S’pore Policy Journal’s Poh Yong Han expresses sentiment towards the viral story of 82-year-old lady working to make ends meet

In fact, I fear that such viral stories may undermine leftists’ goals of pushing for more progressive reforms, because it gives people like Calvin Cheng an easy way to caricature all leftists as “stupid” and “emotional”, and dismiss leftist ideas as trading in exaggerations and falsehoods

Recently, a story of an 82-year-old lady, who earns S$20 per day as a cleaner and dishwasher to make ends meet has gone viral on social media and later has been acknowledged by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) that it will provide assistance to the lady.

The occurrence of the elderly lady which shared by a Facebook user has gained public attention with some criticising the Government for the issue regarding low- and inequality wages.

In light of this, the Editor-in-Chief of Singapore Policy Journal Poh Yong Han took to her Facebook on Wednesday (29 July) to express her sentiment towards this viral story and its implications.

Ms Poh said she was aware that many did not share the follow-up story from the original poster as well as the MSF’s clarification statement about the occurrence.

Explaining the reason of why the story went viral, she noted, “Perhaps because it had all the trappings of the perfect leftist story: poor elderly woman earning a pittance as a cleaner, set against a backdrop of a wider political debate about income inequality and the distressingly low wages of essential workers in Singapore.”

She went on to said that some citizen journalism has later found out that the lady did not qualify for lots of Government grants because she is non-Singaporean while the lady is actually earning $6.50 per hour instead of $5 and is living with her son’s family in a five-room flat.

Without knowing the actual situation, she pointed out that many have made judgement of the Government system based on this single viral story.

“Many had used the singular example of this original facebook post to make broad sweeping statements and political commentary about how utterly rotten the system was and the lack of government support for low-waged workers.

“I’m not sure it’s fair to judge an entire system based on a single viral story, and I’m also not sure that spurious anecdotal evidence like this would be the best way to make a case for the need for minimum wage and/or the need for more stronger social safety nets,” she remarked.

Such viral stories may undermine leftists’ goals of pushing for more progressive reforms, says Poh Yong Han

In fact, Ms Poh expressed that what she feared was such viral stories “may undermine leftists’ goals of pushing for more progressive reforms”.

She reasoned, “Because it gives people like Calvin Cheng an easy way to caricature all leftists as ‘stupid’ and ‘emotional’, and dismiss leftist ideas as trading in exaggerations and falsehoods. In reality, there has been a lot of rigorous research to support the same progressive goals by academics such as Ng Kok Hoe, Teo You Yenn, and Walter Theseira.”

However, Ms Poh also concurred that the low-wage of $6.50 is unreasonable sum and called out for a “bolder reforms to uplift wages” to be taken soon and urgently.

“Does this mean that I think that $6.50 and hour is a reasonable sum? Absolutely not! I think we need bolder reforms to uplift wages, and we need to act soon and urgently, whether by implementing the Workers’ Party’s proposal to institute a minimum wage, or adopting Tharman’s suggestion to expand the Progressive Wage Model to more industries.”

Pointing to the WP’s proposed minimum wages, she said that even the proposed $1,300 is equivalent to that lady’s current take-home pay when she is working full-time, and is only $30 higher than the $1260 under the Progressive Wage Model for conservancy cleaners.

“$1,300 is also below the recommended living wage of $1379 needed for single elderly suggested by Ng Kok Hoe and his team at LKYSPP,” she added.

Apart from this, Ms Poh also concerned that the first instinct of the original poster was not trying to assist the old lady, but instead take photo of the old lady without consent and publicise the issue on his social media immediately.

Given that the original poster has apologised for his mistakes and taken down the post, she then asked the netizens to stop “spewing him with hate”.

“I don’t doubt that he may be well-meaning in his intentions, but hopefully we can be more careful about the way we respond to possible encounters like these in future,” Ms Poh said, urging those who had shared the original post to consider sharing the follow-ups too.

“If we want our democracy to function we need to be accountable for and responsible about the information we share,” she wrote.

Noting that she is glad that the authority has reached out the lady eventually, Ms Poh also hoped that the authority to not reveal the intimate details of the old lady so as to protect her privacy.

“I also wish there was a way for MSF to respond to the story without revealing all the intimate details of the old lady. This seems to undermine her right to privacy, esepcially as she has already mentioned how distressed she was by all the media attention she’s now receiving. Still, I’m not sure how this could have been achieved. Maybe in future it’s better for ordinary citizens not to take to the Internet as the primary recourse for action!”

Background of the viral incident

The story of the 82-year-old reportedly originated from a series of screenshots from the a Facebook user Meng Shuen Koh’s Instagram story on Facebook on Monday, which was shared over 20,000 times and has since been removed.

The FB user shared that he had met the old lady in MRT, asking him how to go to Sentosa from Bedok.

The FB user also discovered that the old lady sold her house just to pay the exorbitant fees of four surgeries. Her husband has 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.

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

She said currently she only earns S$20 per day working as a cleaner and dishwasher at a hawker centre situated in Tampines Hub, without free meals and transportation allowance.

However, the FB user said on his Facebook on Wednesday said that the old lady has gave different account when he re-visited the old lady at her workplace.

“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.

“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,” the FB user added.

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

Meanwhile, the MSF also issued a clarification regarding this viral incident on Wednesday, saying 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, Mdm L is a “permanent resident, and has not applied for citizenship in the past”, which makes her ineligible for Silver Support or Workfare, however she receives the Solidarity Payment – the benefits that are extended to PRs.

The Ministry also explained the reason of Mdm L being paid $675 for working part-time in 4-hour shifts (or about $6.50/hr) was due to her employer’s arrangement to retain staff during this period of low business.

Noting it is assessing Madam L’s eligibility for the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG), MSF said that it 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.

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