a community of singaporeans

The poorest in our society

Posted by theonlinecitizen on February 2, 2007

With the increasingly fast pace of life in Singapore, there perhaps is a tendency for us to forget those who are left behind, those who can’t run as fast as the rest of us – even if they want to.

The government, to its credit, has set up various help schemes and even organizations (such as the CDCs) whose roles include helping the less fortunate of our society. The many NGOs as well are doing a commendable job.

But even with all these channels, there still is a group of people whose predicament I would like to highlight.

This is the group of elderly people on public assistance schemes.

The reasons for their circumstances are varied – being abandoned by their children, or having no savings, or their children themselves being unable to help care for them, or physical or medical disabilities have incapacitated their ability to work.

Whatever the reason, they are reliant on the public assistance programme for their daily survival.

Unfortunately, a check with the CDCs websites does not give much information, except general declarations such as this one:

“The Public Assistance Scheme provides a monthly grant to financially distressed Singaporeans who by reason of age, illness, disability or unfavourable family circumstances, are unable to work and have no means of subsistence as well as no one to depend upon.”

These elderly folks are given monthly cash grants. How much they receive depends on various factors. Unfortunately, what these factors are and how they are determined, are not easily available.

How much is needed?

From my understanding, recipients receive between $200 to $300 per month. Again, this is dependent on the ‘factors’ involved, or their circumstances.

Is $300 a month enough for our elderly folks? That is an average of only $10 per day. All of us know that it is almost impossible to survive on that amount in a city like Singapore. Although they may also receive free medical care and special assistance in purchasing special-needs equipment like wheelchairs, it is their daily meals that they worry about.

And at such small amounts in public assistance, it is no wonder, really.

Although they may also receive food donations from VWOs, NGOs and even individual singaporeans, this may not be enough.

How one qualifies for public assistance is also murky, mostly dependent on assessment of each individual’s circumstances. One wonders that if there are close to 300,000 elderly folks above 65 years old presently – as indicated by MCYS’ website – how many of these folks actually are on the public assistance scheme?

In 1999, according to this Asiaweek report, there were 2,238 people on the scheme, given “usually about $115 a month”. (I understand that it is now between $200 to $300 a month).

It is no wonder then that we see an increasing number of elderly picking up cardboards and tin cans on the street.

Welfare sometimes is the only choice

The oft-repeated refrain from the government is that we do not intend to be a ‘welfare state’ and that we should not create a ‘dependency mindset’ among the population. I do not think that anyone would or could argue with that. But when you are unable to work to fend for yourself, especially when you want to, it is no longer a case of welfarism. It becomes a matter of how compassionate our society is.

It is said that a society is judged upon how it treats the least of its citizens. And in this respect, perhaps we could do more for elderly folks who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are in a predicament – but one which we can help with. As the details of the Workfare scheme will only be out at the Budget in parliament later this month, it is not clear if these folks will be included or how they will be included – or whether they will be left out altogether.

Thus, it is my hope that in looking to help the less fortunate, less able Singaporeans, we will start with those who have struggled and strived to help give us this prosperous, progressive metropolis that we call Singapore.

Some of these folks have been abandoned by their own children. Let not our society abandon them as well.

Lets see if we can give them a bit more and let them live their twilight years in peace, without having to worry about each day as the sun rises.

Let not our elderly folks’ twilight years become an Age Of Despair.


10 Responses to “The poorest in our society”

  1. Manas said

    Dishartening! May God grant them Peace and Forgiveness and be their Sustainer.

  2. Mondingo said

    I used to work in a VWO and have referred some elderly folks to CDC for public assistance. If I did not remember wrongly, applicants have to be above a certain age, 60 I think, have no children or siblings in Singapore who could support them, and reason why he or she is unable to work to support him/herself. Even then, I think an old gentleman I have helped get only about $170-180 per month. The rate may have been adjusted upwards since that was about 3 years ago. Even with rent and utilities assistance (utilities assistance was a fixed $15 per month I think, residents has to pay the balance), free medical care, and free food from VWOs on some days of the week, it was difficult for him to live on that meager allowance. He doesn’t have much money left to spend on transport, he can’t even afford to take a bus/MRT to visit his friends who lives in other HDB towns. He has no social life to speak of except sitting in the void deck with the other old folks, and spent most of his time in the 1-room HDB rental flat that he has to share with another senior gentleman.

  3. Auntie Lucy said

    Whatever the reason, they are reliant on the public assistance programme for their daily survival.

    Well, at least your group of elderly folks have PA and once they have that, a whole slew of do-gooders will want to help them.

    My greater concern is with another group –elderly or young but who are not able to earn enough to keep their body n soul together — yet because of misplaced pride, misplaced fear of “chenghu” or a simply misplaced thinking process, don’t know about PA and decline even when pple concerned about them, share with them this avenue of help and try to talk them into seeking such assistance.

    To me, this group are, because of their life experiences and circumstances, unable to accept aid and could be “labelled” starving themselves to death by choice — but their choice is no more voluntary than those who kill because of proven unsound mind.

    I urge fellow citizens to petition their MPs, friends, relatives and other people they come into — to get our government to do more for this group of sad, sad people, who might as well be in Dafor for all the joy they get out of Singapore, our island of plenty for the majority who are sane enough to help ourselves.

  4. PCK said

    it is not pride. it is anger. anger at a regime that created a system which elevated some people over others and divided a city into haves and haves-not; making these poor folks, many no fault of their own, dependant and humiliated. and it does not help that there are much sadder people, who in their pomposity and smugly drips of drool sat in ivory glory would want to don the theatrics of a benevolent savior by offering pittance to save rotting poor and sad souls.

  5. When I was growing up in the 1950-60s, my family and many of my other relatives depended on public assistance to a certain extent. I am grateful to the government for free school textbooks and waiver of school fees. While I strongly feel the government can easily afford to increase the amount of money for each of the homeless and the needy, I feel we the luckier ones (those who can afford to spend at least $10 a day on 2 meals) should band together and pool our extra cash to help the less fortunate.

    Talk is cheap. Inspired by the memory of L’Abbé Pierre, France’s champion of the homeless (died a fortnight ago), I propose we do something practical. How, I have no idea. I have a bit of cash to spare to help but have absolutely no experience, so if anyone reading this wants to discuss more, please contact me at

  6. 1scoop2go said

    In the land of plenty, some still starve. About 18 years ago, i proposed starting a Foodbank which will cater to the marginalised such as this segment. A “bank” such as the ones in US, which receives donated food from what ever source of basics such as rice, sugar, milk, noodles, tinned or frozen meat, near sell-by date items which legislation dictates they be withdrawn from the shelves. The social welfare cases can go to this (usually warehouse type “supermarket” and buy food @ the price per weight e.g. like 20cents a kilo .
    Or charity and welfare organisations can buy & distribute to them.
    My suggestion was considered obsolete then, i was told “there are no poor in Singapore”!!

  7. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for visiting our blog and giving suggestions.

    It is disheartening that our ex-ambassador – Kishore Mabhubani – could say that ‘poverty has been eradicated’. Just take a walk on one of those one-room HDB block and you’ll see that it is not so.

    I would suggest that the govt beef up the NGOs – though they may be privately-run. I think the RCs and CDCs should concentrate on other areas and let these NGOs take care of the elderly.

    The reason is that NGOs specialise in caring for the aged – while RCs and CDCs have more varied concerns.

    It is time for a more focused and concerted effort in this , instead of one-off hong baos and giveaways.


  8. Auntie Lucy said

    Just think you people like Kopi Talk etc should take a look at Madam Ho Geok Choo’s speech in Parliament today on the current budget. Parts of it are highly pertinent to this article.

  9. Auntie Lucy said

    For those tooo lazy to look up Madam Ho’s speech in Hanzard, I’ve copied and pasted the foll. which is pertinent to this thread:

    Plight of the poor and aged

    Sir, when I spoke before this House last November, I called for a finer mesh for our social security net. It is necessary for me to now repeat that call, but with greater urgency.

    There live in our midst today a small group of destitute people in prosperous Singapore, and we wonder how that could be so?

    Well, you can bring the horse to water but you can’t get it to drink . For a special group of S’poreans, it isn’t just a case of not drinking the water – some don’t see the water even when they are standing at the edge; others suspect the water’s been poisoned so one sip would kill them; yet others believe that they would be severely punished by the Govt if they dare to take even a drop; another lot says if they don’t have their own water, they mustn’t drink what is offered…

    This small group of people in Singapore are at the bottom of the bottom-most, not because there aren’t safety nets for people like them — there are aplenty but because of the way they are or have become wired, they are just unable to understand what is available, what is for their own good to accept and so continue to suffer the saddest deprivation in the midst of plenty when it is all so unnecessary.

    This group falls out of reach of all the good Government intentions and facilities such as Workfare. Do we shrug our shoulders and say, “well, if they won’t accept public help, it is their right? This is just the cop-out way and must be eschewed.

    When those rejecting help are so obviously in distress (and yet so obviously oblivious to the precipice), a caring community can and should devise ways to accommodate this group, which is probably more vulnerable than an underaged autistic kid. At least the kid would have the care of his parents. Not for adult underpriviledged.

    Sir, I would like to cite a case — a family of three disabled siblings in their 50s supported by one sickly sister in her 50s. Two are mentally retarded and 1 other is both retarded and deformed. Another normal brother, faced with his own financial problems, has avoided visiting. My worry is whether this precariously poised group would one day slip through the net for lack of family support or mental capacity to make the wise choice, i.e. to go to a home when they are unable to look after themselves anymore.

    I would like to ask our Prime Minister whether the Government would consider introducing laws to make such destitute and disabled persons wards of the court to be sent to homes for their own good?

    How many of such cases are found in our midst? I would also like to plead that each constituency maintain a register of the poor so that they can be identified for counselling and support.

    Mindset change

    Sir, allow me to cite one more case. This one involves an aged lady. She is in her eighties and is wheelchair bound. She seeks regular treatment for Parkinson’s disease, thyroid and stroke at the hospital.

    She was eligible for free Class A medical care until her husband, an ex-civil servant, passed away last year. In order to better support herself and to pay for her medical expenses, she had requested for her Class A status to be downgraded.

    Sadly, her request was turned down on grounds of her registered Class A status and through a means test.

    Her appeal for downgrading of her outpatient and inpatient status was to facilitate her to stretch her savings in case she needs more for medical treatment. She cannot be asked to sell her house because it would be too much of an adjustment for her.

    There is no doubt that Means Test and Track Records are a good defence against abuse. But as in every rule, there are or can be exceptions.

    Sir, I have brought up this case also to illustrate a more systemic problem in our public administration.

    This lady failed in her appeal because the rules in force, viz the Means Test, have decreed that she does not qualify for downgrading. Never mind that she lives in a terrace house bought almost 50 years ago. Never mind that she’s alone with meagre savings.

    Sir, our government, indeed any government, works through a system of rules and procedures that creates consistency and transparency in the provision of public services. But rules must also make allowance for exceptions. And handling exceptions often requires unconventional thinking, or thinking out of the box.

    We need a more systemic change of mindset among our decision makers. Sim Wong Hoo said it aptly that we should be able to do anything unless there is a rule that says we can’t, rather than not do anything unless there is a rule that says we can. That mindset will enable us to achieve a lot more.

    Sir, continuous improvement and making a quantum leap in service improvement often require radical changes in our mindset. That is also the essence of innovation, and I hope we can instil that as a culture within the civil service, if not the nation as a whole.

    Managing expectations and exceptions
    Sir, in conclusion, let me applaud the Government once again for its success in managing the many and divergent expectations of the people. This year’s Budget has certainly managed to please most of the people most of the time.

    But I also ask the Government to think through our current systems of support and subsidies. The system works for the overwhelming majority, but we owe it to ourselves to ensure that just as “we will leave no one behind”, we will let no one fall through the cracks.

    Managing exceptions may be just as challenging as managing expectations but die-die must be done.

    Thank You.

  10. danski said

    We have a situation that we found an abandoned old lady about 70 to 80 years of age, with two kids of 2 to 3 years old surviving off the streets for the last few days. We need assistance on housing these people temporarily until we get enough funds to rent a place for them and feed them. Do you know of any organization in Singapore for this purpose? We have contacted MCYS and they have refused any assistance as under their guideline. I can be contacted at 94790353 and

    Daniel Ho

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