Vulnerability affects everyone

The government and citizens need to rethink how we address societal needs, says Braema Mathi, co-author of the year-old report on unmet social needs in Singapore.

As part of the on-going 'national conversation' on how to improve Singapore, no stones will be left unturned, although some will be put back where they were if they work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently.

But one stone that the leader of human rights group MARUAH Braema Mathi says cannot be returned is social development in Singapore.

"To use the Prime Minister's words, we need to take that stone out, look at it and we cannot put it back into the same spot. This is one of the areas that needs a lot of attention, scrutiny and new settings," she says.

The co-author of "Unmet Social Needs in Singapore", a research report on Singapore's social policies and vulnerable groups, says since it was published a year ago by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, some of the issues raised in the report have begun to be addressed, but more needs to be done.

The 74-page report examined the shortcomings of three important pillars of Singapore's social safety net: the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the home ownership scheme and the "many helping hands" approach to assisting those in need. It also looked at the lives of six vulnerable communities in Singapore including the disabled, the mentally ill, low-income workers, singles such as divorced mothers, foreign workers and new immigrants.


Over the year, since the General Elections, Mathi notes that there has been more intense discussions about these issues. When equestrian rider Laurentia Tan won a bronze and a silver at the Paralympics 2012 but received lesser prize money than able-bodied Olympic medalists, Singaporeans very quickly questioned such discrimination against the disabled. Recently, the media has also held discussions about the unsustainable wages of low-income workers such as security guards and cleaners.

Such discussions would not have been so rigorous before. I think these are good things and the government has to respond," she says.

One shortcoming highlighted in the report that has seen some change is the state's housing policy. The announcement by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan that "tens of thousands" more rental flats will be built in the coming years is significant because not everyone today can afford to buy a flat with their CPF money and wages.

However, what seems set to stay is the government's "many helping hands" approach to helping the needy. In her report, Mathi pointed out that this has led to duplication of services and those who help and need help are often lost at where to go. More importantly, much of the assistance currently does not eliminate the unmet social need, nor empower individuals to get back on track to relying on themselves.

Citing the International Labour Organization's latest call for countries to build a "social protection floor", she says Singapore's current social protection net is not enough, as people will fall through. She asks, "How are we picking them up and putting down a solid concrete floor that they can step on to move to the next level? Whatever we put at the bottom has to be effective, and it may mean more resources as this kind of intervention takes time."

Mathi is hopeful that the upcoming restructuring of Singapore's main social development government agency, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, will help move things along. With its new focus as the Ministry of Social and Family Development, she believes there can be more focus on rethinking current social development policies.


Citizens and the community-at-large have part of the equation too. While more are stepping forth to help, Mathi says it is important that people realise financial assistance alone is not sustainable. "The community needs to know it's not all about money. We have to give our volunteer time too."

"People should step forward to help, and listen to experts on the ground so that their contributions can be best used to address what vulnerable communities need most,"  she adds.

It is important to tackle unmet social needs in Singapore now before an underbelly grows in this society, says Mathi. Most importantly, people need to realise that regardless of social status today, they could very well end up being part of the vulnerable community in Singapore one day as vulnerability is not a condition reserved for the less fortunate.

She uses the example of the taxi driver who was recently killed in an accident involving a Ferrari. "I am sure he was stable and earning well for his family, he has bought a flat, and everything. But once he is taken out of the equation, through an unfortunate and untimely accident, there are problems. And how do we sustain that family to ensure that transformation for them when the father is no longer around?" she asks.

"We can no longer think in this paradigm of it as the down and out. Vulnerability needs to be recognised as a life-course. It can affect everybody and anybody, depending on the situation at that time.

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