Redefining SG Women

Ms Vanessa Puah, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Focus on the Family. Ms Puah participated in one of the ongoing “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development”.

Whether it is fighting the stigma of being a stay-at-home mum, or struggling to meet the expectations of being a mother, caregiver, friend and employee all rolled into one, women face myriad challenges. These difficulties may be exacerbated by added pressure through social media, and work-from-home arrangements for some in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development”, began in September 2020, when the Government came together with partners from the People and Private sectors to organise a series of dialogues to share our aspirations and seek consensus on how Singapore women can progress further.

The Conversations revolve around key issues women face at home, workplaces, schools and in the community. The recommendations gathered from these Conversations and accompanying feedback channels will be consolidated into a White Paper in the second half of 2021.

As participant Ms Vanessa Puah, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Focus on the Family, a pro-family charity, puts it: “These Conversations are important because there is so much of a woman’s value to be celebrated, and there is so much to empower, whether it is in her role as a wife, daughter, mum, employee or a leader.”

Ms Puah attended a People’s Association (PA)-organised dialogue on 12 December 2020, alongside 60 other participants from all walks of life. Although she had expected participants to include only women, she was heartened to be able to discuss these key issues with men who were also participating passionately in discussions.

As a mother of one, what resonated with her most was the discussion about self-care.

“In this fast-paced society, there’s a lot of emphasis on having it all. Women need to take care of the kids, be good at work and be a good daughter… You think about doing everything for everyone, but you don’t necessarily think about self-care,” she elaborates, adding that the pressure is higher on women, as they tend to shoulder most of the caregiving load.

Reflecting on the discussions, Ms Puah added that the issue of self-care being raised by many participants indicates a growing awareness of its importance. She shared that, in addition to greater equality between men and women at work and at home, more can be done to encourage women to rest, recharge and rejuvenate so they can juggle their roles better.

Ms Puah was also encouraged by the candid discussions surrounding the challenges women face as a parent and an employee.

Firstly, the issue of stay-at-home mothers returning to work. As she views Singapore as a fairly progressive society, Ms Puah was surprised to learn from the Conversation that some companies still view candidates who have taken a break from work unfavourably, making it difficult for some stay-at-home mums to return to the workforce. This is a pity, Ms Puah says, as the workplace loses valuable talent, and the woman also loses an avenue to contribute to society.

Secondly, how best to juggle between family and work commitments. At Focus on the Family, Ms Puah has found that a family-friendly work culture can help. For example, she and her colleagues bring their children to the office if they need to. The organisation also measures performance in terms of outcomes instead of time spent at work. This gives employees who are parents the flexibility to adjust their schedules, and be present for both the company and their families.

Ms Puah also hopes to see more partnerships among corporates, community groups and the social services sector to alleviate the caregiving burden of women from lower-income families or those who are single parents. This will allow women to focus on work, while still ensuring their families are taken care of.

Such support is especially important now with the increased demands that home-based learning and work-from-home situations have created, Ms Puah says.

“Not everyone has found the sweet spot of work-life integration since working from home. Some feel they are working even longer hours, and hence feel more stressed. With better work-life harmony, I believe women will do better at work.”

The Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development continues in 2021. If you have ideas on how we can collectively address the challenges and mindset changes needed for greater equality between men and women, we want to hear from you!

Veteran Volunteers Who Keep Going

Decades of volunteering have enriched both Dr Anamah Tan’s and Mr Lim Hock Heng’s lives, as well as those they serve, and they are still going strong, despite the challenges of COVID-19.

It is not often that strangers come up to you and say, “Thank you, you changed my life.”

Hearing this continues to inspire Dr Anamah Tan and Mr Lim Hock Heng even after decades of tireless volunteer work.

Said Mr Lim, 71, who has been befriending and helping youth offenders on probation for over 40 years: “It is most rewarding for me when I meet former probationers who say ‘hi’ to me on the road. They recognise me – I may not recognise all of them as they may have matured and grown up, but I am happy that they are doing well.”

Similarly, for Dr Tan, 80, one of her fondest memories is of a woman in her 20s who came to her office for a business meeting, who later revealed that she had met Dr Tan as a 12-year-old, when her parents were going through divorce proceedings.

“She remembered that I told her and her siblings to always keep in touch with their dad, who loved them. That is what they did, and she said they are most grateful,” said Dr Tan.

Origins of a Life Passion

Dr Tan is a pioneer in championing women’s development in Singapore. She was the President of Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) from 1991 to 2000, President of the ASEAN Confederation of Women’s Organisations from 2000 to 2002, and Chairman of the Mental Health Network under the National Council of Social Service from 2002 to 2004.

Beyond our borders, she also represented Singapore on the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN CEDAW) in 2004.

The drive to serve started when she was a student at St Margaret’s School, when she went on regular service-learning trips to pig and chicken farms to tend to villagers there with wounds and sores. “From a very young age, we were taught to always be of service,” she said.

In her younger days, she and her fellow volunteers also went to factories armed with leaflets in the four major languages, to educate the female workers there on their employment rights.

She later became a tireless advocate for gender issues, particularly in the areas of domestic violence and poverty eradication.

In 1974, she founded the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers to raise legal literacy, especially among those in need and women in blue-collar jobs.

For Mr Lim, his interest in volunteering started in 1974.

Then, he was working as a clerical officer at Maxwell Road, and responded to a call for volunteers at the then-Ministry of Social Welfare nearby.

“At that time, I could see that there were youths from lower-income households who were committing offences, and I wanted to befriend and counsel them, and make a difference to them,” he said.

After some training, he started out as a befriender in 1975, engaging youth offenders and their families and trying to help them. He would visit their homes, boys’ homes, prisons and youth hostels to reach out to the youths there. He would also join excursions with youth offenders and their families to encourage bonding.

In 2000, he started conducting time-restriction checks on probationers as part of the Operations Night Watch (ONW) team. He would visit homes to ensure that the youth offenders were home by the required times. He became a ONW cluster leader in 2000, and has served as a ONW Assistant Manager since 2001.

Mr Lim is known to many as a volunteer who is always ready to support MSF’s probation officers, and goes the extra mile in undertaking checks. For instance, when a youth offender was staying in Ubi and none of the other volunteers were available, Mr Lim would take the bus from his Queenstown home to check on the boy.

They Never Quit

Both Dr Tan and Mr Lim have met with challenges in their many years of volunteering.

The hardest part of volunteering for Mr Lim is earning the trust of the youths.

“Some don’t want to talk. I have to gain their trust slowly, over time,” he said.

But the fruits of their labour are sweet. The youths have responded positively to him and Mr Lim had even supported the efforts of a youth’s family to upgrade from a 1-room rental flat to a 3-room flat, and helped the father to find a job.

Similarly, helping women and families in distress is no easy task for Dr Tan.

“One of the things that really makes a difference is whether or not you are able to empathise, and have the patience, tolerance and understanding of human nature,” she said.

She also worked hard to find a suitable place for the SCWO headquarters, and championed policy changes behind the scenes.

“My style of working is to never be confrontational, and never say something is impossible. If you can cooperate and work together, you can push boundaries,” she said.

Still Going Strong

Dr Tan’s days are now filled with work-from-home Zoom meetings and external meetings with clients. “I have a zest for it. I enjoy doing what I’m doing,” she said, laughing, when asked where her energy springs from.

“It can be very enriching for yourself when you volunteer. You may not see the results immediately, but like what Mother Theresa said, if you can’t feed 100, feed one!”

Like Dr Tan, Mr Lim is still checking on and connecting with youths via phone calls. He prefers to go “on site” where he can observe the youths’ physical environment, but he also had to adapt to the restrictions posed by COVID-19.

His advice: “Treat volunteering as a hobby. Rather than watch TV at home, get out of your comfort zone, learn about your own country and the people around you.”

Inspired to volunteer with MSF? Find out more about volunteering opportunities at https://www.msf.gov.sg/policies/Volunteer-with-MSF/Pages/default.aspx

Uplifting our women for the progress of all

Ms Lynn Er, Honorary Treasurer of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) board and Advisor for the Young Women’s Leadership Connection, participant in an SCWO-led Conversation.

Ms Pravita Nandan, Young NTUC Committee member and union leader for the National Transport Workers Union participated at a “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development” led by NTUC.

From a single mother’s struggles to juggle work and family commitments to a working mum’s concern over workplace sexism, the challenges Singapore women face are diverse and multi-faceted.

Since September 2020, the government and community partners have held the “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development” sessions to gather feedback on issues concerning women in the home, workplaces, schools and community.

These Conversations build on the significant progress made by Singapore women, with community and Government support, since our Independence.

For example, policies have been enhanced to better support shared parental responsibility at home, through shared parental leave, paternity leave and paid childcare leave. Policies have also been implemented to support women in the workplace, including flexible work arrangements and the establishment of the Council for Board Diversity, which promotes greater participation of women on the boards of companies, statutory boards and Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs).

The conversations will culminate in a White Paper containing recommendations for further progress towards greater equality between men and women, along with an implementation roadmap. Eleven dialogue sessions involving both men and women participants have been held so far, with many more to come. The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation (SCWO)’s first Conversation with women leaders covered issues across the home, workplaces, schools and community, while NTUC’s session with union leaders and zoomed in on issues women face at the workplace.

Group photo of the first “Conversation on Singapore Women’s Development” by SCWO with Minister of State Sun Xueling
Group photo of the NTUC dialogue session with union leaders, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and Minister of State Low Yen Ling

One issue raised at the SCWO session was the needs of single women. Reflecting on this after the session, Ms Lynn Er, honorary treasurer on the SCWO Board and an advisor for the Young Women’s Leadership Connection, said that while the rights of women have collectively advanced, single and unwed parents might have less time and resources to raise their children.

More support networks and caregiving arrangements should be made available to them, whether they decide to work or stay at home, she says. “Giving them the right resources and support means that they are not confined to only one option.”

Family violence was another issue discussed. Lynn noted an increase in reports of abuse globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. MSF also saw an increase in the average number of monthly enquiries to its Adult and Child Protective Services, although the number of cases investigated have remained stable. 

Concerns over the harassment of women at workplaces also came up during the dialogue led by NTUC on 12 November.

Ms Pravita D/O Nithiah Nandan, a Young NTUC Committee member and a union leader for the National Transport Workers Union, said ”friends, union members and relatives have shared their personal experiences of workplace harassment [to me]”, noting that female blue-collar workers in male-dominated industries were particularly vulnerable.

When it comes to supporting women in the workplace, Pravita also hopes to see better representation of women in leadership positions. Companies should acknowledge the contributions of women in the workplace, and enroll them in relevant leadership courses such as those organised by NTUC, she says. “This will build their confidence and equip them to attain higher positions in their organisations.”

While there has been significant progress made over the years by women in Singapore, over 100 Conversations will continue into 2021 to further the progress of our women. If you have a story to tell or ideas on how we can address the challenges and mindset changes needed for a more equal society, sign up here.

Giving children the best start in life

Ms Siti Noraisha Binte Mohamad Sa’at is a firm believer in life-long learning and encourages her colleagues to constantly improve themselves. (Photograph taken in March 2020)

Ms Siti Noraisha Binte Mohamad Sa’at has been in the Early Childhood (EC) profession for 16 years, working with children locally and abroad.

Currently the Principal of Wee Care Kindergarten, the 43-year-old shares her teaching philosophy: “Children have the right to learn, therefore we need to be accountable for that. We need to make sure that we are also prepared to teach.”

Ms Siti believes in always upgrading her knowledge and skills. To support her pursuit of the Bachelor in Early Childhood Education with Minor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), she was presented an Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) Scholarship on 28 October 2020.

The ECDA Scholarships are given to outstanding EC educators to support their aspirations as they strive for professional mastery and pursue their part-time Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Early Childhood Care and Education. It provides recipients with a full course sponsorship, learning resource allowance and study bonus, as well as professional development and networking opportunities. Scholarship recipients possess strong leadership potential and passion to play a larger role through continued contributions to the EC sector.

When Ms Siti started as a trainee teacher in 2005, there was less awareness of the importance of early childhood care and education, and EC educators were typically viewed as “babysitters” or “nannies”.

These stereotypes have been debunked over the years with the government’s continuing efforts to improve the sector and uplift the preschool profession.

“This Scholarship motivates me to continue developing professionally, and spurs me to pay it forward while I hone my leadership skills,” says Ms Siti.

Learning as she teaches

As with other professional sectors, Ms Siti believes that EC educators also need to keep abreast of current trends and research in the early childhood field. This will help them understand children better and apply the knowledge and skills in their everyday work.

This is why at each stage of her career, Ms Siti has found avenues to improve herself.

While working as a trainee teacher, she took up a Diploma in Pre-School Education-Teaching where she could apply newly acquired knowledge on the job. She then worked for a school in Myanmar for a few years, before she returned to Singapore to take on the role of Vice-Principal at her current kindergarten in 2014. She subsequently pursued an Advanced Diploma in Early Childhood Leadership, before moving on to become a Principal.

As the head of her centre, she regularly sends her teachers for courses to upgrade their skills. She hopes that by pursuing her Bachelor’s degree, she can lead by example and encourage others to continue to improve themselves and become even better educators.

Ms Siti admits that it can sometimes be challenging to juggle work and studies, having to be at the centre full-time and attending evening classes at SUSS at least three times a week. Self-discipline and time management are important since lessons are currently conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What keeps her motivated is the knowledge and networking opportunities she has received through her Bachelor’s degree programme.   

When asked about the future of the EC sector, Ms Siti says she hopes educators will continue to upgrade themselves and strive for professional excellence so that they can give our children the best possible start in life.

She says, “If I can do it at this age and at this stage of my career, I believe that everyone and anyone else can do it too.

For more details on the ECDA Scholarships and Training Awards, click here.

Assurance and peace of mind through ComCare

The ComCare auto extension has provided added convenience and assurance to clients during this COVID-19 period

Madam Tan Bee Lian, a single mother, was working as a cleaner when her health and finances took a hit in late 2019. She was diagnosed with bone spurs in her feet, a medical condition in which bony outgrowths put pressure on her nerves and restricted her movement.

Under strict orders not to work and given a year’s medical leave, the 47-year-old was placed on the ComCare Short to Medium Term Assistance scheme, which provides financial assistance to help families like Madam Tan’s meet their basic living expenses.

With the prolonged economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, MSF automatically extended ComCare assistance by six months for beneficiaries whose assistance was due for review between May and October 2020. This has given individuals like Madam Tan greater assurance and peace of mind as her financial assistance has been automatically extended till December 2020, without the need for her to apply for renewal at the SSO. With ComCare cash assistance, Madam Tan has been able to support herself and her sons, as well as buy daily necessities.

As at end October, some 12,000 households have benefited from ComCare assistance extension.

Helping Madam Tan navigate through this difficult period was her social service officer Ms Florence Chang. “I’ve assured Madam Tan that she can re-apply for ComCare assistance if her family situation remains the same after her auto-extension period has ended. We will continue to do our best to help her,” Florence says.

“She has been most helpful,” Madam Tan says, adding that in addition to being detailed in her explanation of policies, Florence is also very empathetic. “She understands that it is important for my kids to find a job,” she adds, “so they can help me and I can rest.” Although the road ahead is uncertain, Madam Tan is thankful to everyone who has helped her, including friends who urged her to apply for financial assistance. “I’m grateful for all the kind-hearted people I’ve met who have made efforts to help me”.

If you come across individuals or families who require support, please call the ComCare hotline at 1800-222-0000 or approach the nearest SSO (www.msf.gov.sg/ssolocator).  

COVID-19 Support Grant extended for new applicants and existing recipients

Mr Rosswira bin Ismail has been working as a delivery man after he lost his previous job which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Rosswira bin Ismail has been a casual worker at The Star Theatre and other performing arts centres since 2016, handling carpentry and set up of audio-visual equipment.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early this year, the number of shows steadily declined from March and, with it, his income. “I still have some savings but if I don’t receive enough work and keep taking out from my savings, it will slowly become zero,” he says.

The 49-year-old started looking for financial assistance to tide him through this period of uncertainty. He found relief through the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) and received his first payout in May 2020. He has since taken up ad-hoc delivery jobs to supplement his income.

The CSG provides up to $800 per month for three months to support lower-to-middle income Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident employees who have either lost their jobs, been placed on involuntary no-pay leave or experienced reduced monthly salary of at least 30% for at least three consecutive months. As at 13 September 2020, MSF had approved the CSG for around 79,000 recipients.

From 1 October, new applicants as well as current and former CSG recipients will be able to apply for the Grant if they continue to meet the CSG’s criteria. There will be two additional qualifying criteria to ensure help is channeled to those who need it more – applicants should not own more than one property, and those who have lost their jobs and are currently unemployed will be required to demonstrate their efforts in job search or in undergoing training.

Mr Rosswira recently applied for a job as an audio-visual equipment technician for a cruise company and is waiting for the company’s response. In the meantime, he plans to apply for another three months of assistance through CSG from 1 October to get some financial support while he continues his job search. This period of financial insecurity can be daunting, but Mr Rosswira is determined to persevere through it. His advice to those who have lost a job or are finding it hard to make ends meet: “Try again. Keep on trying.”

For details of help schemes in relation to COVID-19, visit supportgowhere.gov.sg.

Beyond the Label – fighting stigma through film, music and helpbot

(Left to right) Mr Ng Yu-Ying, Mr Ivan Lim and Ms Eileen Chai, members of 3am Music Collective at the BTL Fest 2020 Virtual Concert held on 27 September 2020

According to the National Council of Social Service’s (NCSS) Study on Public Attitudes towards Persons with Mental Health Conditions in 2017, 7 in 10 believed that persons with mental health conditions experience stigma and discrimination in their daily lives. More than 5 in 10 were not willing to work with, live with or live near someone with a mental health condition. Beyond the Label (BTL) was launched in 2018 as a five-year initiative by the NCSS to fight stigma, encourage help seeking behaviours and advocate for the acceptance and inclusion of persons with mental health conditions.

The third edition of the BTL campaign kicked off on 24 September 2020 with a short film, The Clock. The film features a middle-aged Singaporean undergoing multiple stressors, including retrenchment and care-giving duties for his family. He seeks professional help and gets on the path to recovery with support from his family.

As part of the campaign, the BTL Fest took place virtually on 26 and 27 September 2020 with a series of online workshops, dialogue sessions, and a virtual concert that featured many celebrities including Stefanie Sun, Kit Chan and Taufik Batisah who showed support for the cause.

Going Beyond the Label—with music and outreach

In 2016, violinist and former national athlete Ms Eileen Chai stopped using social media, going out with friends, performing and speaking at events—all in fear of triggering a panic attack.

Through therapy with her psychiatrist and support from her husband, Eileen managed her anxiety and is now able to better manage her anxiety attacks.

“Everything takes time to heal and recover,” she says. “There’s no one solution. In my case, professional and family support was the best way to manage the situation.”

Four years later, she is hoping to help others with mental health conditions through music by her group 3am Music Collective.

The group performed selections from their 10-song album that shares the journey of those struggling with mental health conditions. It is based on the lived experiences of some members of the group.

3am Music Collective’s guitarist, advisor and publicist Mr Ivan Lim says, “There are multiple messages in all the tracks of the 10-song cycle. But the one message that I hope will stay with listeners, especially those with mental health conditions, is that they are not alone.”

Ivan was diagnosed with and treated for depression in 2001. The former entertainment editor for The New Paper was also struggling with alcohol addiction.

When asked what members of the public can do to support someone with mental health conditions, he says they should provide a listening ear and, if necessary, encourage them to seek professional help.

Eileen added on, “Keep an open mind, be empathetic and not judge, as we do not want to be labelled and we do not want to be stigmatised.”

Movement goes digital

In line with BTL’s outreach to youth to destigmatise conversations surrounding mental health, the campaign also features an e-Escape room created in partnership with Youth Alliance – a ground-up mental health committee catalysed by NCSS comprising government, healthcare and social service agencies. This online experience allows players to adopt different personas and learn about different mental health conditions including mood and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

As part of its ongoing efforts to provide easy access to mental health services and resources, BTL has also made enhancements to Belle, the Beyond the Label helpbot. Belle now comes with an enhanced feature that refers users to suicide prevention group Samaritans of Singapore if keywords alluding to suicidal tendencies are detected.

For more information on the Beyond the Label campaign, visit here.

Say No to Family Violence

Ms Georgette Tan serves on the Taskforce on Family Violence and is the President of United Women Singapore.

A colleague comes to work looking distracted. She has been performing poorly, and you spot bruises that she tries to hide with long-sleeved clothing.

If her employer, someone from the human resources department or a fellow colleague could recognise such possible signs of family violence, she could receive the appropriate help and support.

As Ms Georgette Tan, President of United Women Singapore (UWS) points out, “If employees are in distress, it’s not good for their welfare, and this could have an impact on their productivity, and affect the organisation.”

“It is in the employer’s interest to ensure their employees’ welfare are well taken care of,” she adds.

Workplace outreach is one of several focus areas which Georgette and other members of the Taskforce on Family Violence are looking to address, as they tackle family violence in a multi-disciplinary way.

Formed in February 2020, the various partners across the Taskforce include hospitals, family violence specialist centres, crisis shelters, and family service centres. Co-chaired by Ms Sun Xueling and Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Ministers of State for Social and Family Development, and Home Affairs respectively), the Taskforce has been studying the challenges faced by various vulnerable groups experiencing violence, and aims to identify ways in which the Government – working hand-in-hand with community partners – can empower victims and perpetrators to break the cycle of violence.

The Taskforce has been holding virtual engagements via videoconferencing, with members discussing ways to better combat family violence, including keeping a close watch on the COVID-19 situation, and putting in place various initiatives. These range from strengthening support for spouses facing abuse to enhancing collaboration amongst stakeholders. 

Under the ambit of the Taskforce, its members work together to identify key areas for improvement, and develop initiatives to better support those affected by family violence. 

“This is how the Taskforce really helps, because before this, I wouldn’t know what someone else was doing,” Georgette says, noting that it would be a waste of resources if UWS were to duplicate what another organisation is already doing.

Our focus has been on how to “pull together the various stakeholders, gather critical ground-up information on what is experienced by survivors, find out the pain points, reassess what needs to get done and how to do so in a practical, timely fashion”, Georgette says.

With the support of the Taskforce, UWS hopes to also work with the private sector to provide training to human resources departments of multinational corporations to recognise signs of family violence and refer victims to appropriate help channels.

Adding urgency to the Taskforce’s collective work, individuals and families may experience more stress due to COVID-19.

Being more cooped up at home, along with job insecurity and dwindling income, fuels an “exacerbated environment where tempers flare and stress takes its toll”. This may lead to an uptick of family violence, says Georgette.

Complementing efforts to tackle family violence during this global pandemic, another member of the Taskforce, social service agency PAVE piloted a mobile app called Community Guardian in June 2020. The app provides a platform for individuals to report suspected cases of family violence and quickly connect to responders.


As the Taskforce deepens its discussions, members will “need to be practical, prioritise and share the responsibilities, while ensuring everything dovetails together”, says Georgette.

“It’s a major task, but I’m fairly confident that people will view this as a real opportunity to speak openly, talk about barriers, pain points and what is really needed.”

“It all starts with having frank conversations and open dialogue.”

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Read more about the Break the Silence campaign and do your part to end family violence.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact:

If you are a social service agency or community group that would like to partner with the Taskforce on initiatives to address family violence, please reach out to us here.

Strengthening community partnerships to better serve families

(Last row, from right to left) Minister Desmond Lee, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Zaqy Mohamad, Ms Gillian Peck (middle) and volunteers from BLESS at the first Shining Star Reads session conducted on 18 January 2020 at ComLink @ Marsiling

Marsiling is one of four HDB towns that have piloted the Community Link (ComLink) initiative, which aims to better support vulnerable families by bringing services closer to them. The focus is on rallying the community and bringing together corporate partners, volunteers, and even residents themselves, to co-create and co-deliver initiatives to address the unique needs of each local community.

Shining Star Reads, a community-based reading programme, run by non-profit organisation BLESS (Bringing Love to Every Single Soul), began its partnership with ComLink @ Marsiling in late 2019. Through ComLink, families with children aged four to nine years were referred to the reading programme.

A few years ago, when BLESS first started its reading programme in the South-West district, volunteers would wheel luggage full of books, before unpacking them on mats in spaces around void decks for children to read.

“There was a lack of conducive spaces to conduct Shining Star Reads. Space was very tight for larger families living in one- or two-room flats and, hence, sessions were held on mats at void deck spaces” says Ms Gillian Peck, BLESS’ Managing Director, who is also a third-year biological sciences student at Nanyang Technological University.

“We then heard about activity spaces being created near rental blocks, with rooms and tables. ComLink aligns completely with our model of delivery and there was even a storeroom that we could use at the site,” she adds.

With the opening of the new programme space in January 2020 at Block 182A, Woodlands Street 13 – BLESS is now able to serve more residents. BLESS held its first three reading sessions at ComLink @ Marsiling on weeknights with 15 volunteers, comprising mostly early childhood education undergraduates and polytechnic students, and about 30 children.

The children were assessed and grouped into four different reading levels, where they learnt the alphabet and were taught to recognise simple words, before progressing to phonics and reading storybooks.

Many of these children did not go to preschool and the focus was on “getting them up to speed on the basics,” says Gillian.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BLESS had to figure out how Shining Star Reads could continue to serve children from rental households while adhering to safe distancing and other precautionary measures.

BLESS looked into the best ways of engaging students online, before it rolled out a revamped programme in June 2020, when schools reopened after the Circuit Breaker period.

BLESS went virtual, and held shorter reading sessions of about 30 to 40 minutes weekly, as opposed to the usual 1-hour face-to-face sessions, to keep children engaged.

Besides coming up with visually engaging and interactive PowerPoint slides and multiple-choice questions, BLESS volunteers were also open to other creative ways to improve their services, said Gillian.

“Going online has its advantages as sessions can now be recorded and volunteers are able to watch the recorded videos and tweak our delivery approaches if necessary.” she says, explaining how the team would replay recorded sessions to look out for children who had difficulty following lessons, before placing them in breakout groups that were better suited to their learning pace.   

Beyond reading programmes, BLESS volunteers also continued to serve families in other ways. They helped to direct families to places offering masks and alerted them to the Ministry of Education’s financial assistance schemes, which allowed children to borrow laptops for home-based learning.

Through a new Project Stable Staples (PSS) initiative co-helmed by BLESS and I Am Talented, a social empowerment initiative for youths, volunteers also launched a fundraising campaign for families in rental flats and conducted wellness checks on households with two or more children or dependents.

ComLink @ Marsiling referred eligible families to PSS and helped link BLESS with other ComLink communities to reach out to more families, beyond the Shining Star Reads’ participants.

In total, BLESS raised over S$160,000 worth of NTUC FairPrice vouchers for over 600 rental families across Singapore.

Moving forward, BLESS plans to launch a numeracy literacy programme, as well as parent-child reading and bonding sessions in Marsiling, on top of ComLink’s slated programmes which now include a children’s character-building programme, academic learning and enrichment programme.

Gillian hopes that the different programme providers at ComLink @ Marsiling will have a chance to interact and share their experiences.

“Coming together, we can share more about the beneficiaries we serve and better understand their complex family circumstances to collectively design better programmes.”

“I think a lot of sharing and knowledge can happen and I hope there will be more opportunities to collaborate and do better, even as we try to find a new normal.”

Going the extra mile for those in need

SSO Officer Ms Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Latiff assisting with the COVID-19 Support Grant application

From a Singaporean who needed assistance after losing his job, to a Singaporean who faced strained relationships from family members due to involuntary No-Pay-Leave (NPL), Ms Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Latiff helped to support them all.

Based at MSF’s Bukit Merah and Kreta Ayer Social Service Office (SSO), the 28-year-old SSO officer has been processing walk-in and online applications for the COVID-19 Support Grant and the Temporary Relief Fund. She believes in providing a listening ear to fully appreciate the circumstances in which applicants reach out for help.

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the huge number of applications but I always remind myself that the simple personal touches—such as wishing applicants all the best with their job search, asking how they are coping, checking if they need other kinds of assistance—make the application process less transactional and more relational between me and the applicants.”

Over two months, some 35,000 Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents have been supported through the COVID-19 Support Grant. Around 450,000 applications for the Temporary Relief Fund were also approved to provide one-off interim assistance scheme in April 2020 to help Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents who needed immediate assistance for their basic expenses.

Nurul, a manager of the SSO’s Regional Services Team, which does ground sensing, service management and case coordination, was roped in by the Social Service Office to process COVID-19 Support Grant applications after helping with the Temporary Relief Fund applications in April. She tends to seniors and others who have difficulties with online applications for the Grant, helps to verify supporting documents submitted by applicants and ensures that they meet the grant criteria, such as the three-month period of involuntary NPL.

For her attentiveness to their concerns, Nurul has received compliments from applicants. One of them thanked her for “going the extra mile to provide comforting encouragement”.

“The affirmation I receive makes my job even more rewarding,” says Nurul. “And I feel privileged to help lighten the burden of those who need support.”

Nurul handles many complex cases, and when applicants do not meet the grant criteria, she is proactive and steers them to other aid channels.

One applicant, who was initially upset about not meeting the criteria, cooled down after Nurul took time to understand the pressures he was facing. He shared about financial and marital problems. Nurul promptly referred him to MSF’s ComCare assistance scheme and its Family Service Centre for more targeted assistance.

Among the challenges Nurul faces is the pressure of processing multiple applications quickly, so that applicants receive support promptly. “Also, sometimes we have applicants who are anxious and keep calling to get updates on the status of their applications,” she adds.

“So, my colleagues and I have to remain patient and take some time to assure them that we are doing our best to assist them.”

She is also inspired by many big-hearted individuals in the community who have assisted their illiterate neighbours with online applications for the COVID-19 Support Grant.  

“Acts like these remind me that there is so much goodness out there even in difficult times. No act of kindness is ever too small to make a difference in someone’s life,” Nurul says.

For more information on the COVID-19 Support Grant and other help schemes, visit supportgowhere.gov.sg.