Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Gerald Giam on Friday (4 Sept) pushed the Government to improve the ways of caring for the vulnerable groups in society, especially people with disabilities (PwDs), social assistance applicants, migrant workers while helping Singaporeans to cope with the burden of healthcare expenses.
Speaking at the parliamentary debate, Mr Giam highlighted that the employment opportunities is the main concern of the PwDs as the groups have experienced “much higher hurdles, and not just because of their disabilities”.
“It is common for employers to assume PwDs will not be able to perform on the job just because of their limitations,” he noted, citing the experience that PwDs shared with him, where they are only being rejected when the employer learned that they had a disability though they have met all the job requirements.
To “clear misconceptions about PwDs in the workplace”, Mr Giam called for a better public education for both employers and general public to complement the Government support schemes – Enabling Employment Credit and the Assistive Technology Fund.
He also emphasised the need of introducing anti-discrimination legislation, so as to ensure that the employers do not discriminate on the basis of disability.
Concerning the safety issue of PwDs, Mr Giam also said that the absence of audible pedestrian signals (APS) at the junctions with traffic lights and the chirping sound that turned off at 9 or 10pm to avoid disturbing nearby residents could “pose a safety risk for visually-impaired pedestrians who are out at night”.
He thus asked the Ministry of Transport (MOT) to re-consider his proposal of adding vibrotactile walk indications at the road junctions.
“These are special buttons positioned at the traffic signals which vibrate when it is safe to walk. These complement the APS and can continue to operate even late at night without disturbing the peace,” he added.
Means testing for social assistance schemes
Mr Giam also called for the improvements to the means testing process for application of social assistance schemes as the current process often requires too much paperwork and impose an undue burden on the needy people.
He cited the example of Public Assistance’s application, where the applicants have to submit at least 10 documents to prove their neediness, including log in to government websites with SingPass and print out the documents.
However, these can be an obstacle for those with no computers and printers at home, Mr Giam said.
He continued, “When they apply for assistance schemes with other government agencies, or need to renew their assistance, the same exercise has to be repeated.”
As compared to this “painfully low-tech way of means testing”, Mr Giam then pointed out that the Government “clearly has the technical capabilities to collect taxes efficiently and seamlessly”.
“For example, the Tax Portal from IRAS pulls data from multiple sources to fill up a taxpayer’s income, deductions and reliefs, and computes their taxable income after just a few clicks,” he said.
Hence, Mr Giam proposed to develop the same capabilities for disbursing social assistance to deserving individuals and families as well as create a centralised system that keeps track of each individual’s disability, which can be tapped into by various agencies to assess if they are qualified for disability benefits.
“By doing so, deserving citizens can receive the help they need more quickly and conveniently, and won’t fall through the cracks just because they have difficulty gathering and submitting the necessary documents,” he noted.
Help Singaporeans to cope with healthcare expenses
Touching on the healthcare support, Mr Giam mentioned that there are the limitations under the MediSave700 scheme, which introduced by the Government to allows patients with multiple conditions to draw up to $700 a year from their MediSave accounts.
“Patients whose condition is not one of the 20 chronic conditions specified under the Chronic Disease Management Programme, or whose treatment costs exceed $700 a year, still have to fork out cash for their treatment,” he said.
He also shared that some residents he met have lamented about the high costs of treatment for their chronic conditions and missing appointments due to cost concerns.
As such, Mr Giam pushed for the MediSave withdrawals to be allowed for the treatment of all chronic conditions, to ensure that “no one is excluded just because they suffer from a less common chronic condition.”
He also suggested to remove the annual withdrawal limits of MediSave for patients with sufficient MediSave balances as well as above the age of 60.
“To reduce the risk of a ‘buffet syndrome’, these two changes can be rolled out first at polyclinics and restructured hospitals, where tight procedures are already in place to ensure that only medically-necessary treatment is prescribed,” he noted.
Migrant workers are susceptible to being taken advantage of
Due to the lack of bargaining power vis-à-vis other parties like employers, the government and employment agencies, Mr Giam noted that the migrant workers are susceptible to being taken advantage of.
According to Mr Giam, migrant workers are reported to often pay as much as $10,000 to secure jobs in Singapore and some are asked to make cash payments of up to $4,000 to third party “agents” to renew contracts or find subsequent jobs when their contracts end.
“For both these fees, they take up huge loans and spend many months servicing them on the back of their salaries of around $500 to $800 a month. This makes them almost like indentured labour for much of their time in Singapore. A few unscrupulous employers are in on the act, working with illegal agents to profit off the workers they employ,” he remarked.
However, if they file a complaint with Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Mr Giam said there is is often no paper trail to prove the offences because these payments are usually made in cash.
“Furthermore, workers risk losing their jobs and being sent home if their employers find out they have filed a complaint. Hence many violations go unreported,” he added.
Mr Giam therefore urged the MOM to take errant parties to task by stepping up enforcement and intelligence gathering.
He also proposed to set up a jobs portal for employers to list available jobs so as to help the workers to find new companies to work for once their contracts end without going through intermediaries.
“This will reduce the opportunities for collecting kickbacks and correct some of the power imbalance that currently exists,” he said.