Tan Chuan-Jin warns netizens not to “simply take an image, write and slam” ministries yet doing nothing structurally to help those in need

On the other hand, the vitality of post's virality helped an elderly cleaner receive assistance at breakneck speed

Tan Chuan-Jin urged netizens to err on the side of caution and not just simply “take an image, write and slam” agencies or the government yet doing nothing structurally to help the vulnerable. 

The Member of Parliament (MP) took to his Facebook and Instagram to affirm the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) stance that using social media as a channel to seek help for those in need may not be the most sagacious. 

The MSF uploaded a clarification post on Facebook on Wednesday (29 Jul) at 7pm regarding a viral Facebook post which detailed the plight of an elderly cleaner.

In the ministry’s post, it posited facts and circumstances surrounding the elderly woman. 

Two hours later, Mr Tan said in a Facebook post that he has “no regrets about the work” he’s done in the MSF front. 

Mr Tan, who was elected MP for Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency in the recent General Election 2020, helmed the MSF from April 2015 to September 2017. He then went on to be Speaker of Parliament replacing President Halimah Yacob. 

He recounted how he would post more on the issue of community assistance because it “helps us understand the complexities better but more critically it was to encourage folks to be proactive and approach people who appear to need help”. 

However, he drew the line when it came to the actual cases of people he met and assisted because he knew what “the mob would do with it”. 

The term “mob” casually refers to “mob mentality”, which is a form of groupthink that formulates an “us versus them” attitude based on irrational thought that may have been well-intentioned.

Even if this is so, Mr Tan disclaimed that assistance was not rendered because he has advised his team that even in doubtful cases, “provide assistance”. 

It’s ok if we are ‘taken for a ride’ because you never know, it may well have been critical. Speak to them, listen, find out more, take down details and let us know so that we can follow up and verify. Things aren’t often as it seems but we will help where needed.”

Mr Tan subsequently posted a series of images accompanied by a post at 11pm which explained “how (the) social team works”. 

“During our house visits, I spend time chatting with residents and you can soon suss out issues. We then follow up with the Social Service Office , Agency for Integrated Care, the local Family Service Center, or HDB or all!!”

He stressed that “preventive work is key and volunteers play a key role” in rendering assistance to Singaporeans in need. 

Mr Tan outlines the proper steps the public should take to help the vulnerable, as sharing on social media can have “untoward consequences”

He then followed up with another Facebook post to detail the nine steps that society can take to help the vulnerable group.

These steps include noting down details of the situation, taking down the person’s particulars, calling the Comcare hotline or visiting the nearest Social Service Office (SSO). 

He reposted it on Instagram too. 

Mr Tan re-emphasised that “sharing on social media can have untoward consequences as we don’t always know the full facts and stories”. 

“The reality is that MSF Singapore’s clarification will NEVER (go) viral the way the original criticism did.” 

Koh Meng Shuen was the member of the public who first shed light on the elderly woman’s plight on Facebook on Monday (27 Jul). 

The viral post has since been taken down due to public backlash and in view of the facts predicated by the MSF. 

“A number of folks sent (Mr Koh’s) post to me because the individual who had posted it had taken the opportunity to attack me. Some sent me to flag it up for my attention and asked me to help the lady. Some taunted and mocked me,” Mr Tan elaborated. 

However, in the social media age, Mr Tan “guessed” it may always be the public’s “choice” to continue to use social media platforms as a form of discourse. 

Did the vitality in virality prompt MSF to provide immediate assistance to the elderly cleaner?

Within the span of two days of Mr Koh’s post, MSF has: 

  • Identified the woman and visited her on Tuesday (28 Jul) to see if she needed any help and how they can lend support
  • Contacted her employer, who hires her as a dishwasher at a hawker centre in Tampines Hub, to ascertain possibilities of better-paying work arrangements 
  • Initiated assessment of her eligibility for the COVID-19 Support Grant, which provides monthly payouts of $500 – $800
  • Stated that they will support her in other ways – such as $120 food vouchers monthly for the next six months, and financial help for Mdm L’s medical expenses

In a post on Wednesday night, TOC asked whether “this situation (would have) come to the immediate attention of the MSF for redress had it not gone viral”.

“Had the public not taken the initiative to circulate and publicise the plight of this elderly lady, would she have rapidly gotten the aid that she so obviously needs?

Although MSF pointed out some inaccuracies in the post, it seemed the post contained truths too. 

(They have) not disputed key facts such as the elderly lady (having) to travel to Sentosa seeking employment, nor the fact that she had to sell her flat to finance her medical bills.”

The writer notes that the size and bureaucracy of a large government organisation like MSF “may not always be in a position to dispense help quickly”. 

“In that sense, the public helps create awareness in order to bring about the help. Even if there are some inaccuracies, the publicity did achieve the desired result. Is that such a bad thing?”

Therefore, when MSF cautioned against public posting on the basis of inaccuracies and misrepresentation of facts – is the MSF “looking out for the interests of this elderly lady or its own reputation?”

“At the end of the day, the question remains open — had this post not gone viral, would the elderly lady in question have gotten the help she needed at speed? And if the answer is no, which is the greater need? Fast help or the MSF’s reputation?”

The viral post about a coincidental encounter with an elderly cleaner on the train who struggles to make ends meet

The story of Madam L first arose from a series of screenshots from Mr Koh’s 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 seemed 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 remaining 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.

MSF responds to viral Facebook post with clarifications and details 

The ministry issued the clarification in question on Wednesday night stating that the ministry and its 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.

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