MSF confirms story of 82-year-old lady working as cleaner to cover her expenses

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) on Wednesday (29 July) issued a clarification regarding a viral Facebook post by a user of his interaction with an elderly woman who was reportedly seeking additional employment in Sentosa Island to make ends meet.

In a Facebook post, MSF said that its Social Service Office (SSO) colleagues “have identified the elderly woman, Mdm L”.

“She is staying in a five-room flat with her son’s family. The family has a domestic helper. Her son provides her with food and shelter but she works to supplement her other expenses. Our SSO colleagues visited her yesterday to see if she needed any help and how we can lend support,” said MSF.

According to MSF, Madam L “is a permanent resident, and she has not applied for citizenship in the past”, which makes her ineligible for Silver Support or Workfare.

“However, she receives benefits like the Solidarity Payment that are also extended to PRs,” said the Ministry.

MSF noted that Mdm L received a monthly gross salary of about $1,300 excluding CPF contribution from her employer prior to the COVID-19 circuit breaker.

“Due to reduced business volume, her employer had arranged for her and other full-time employees to work part-time as a way to retain staff. She is currently paid $675 for working part-time in 4-hour shifts (or about $6.50/hr),” said the Ministry, adding that her employer has indicated that “when business improves, they will review and reinstate the cleaners’ part-time employment to full-time”.

MSF said it is assessing Madam L’s eligibility for the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) which provides monthly payouts of $500 – $800.

“In addition, we will support her in other ways. Grassroots organisations will support her with $120 food vouchers monthly for the next six months. We are also arranging for her to get some help for her medical expenses,” said MSF.

MSF also said that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) “has verified that Mdm L’s elder son, a regular warrant officer, died during a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) freefall training session in South Africa, in May 2009”.

“Full compensation was paid out to his family. MINDEF and the SAF extend their deepest condolences to the family,” said the ministry.

MSF said that while it appreciates “the effort of members of the public in reaching out to those who seem to be in need”, disclosing their circumstances on social media “may lead to further distress for these vulnerable groups of people and their families”.

“Such posts may not correctly reflect the circumstances of vulnerable groups of people, who may be elderly, or may not share all the details accurately because of the stressors they are facing,” said MSF.

MSF did not address Madam L heading to HarbourFront to look for a better paying part-time job, selling her flat to finance her medical bill

What remains factual, however, is that a 82-year-old is working as a cleaner to cover her other expenses.

Going by the MSF’s clarification that Madam L’s pay is S$6.50 per hour, her take-home hourly pay is approximately S$5.50 or less after CPF contribution for her age.

Research by the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last year found that seniors in Singapore aged 65 and above living alone need at least S$1,379 to sustain their basic needs.

Additionally, what MSF did not address was that she was heading to HarbourFront to look for a better paying part-time job and her having to sell her flat to finance her medical bills.

MSF also said that Madam L had “indicated she was unaware of being photographed or that her comments and photo would be shared in public on social media”.

It is puzzling for MSF to remark that the old lady indicated she was unaware of being photographed, or that she did not know that her comments and photograph would be shared to the public on social media — it is unlikely for anyone to confirm that she has consented should the government approach them regarding such a matter.

Further, as Facebook user Katherine Tan pointed out, it is contradictory for MSF to write “a full post explaining her personal situation in great details, seemingly to debunk a vulnerable person’s situation on social media” in the context of its concluding remarks above.

“Ah Umm” gave different account “contrary to what she told me before”; lives with son and daughter-in-law instead of “alone with other friends”: Original poster Meng Shuen Koh

In a Facebook post today, Facebook user Meng Shuen Koh — the original poster of the viral incident — said that he had attempted to contact the lady by visiting her workplace on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, her colleagues told me when I inquired, it was her off-day and she did not come to work,” he said.

“It was also told to me that despite being there at 9am the following morning, I was not the first person to have asked about her; the earliest respondents actually came down the night before to seek her out, but she had already knocked off work. I decided to try again the next morning after enquiring about her working hours,” he added.

He said that he had made another attempt at visiting the lady at her workplace today “and linked up with another volunteer who was already there waiting for Ah Umm before her shift started”.

“When Ah Umm arrived at work, we told her of our intentions to offer her help. As far as we know, she personally does not own a mobile phone, followed up with providing her with our contact details.

“When we engaged her, she recounted to us that she has been approached by many members of the public, even at her place of residence. As it turns out, she does have a son and daughter-in-law living with her, and does not live alone with other friends, contrary to what she told me before,” he claimed.

He urged members of the public to “respect her wishes to be left alone, so as not to cause an elderly person any more stress, or possibly even risk her losing her job from the constant attention she receives at her workplace”.

“She thanks everybody for their concern, but is personally feeling very stressed out by the unwanted and unexpected attention. She kindly turned down our offers of help, and repeatedly insisted that she is coping fine,” he added.

He also included a link to a Google Docs spreadsheet “for mutual aid and community solidarity”.

“This spreadsheet is a simple system that helps connect individuals or groups of people in Singapore who have needs and offers for support. Please do not hesitate to refer anybody you know who are in need of help to this resource, and if you are able to, you can play a part in contributing to mutual aid as well,” he concluded.

Background of the incident

The story of Madam L reportedly originated from a series of screenshots from his Instagram story on Facebook on Monday, which was shared over 20,000 times and has since been removed.

He shared that he had met her while he was heading to the city via MRT, when she tapped him on the shoulder and asked him how to go to Sentosa from Bedok.

After telling her that she needs to disembark at Outram Park to change trains to HarbourFront, he proceeded to accompany her as she seems hesitant.

He shared that the lady, referred to as “Ah Umm”, shared to him that she is a Malaysian-born citizen and currently lives in Sembawang with her two friends. She claimed that she had no “formal schooling” and only can speak Chinese.

He also said he was told that the lady’s husband had passed away many years ago, while her only son died during a “heli-rappeling” exercise with the Commandos a “long time ago”.

She claimed that the Government has promised to give compensation for her late son’s death – with S$300 per month – but up until now, she has never even received “one cent” from the Government, he narrated.

“Now national day coming, they ask us hang the flag. I don’t want to hang. Hang for what? My son died for this flag. This flag also never help me. How to don’t work? I will starve to death,” the old lady told him.

When he asked her why she was heading to Sentosa, she explained that her friend told her about a job there that pays S$10 per hour to wash dishes.

In her current job, she said, she only earns S$20 per day working as a cleaner and dishwasher at a hawker centre situated in Tampines Hub.

Aside from her hourly salary, she told him that she was given with no free meals, nor transportation allowance from the place that she currently works at.

The old lady added, “Eat lunch, eat dinner already $5, already one hour of work gone. Left S$15, sometimes don’t eat better I think”.

She also revealed to him that she has had four major heart surgeries, in which each surgery would cost her about S$40,000. The old lady noted that she had to sell her house in order to pay for the exorbitant surgeries fees.

He wrote in his Facebook post that a salary of S$5 per hour is a “slave wage” and “nobody should be working menial labour for S$5 per hour”.

“People always ask, ‘how will we pay for minimum wage?’ But people never ask, ‘who will end up paying the price if we don’t pay for minimum wage, and how will they pay?

“People like Ah Umm pay. They pay with their house. With their life. With their sweat, and their tears (she cried a few times when she talked to me about her son, her house, her surgeries),” he added.

He noted that the ruling party People’s Action Party (PAP) has asked for a strong mandate to govern Singapore and assured Singaporeans that its PWM works. But after 50 years of the PAP’s mandate, there are still 100,000 workers remain below minimum wage, according to the WP.

“Meanwhile Goh Chok Tong and Edwin Tong say they’re not paid enough as ministers. Tan Chuan-Jin says some old people who collect cardboard to sell do it as a form of exercise.

“No public servant in Singapore deserves to be paid S$1 million per year,” he stressed.

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