What kind of society do we have?

What kind of society do we have? That is the question that popped into my mind a few days ago. It was trigged by this news report of a man who lodged a complaint against an officer at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), for making insensitive remarks to him during a conversation on delayed financial assistance payment from the Ministry to him. The Minister for MSF, Tan Chuan Jin, also weighed in on the issue in a FB post which defended the officer and also included an article on horror stories of welfare recipients from MSF.

The summary of the issue is that the man in question, Mr Ravi, was expected to receive assistance of S$600 every month on 4 December, but he had applied for an increase in aids as he and his wife were expecting their second child this month (his wife had since given birth to a pre-matured baby). Due to bureaucratic process, the revised amount of S $800 would only be credited to his bank account on 9 December. But this information was only relayed to him on 3 December, a day before he thought he would get the money. So he and wife went to the MSF office for a discussion with the officer.

During the conversation, the officer mentioned he would give the couple shopping vouchers from NTUC supermarkets to tie over the period before they get the money. But Mr Ravi told him they needed money for his wife’s medical conditions, and to visit their premie baby who is in neonatal ICU. He questioned why they were not notified earlier so that he could seek money elsewhere. He said claimed that he was so desperate for money that he even sought out loansharks.

The office then blurted out that the financial aids were not a form of pay and MSF didn’t owe them the money. Incensed, Mr Ravi and his wife left the office without taking the vouchers.

During the exchange, Mr Ravi’s wife had recorded the conversation using her phone. Mr Ravi then sent the recording to the activist, Gilbert Goh of transitioning.org, who uploaded it on his FB book. The video can be viewed on the Red Wire Times website.

Since then, Mr Ravi had received heavy criticisms online, much of it implied he was a moocher, and a significant number of people even questioned why he has a second child. The prevailing mindset is that if anyone is poor, he or she should not have any kids. There was also outrage that Mr Ravi dared to have the conversation recorded and posted online, and questioned his motive for doing so.

There was very little criticisms of the MSF officer’s comments or how the Ministry handled the matter. In fact, none of the mainstream media asked Mr Ravi for his side of the story, or even asked any aids recipients for their experiences with the Ministry. Much was publicized about the good works of MSF and the sufferings they had to go through with the recipients. Instead, only alternative media reported on Mr Ravi’s views , such as the above-mentioned article from Red Wire Times and this Q&A conducted by The Online Citizen with him.

Personally, I feel many comments smacked of self-righteousness bordering on underlying sociapathic tendencies. First and foremost, I am not sure if most understand Mr Ravi’s circumstances, that he is suffering from Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that causes his muscles to weaken and waste away, and this caused him to be certified permanently unfit for work by a doctor at a public hospital. Just because he can walk around doesn’t mean he’s a lazy bum who is only looking for handouts. Secondly, he and his family are living from hands to mouths. He has a toddler son as well as a baby daughter who is, unfortunately, born pre-matured, and his wife is not exactly in the pink of health. They’re not having the days of their lives lazing by the pool, having meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, or shopping at LV. Seriously, they’re surviving on S$600 a month, which only increased by S$200 starting in December. Thirdly, NTUC vouchers can only be spent at the supermarkets. You cannot use the vouchers to pay for transport fares and prescribed medicines etc. Hell, not every NTUC supermarket has a pharmacy where you can get OTC medicines either. Fourthly, what did the MSF officer mean when he said MSF didn’t owe Mr Ravi anything? When the Ministry has ascertained that he is in need of financial aids and agreed to provide monthly payments, it owes him the money!

Why should social safety net be regarded as a goodwill gesture from the government?  Working adults pay taxes to the government, and the taxes are used to fund infrastructure development and social services, among other things. So social welfare is  a right of the people. And please don’t just see it as money for the needy, welfare is also the subsidies the government provides for housing, education, healthcare, childcare and even the quasi-monopoly status of government-linked companies, and list goes on.

I find it puzzling that MSF didn’t bother to consider if its SOP is effective. Has it not wonder what the aids recipients  to do when there is a delay of payment?  Does the Ministry think that NTUC vouchers are good enough, and that the recipients should be grateful to be provided instead of complaining? Why is it not possible to provide interim petty cash to the recipients?

In fact I also wonder how the MSF officers regard the recipients, that they are beggars? Are they behaving in a condescending manner disguised behind a polite demeanor? I have been told that the initial screening process of a potential aids recipient is very stringent to weed out the undeserved. But as a result, the questions become very intrusive and humiliating. So for those who went through it, they are facing real desperation. In fact I would venture that they are undergoing great stress, and some might even be suffering from depression. Even though a few of these recipients might be in the pits because of their own doings, I’m sure most are there because of events beyond their control. And even for those who were responsible for their dire states,  they also deserve a chance to rehabilitate and start anew.

For those of us who are living a comparatively stable and comfortable lives, please remember that we are damn lucky that we are not struck by bad luck, and we should spare a thought for those who were unfortunate. In fact, whatever happened to them might happen to us, because life can be a bitch when shit happens.  Even those who did ride through tough times, think of the help, the opportunity and the encouragement given to you. We don’t live in silos here. When we are down on our luck we need help and empathy from society, and as part of this community, we should also extend the same to our fellow men. Welfare recipients are not moochers or lazy bums. Even if some politician or civil servant throws us a case, ask ourselves if that is the exception or the rule, and if that applies to our context. If we regard the needy as moochers, we might as well also lump the old folks and the disabled in this category too, and consider dumping them into some island.

The Singapore government keeps urging its people to be entrepreneurial in various niche areas. But how do we expect them to take risks if there is no safety net? Would anybody quit school to start FB here? If you fail and have to look for a job, will the HR look at you with disdain, and hire a foreigner instead?

Lastly, why are people making nasty remarks about Mr Ravi having a second child? Who are these people that are so mean-spirited and filled with spite? Are we practicing eugenics here? Singapore is facing a silver tsunami in the next couple of decades. We don’t have enough children, period. So any able child will grow up to be a working adult who will pay taxes to fund your social welfare. Even the children from poor families!






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