HOW MANY PORTIONS OF HELP, Sir?

Posted by Jasmine Yin and Gracia Chiang under Policy Watch on 12 April 2007

Some say the allowances given to those on public assistance are too small. Others say charities should step in. So, who's right?

THE Central Business District skyline was glittering under the mid-day sun.

But from the void deck of a block of one-room rental flats at Kreta Ayer, 89-year-old Choo Tua Tow had no interest in admiring these symbols of progress.

His attention was fixed on the white styrofoam packet of rice, two types of vegetables and a small slice of fried pork before him. This $3.30 meal from the nearby coffee shop had wiped out almost half his daily Public Assistance (PA) budget.

Some floors up, his neighbour, Madam Lim Gek Neo was resting on her single-bed frame she does not have a mattress before deciding what to cook for the day. The 74-year-old had walked for 25 minutes to get home after her polyclinic consultation.

The previous day, she had cooked fish bought from the wet market. Lunch was one side of the fish which was the size of a child's palm and dinner, the other side. To supplement the meal, there was rice, since several packets had been donated to her.

Mdm Lim, who has diabetes, knows she should not be eating too much rice. "But I won't feel full because I don't have much of anything else to eat", she grumbled in Cantonese.

Mr Choo and Madam Lim scrimp to survive on public assistance of $260 a month a sum that will be raised to $290 from July. Their Member of Parliament, Dr Lily Neo, recently spoke up strongly for them and those in their situation in Parliament, arguing for a bigger rise in public assistance and saying that ensuring three meals a day for such people should be "a priority".

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, countered that there was "enough, by and large" for most on the PA scheme to get by. He stressed that everyone from grassroots and voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to "compassionate" individuals and the Government has a role to play in helping the needy and disadvantaged.

But how much comfort has this "many helping hands" approach provided to those who qualify for public assistance?

And, with globalisation likely to push more towards the fringes, should charities step up their game or should the Government shoulder a larger burden?

CREAKING CHARITIES

There are currently about 3,000 households on PA in Singapore and they do not qualify lightly. These people have been deemed unfit for work due to illness, old age or disability, and there is no one to support them. The official numbers have not changed much since 2002, although charities insist that more are knocking on their doors.

"We feel our burden is getting heavier over the years because there are more and more elderly," president of the Singapore Buddhist Lodge Lee Bock Guan told Today. There has been a 5-per-cent increase in the number of people who qualify for the charity's $100 hongbao given to PA recipients during the Chinese New Year period.

Also, from giving out 70 sets of rice, oil and bee hoon every month to those on PA 10 years ago, the charity now hands out 200 sets.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul's vice-president Paul Foo was more blunt. "I think the Government needs to open its pockets more," he said. "Try living on $290 month. The bulk of PA recipients are the elderly. What's wrong with giving them another $50 a month so they can have a plate of chicken rice?"

The Catholic charity distributes cash and grocery vouchers ranging from $30 to $200 every month to 1,700 families. Mr Foo estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of these families are on the PA scheme.

For such families in need, he feels there is one very good reason why more help should come from the Government. Such help, he said, would at least be guaranteed help and people in such plights need such assurances. Charities, on the other hand, have fluctuating finances many complained of a squeeze after the National Kidney Foundation saga and may not be able to ensure everyone who needs help, gets it.

Also, charities usually help in kind, not cash. But "there are lots of people who would rather take money instead of a free meal", said Mr Lee Kim Siang from the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society. "They feel a sense of security when you put money in their pockets."

A bigger allowance would also 74-year-old Mdm Lim take a bus to her polyclinic. Right now, "walking does not cost anything and then I have money for food", she said matter-of-factly. But her eyesight is failing fast and, soon, even long walks may be beyond her.

COINS HAVE TWO SIDES

The solution may seem simple: Just get the Government to raise the allowance. After all, another $50 a month for 3,000 households on PA works out to an extra $150,000 monthly a mere drop in the larger ocean, surely.

But Mr Lee from the Singapore Buddhist Lodge cautions against a knee-jerk dole.

"It is very hard to satisfy someone fully," he said. "Some of the poor we've met want to eat duck and drink beer. Sometimes, we also meet people who have mobile phones or dress very well when they come to us for help. There are even times when we give them money to take a bus home, but they say they want to take a taxi because their leg hurts ... and when I look at them, they can walk very well."

His point is that the needy must learn to live within their means.

Charities, too, must play their part instead of always looking to the Government, others stressed.

Dr Teo Ho Pin, the North West District mayor, worried that increasing government help for the needy would only make society less compassionate.

"The Government has to provide a basic lifeline, then I think the community must respond," he said. "The community knows there are people here who are very poor, destitute and living in one-room flats, right? Why are they not responding? I think the more the Government does, the less the community will give support."

Many others involved in helping the needy acknowledged there were other ways to pitch in.

Mr Johnson Lee, director of the Asian Women's Welfare Association Family Service Centre, said those on PA also had needs, such as housing and medical care. "The hospitals and clinics could be the helping hands in such cases," he said.

The mayor of South West District, Dr Amy Khor, pointed out that some grassroots agencies and VWOs were helping the needy with their utilities bills, meals and school fees.

The Lions Befriender Service Association of Singapore renders help in another way its volunteers visit 984 seniors on public assistance to provide a listening ear. They give the needy an opportunity to vent their grouses and seek help for them if the need arises, said the charity's executive director Jennifer Yee.

SMARTER HELP

Almost everyone interviewed agreed that those on PA could do with more targeted help. But the fact that they were a diverse bunch did not make it easier to decide if more money should go their way.

"This is not a homogenous group. I think we do not want to give the wrong signal about welfare to those with families, especially those with children. Having been on the welfare scheme, they should try to eventually become self-reliant again," said Dr Khor, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Water Resources.

Of course, ironing out little wrinkles in delivering help would make life easier for those in need.

Ms Cindy Chat, manager of Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre, said the elderly who were offered free meals at the centre did not like some of the procedures, such as having to decide one week in advance whether they would prefer free lunches or dinners. Such issues "are implementation problems on the ground that we can improve on", Dr Khor said.

Still, the critical question remains: Should the allowance for those in real need such as Mdm Lim be raised, or should the idea be shelved because some might abuse it?

Charities might chip in with meals and medicine, but they hesitate to dole out cash. This does not help someone like Mdm Lim, who may not be able to walk to her polyclinic much longer.

Perhaps one way to solve the problem would be to review the PA allowance more frequently, instead of waiting five years, said Dr Khor.

"Is the money enough? It is always subjective," she said. "But perhaps the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports can make it more transparent as to what it takes into account to derive at the amounts. This will be one way to allay people's concerns and assure them that, 'Look, we are not heartless or miserly'."

Sources and Relevant Links:

TODAY HOW MANY PORTIONS OF HELP, Sir?31 March 2007

Financial Times Proposed GST adds to worries over income disparity 20 November 2006

International Herald Tribune Singapore tries to redress income gap 22 February 2007

Asia Times Million Dollar - Ministers to get fatter pay 08 April 2007


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