$500 enough to survive and pay for medical fees in Singapore?

Ms Tan denied welfare
Ms Tan and a letter in English which she doesn’t understand

By Terry Xu

Living in a rental flat with her brother, Ms Tan Lay Huan, 53 years old and divorced, cannot stand or walk for extended periods of time due to her medical condition, and has to rely on the walking cane she carries wherever she goes.

Her neighbours also said that Ms Tan might have mental issues, which is confirmed by her medical documents which states that she suffered from depression and other mental conditions. She shared that she had attempted suicide before in 2010, as a result of her depression, when she was bedridden from a broken pelvic bone.

Due to her many medical conditions, Ms Tan requires frequent medical treatment and prescribed medication. Her frequent tips to the polyclinics resulted in bills ranging from $16 to $60, with the occasional trips to hospitals for more severe conditions costing even more.

As a result of her many treatments, Ms Tan faces financial difficulties with paying her medical expenses. Recently, she tried to seek help from her Member of Parliament (MP) to obtain medical assistance and support from ComCare.

However, her application for ComCare was rejected by her MP, Dr Lily Neo, who allegedly told her that the S$500 she gets from her alimony fees should be enough for her to survive. Instead, Dr Neo suggested that she apply for the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS). She was eventually given the CHAS certification card.

This was not the only time that she was refused ComCare help. In 2010, she took her doctor’s letter to Toa Payoh Community Development Council (CDC) to prove that she can no longer work, but was instead told that she is not eligible for ComCare due to her alimony fees. The CDC staff also told her that the S$500 she received is sufficient for her livelihood.

When Ms Tan pointed out that one of her friends with a similar case, but has a daughter, was still given ComCare, the CDC staff could not give her an explanation on the difference in treatment.

Moreover, Ms Tan’s alimony fees was not as clear cut. She was married in 1989 and divorced in 1995, and was awarded a sum of S$500 as alimony fees by the court. From the S$500, Ms Tan has to pay for her medicine, rental, utilities and living expenses.

However, Ms Tan said that the alimony fees are not paid every month and there was even a period of three years where she ex-husband did not pay her at all. In that period, she had to live off her wages of S$450 from her work as a manufacturing operator.

Ms Tan also said that CHAS did not help, as it works on the basis on subsidises, which is of no use since she does not even have the the money to pay for the subsidised amount. To her, the CHAS card was as good as worthless.

“When I was sent to hospital once at midnight because of my medical condition, I had to pay for the ambulance,” she recounted. “I had to walk all the way back to my home because I had no money to pay for the taxi trip.”

She was crying as she related this, trying to control her emotions to avoid looks from residents walking along the void deck.

Her problems were compounded by other issues. She recently lost her National Registration Identity Card (NRIC), and while the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority had asked her to pay a reduced fee for the replacement (the original cost was S$300), it was still an amount she could not afford.

As a result, she has yet to collect her NRIC from ICA and is currently moving around without it.

To make matters worse, Ms Tan is not on good terms with her brother. Neighbours TOC spoke to said they often quarrel fiercely, which sometimes brought the police to their flat. Ms Tan’s flat is clustered with things, effectively separating it into two sections, with brother and sister sleeping on either side of the partition.

Ms Tan is hopeful that things will turn for the better, as she plans to move into another rental flat with a new room-mate. Nevertheless, life at the moment is hardly bearable. “Some days I just lie on my bed, and it is just too painful to get up.”

“Due to high cost of living create by our government, many people fall into poverty,” said the volunteer who alerted TOC about Ms Tan’s case. “But they project a very nice picture that the government is caring for the needy.”

“We have heard how our government  spends millions to help this group of people. But in reality, this group of people are being discriminated by stringent criteria. This results in a substantial amount of such funding not used by the CDC.”

TOC sent a letter to Dr Neo and the Central CDC about Ms Tan’s situation. Dr Neo replied that she has offered to help Ms Tan through CHAS and that the grassroot leaders have been extending help to her. Dr Neo neither acknowledged nor denied the claim that she said S$500 was enough for Ms Tan to survive.

The CDC has responded to TOC indicating that they are not in charge of cases like Ms Tan. they have also directed Ms Tan to the social welfare department.

Ms Tan was only contacted a few days earlier, requesting her to visit the CDC in Chinatown to collect a letter, the matter of concern which we are not privy to.

Personal reflections:

I wonder about the government’s much touted 18-layer kueh lapis of welfare that is supposed to exist for less well-off individuals like Ms Tan. Why are people like her still expected to live on a day to day basis? If her requests have fallen on deaf ears, are we then supposed to think about how she should be blamed for her own misdeeds? That she could have chosen not to be sick? That she could have chosen someone else to be married to? That she could still try to work and support herself even though she is medically unfit to do so? That she could try to depend on her family members whom she is not on good terms with?

What is our government’s responsibility towards citizens, to let them live with dignity rather than expect them to battle the odds in the ever-changing landscape that is Singapore, where they have to literally beg for their subsistence on a day to day basis? Do they even have hope that their kind-hearted government will show them some charity to help them survive?

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