “If they had asked for more help, we’d have considered”, they often comfort themselves.

These perhaps are the circumstances which led to the early ending of a young boy’s life.

Five-year-old Muhamad Irfan and his brother went into the care of their aunt supposedly because the boys’ parents and three older siblings are in prison.

Even if the aunt loved her nephews and may have wanted to take care of them, how could a 47-year old dishwasher who may already be struggling financially be in a position to care and provide for them? Did she have the capability to deal with a child who is over-active?

The case of Muhamad irfan is a sterling example of the government’s unwillingness to devote more resources into family and child welfare. If only the State had not just assumed that some relative would pick-up the children. Since both parents are incarcerated, why weren’t the brothers placed under official care and supervision?

Was a five-year-old sacrificed to our fear of breeding a culture of entitlement?

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