Caring in a time of crisis

Ms Vivienne Ng, Chief Psychologist, Ministry of Social and Family Development

Since its launch on 10 April 2020, the National CARE Hotline has managed 20,900 calls from the community. Behind the setting up and operations of the hotline is a huge amount of coordination required across various parties including Ms Vivienne Ng.

The Chief Psychologist of MSF and her team had only about a week to rally volunteers because of the urgency to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties with the stressors brought about by COVID-19. They quickly reached out to the multi-agency National CARE Management System (NCMS), led by the Ministry of Health, to tap on CARE officers who are trained to provide emotional support during crises.

As of June 2020, over 770 Duty CARE officers from government agencies, community partners and in private practice, have stepped forward to man the Hotline. “We are encouraged by the sheer number of volunteers who offered their help, with everyone understanding the urgency of the Hotline and wanting to help fellow Singaporeans in need,” says Vivienne.

Professional bodies like the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS), the Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC) and the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW) also reached out to their members to volunteer for the Hotline.

On the rallying of volunteers, Vivienne said, “It was truly a public-private-people partnership that went beyond our wildest hopes.”

Besides being the CARE coordinator at MSF, Vivienne oversees National CARE Hotline’s volunteer recruitment, briefing and rostering, management of supervisors, call centre operations, data analysis and research. When she needed help with understanding what goes into setting up a hotline and managing telephony records, she reached out to experienced colleagues handling MSF’s other Hotline operations such as ComCare.

She and her team also relied on community partners for technical support. The social enterprise Agape Connecting People provided a call system and customer service officers to prioritise calls for the Hotline.

The major concerns of callers to the National CARE Hotline relate to mental health, emotional support, family issues and employment. Duty CARE Officers are the first line of assistance, providing a listening ear to callers. If callers require longer-term specialised support, the officers link them to community partners, such as the Institute of Mental Health, Samaritans of Singapore, Temasek Foundation’s My Mental Health, Agency for Integrated Care, Community Psychology Hub’s Online Counselling Platform and Viriya Community Services.

Coordinating the various aspects of the Hotline to ensure smooth operations can be intense and Vivienne says that she worked late into the night during the first few weeks following the launch of the Hotline. Nevertheless, she enjoys the fast pace and quick problem-solving aspects of crisis and disaster-related work. Most of all, she is motivated by the impact made by National CARE Hotline.

“I’m always so encouraged when I read shift reports and hear about the different people the Duty CARE officers have helped, the tragedies we averted and lives touched,” she says. “Some even call back to compliment the service and thank our Duty CARE officers.”

Working on National CARE Hotline has reminded Vivienne of her post-graduate days, when she studied for a Master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Western Australia and volunteered weekly at the Samaritans’ suicide helpline.

She handled calls in the middle of the night and “de-escalated strong emotions of people in severe crisis, including people holding guns to their heads”. Three decades later, she says she is again reflecting on the “hidden lives of people”, such as those who suffer from mental health problems that have been exacerbated with COVID-19 and others who have experienced a change of fortunes because of COVID-19.

“While we can’t solve all their problems, people need a listening ear, an empathetic response – they need to feel cared for and less alone. We can also point them in the right direction to get more help.”

In this regard, you need not be a clinical professional or part of the National CARE Hotline to help, says Vivienne. “If we all reach out to our neighbours, friends and relatives around us, ask them how they are doing and really listen, there will be less isolation, more community spirit and building of relationships. 

“In this way, we can all help one another.”      

TIP BOX
Here are some tips from Vivienne on dealing with fears of COVID-19 and adapting to life after the Circuit Breaker:

– Take time to ease yourself back into a work and family routine, expecting some disorganisation and adjustment.
– While fears about COVID-19 still abound, remind yourself that community spread is currently very low and the probability of contracting the virus is very low, too, as long as necessary safety precautions are taken.
– Do not be consumed with worries about the illness, but re-engage with life, family, friends and the community while exercising care.
– Exercise regularly, eat healthily, maintain a regular sleep cycle, engage in hobbies and learn new things.
– Spend time talking and interacting with family and friends, either in person where possible or via video conferencing platforms.

If you need or know of someone who needs help, please contact the National CARE Hotline at 1800-202-6868.

If you are a mental health professional and would like to volunteer for the hotline, email the National CARE Hotline at nationalcarehotline@msf.gov.sg

Community partners ramp up support for the homeless

While most Singaporeans are staying at home during the Circuit Breaker to minimise the spread of COVID-19, some are unable to do so because they lack a roof over their heads. Others need help with their essential needs, such as getting food and groceries.

To help our homeless friends, MSF’s Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) Office has worked with its community partners to set up more Safe Sound Sleeping Places (S3Ps).

Yio Chu Kang Chapel, headed by Pastor Rick Toh, is one such community partner which started operating an S3P before this crisis. In addition to providing shelter to homeless friends, the church also collaborates with other community partners to offer holistic support to those in need during this challenging period.

At Yio Chu Kang Chapel, homeless friends can stay overnight with light refreshments and use its shower facilities and washing machines. Help is also provided to help these individuals get back on their feet.

Pastor Rick_photo3(final)2Pastor Rick Toh from Yio Chu Kang Chapel which runs a Safe Sound Sleeping Place (S3P)

“We help them gain independence through placing them in long-term shelters or rental homes, and helping them to find a job,” says Pastor Rick, who added that the church also provides food vouchers, pro-bono counselling and legal advice.

The shelter currently has 5 permanent staff and 10 volunteers. Teams of two volunteers visit the shelter each day to befriend shelter residents, while observing safe distancing measures.

“We want our homeless friends to know that they’re not alone and we want to empower them to contribute to society,” says Pastor Rick. “Some are even helping us to look after the daily operations of the shelter and are happy to give back in this way.”

As Yio Chu Kang Chapel’s S3P has reached its capacity, Pastor Rick and his team are redirecting new queries for shelter to the PEERS Office.

“If we receive requests to stay at our shelter, and are unable to accommodate them, we direct callers to MSF,” says Pastor Rick. “MSF has been very responsive − having found shelters for many homeless friends whom we’ve put them in touch with.”

Also, the church is sharing its knowledge on S3P operations and processes with new partners which have started operating shelters during the Circuit Breaker. Many new organisations came forward to set up S3Ps quickly, despite the limitations faced during Circuit Breaker. During the Circuit Breaker period, there were 46 S3Ps, an increase of 40 new S3Ps. Some of the new partners include Tao One Ltd, Tung Ling Community Services, Assyakirin Mosque and Faith Methodist Church.

Many more homeless friends have come forward to seek shelter as a result of COVID-19 and the Circuit Breaker measures. MSF has received more than 500 referrals to the 46 S3Ps since the Circuit Breaker started on 7 April 2020, compared to about 40 referrals to 6 S3Ps in December 2019. Many of our homeless friends have indicated they are willing to be further assisted, and this has given community-based agencies and social service agencies the opportunity to better understand their circumstances and offer further assistance.

On the importance of caring for the needy during this pandemic, Pastor Rick says: “We must do what we can to support those who cannot fend for themselves.”

He is thankful that more are receiving assistance, including those who were “under the radar” because they “bunked with friends or moved around in public spaces”.

Besides the PEERS Network for homeless individuals, other groups are also working hard to help the vulnerable. This includes Food from the Heart, Food Bank and Willing Hearts – food charities that have come together to ensure that vulnerable households continue to receive support during this challenging period.

One such recipient is 85-year-old Mr Leong Leong Ho, who has been living alone in a Redhill rental flat after the death of his flatmate a few years ago.

During the Circuit Breaker period, he was linked up with Food from the Heart, which provides monthly food packs to 8,500 households, including seniors like him. The food packs include fresh eggs, fruit, vegetables and canned food.

“I am very thankful to Food from the Heart, as the Circuit Breaker has made it difficult for me to step out and buy food,” says Mr Leong. “My friends in the area have also received food packs, and we are touched by all the help.”

To find out where to donate, contribute food and other items, or volunteer your time, please visit sgunited.gov.sg.

Listen to MONEYFM 89.3’s podcast where Claressa Monteiro chats
with Minister Desmond Lee on the support MSF and our partners are extending to vulnerable individuals and families.

 

ComLink – Government and partners coming together to support families

Thomas (not his real name) has been battling with a slew of medical issues, such as diabetes, gout, high blood cholesterol and sleep apnea.

In March 2019, the father of three was dealt another blow – he lost his job at a laundry delivery business because his employer felt he was taking sick leave too often. His wife, a cashier, ended up as the family’s sole breadwinner, bringing home just over S$1,500 a month.

This meant that the family of five, who has been living in a two-room rental flat in Marsiling for the past five years, had to shelve their dreams of buying a new home.

With the launch of Community Link (ComLink), more help is now on the way to Thomas and his family.

ComLink was introduced by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of National Development to provide proactive, collaborative and community-driven support to families in need, and to empower them to lead better lives. There are various programmes under ComLink, which are run by different community and corporate partners and tailored to the needs of the local community. For example, reading and numeracy programmes for young children, sports activities for students, Community Scouting for youths, as well as skills upgrading and job matching services for residents.

These programmes were curated based on suggestions by residents at several focus group discussions. Thomas was one of the participants in a 2019 discussion on homeownership. Held in Marsiling, the discussion was conducted by National University of Singapore undergraduates from the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre, together with the Social Service Office (SSO) @ Woodlands, Housing and Development Board (HDB) and Care Corner Family Service Centre (Woodlands) who also reached out to residents from rental flats to find out and address their needs.

Some of the fellow residents in Marsiling whom Thomas met struggled with bankruptcy while others had to sell their flats as part of divorce settlements. “Many have their own family problems. Each had their stories to share and we got to know one another better,” he says.

He was pleased that the small group format of the discussion facilitated personal sharing. “In a small group, we could talk about whatever we wanted and get advice on what to do. It can be very hard to talk if the group is too big.”

One of the major issues raised by participants in that discussion was employment. As Thomas experienced firsthand, a family’s plan for a brighter future can be quickly derailed with the loss of a job.  After hearing the residents’ struggles with this issue, SSO @ Woodlands worked with employment-related agencies like FastJobs and Workforce Singapore to develop targeted job programmes for Marsiling residents.

Another important point that emerged during the discussion was the need for easy access to assistance. Thomas shared that it could be confusing to navigate the services offered by different agencies. Thanks to the initiatives by Marsiling ComLink in bringing together multiple partners to address residents’ needs, he is now more aware of where he can seek financial assistance, what kind of HDB loans are available and how he can seek help from other community partners and Members of Parliament.

Recognising the aspirations of residents to own their own homes, the SSO @ Woodlands will be working closely with HDB’s Home ownership Support Team (HST) to help families on their journeys towards buying a flat.

HST was launched in 2019 to provide dedicated and more personalised services for rental households who are ready for homeownership. HST guides these households, from application to key collection, and will be a consistent point of contact to address all HDB-related issues.

Besides MSF, HST also works with other social service agencies and partners, such as the Ministry of Manpower, Family Service Centres (FSCs), and The Institute of Financial Literacy to provide holistic support for rental tenants along their home ownership journeys.

Two of Thomas’ children, aged 14 and 12, attended a trial session on basic money management at the new newly launched ComLink programme space in Marsiling. They shared that the session was both fun and useful.  They are eager to participate in other ComLink programmes where they can get to know their neighbours better. With the support provided through ComLink, Thomas is actively searching for a job with the goal of stabilising his family’s finances and working towards the family’s dream of home ownership again.

A youth caseworker’s reflections

The rehabilitation of youth offenders may begin in the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes, but it should not and does not stop there. Once they are discharged from the Homes, the youths face the sometimes daunting task of reintegrating into their schools and families.

Guiding them in this transition is key to keeping them on track in their rehabilitation journey. This is where caseworkers like Ms Lim Li Min play a pivotal role. Having served as a caseworker for seven and a half years in MSF, Li Min’s job entails conducting individual and family counselling, helping youths gain new skills, and linking them up with opportunities in the community, to address the risks and needs of those under her charge.

Ranging from displays of anti-social behaviour and violent tendencies to estrangement from family members, the challenges the youths face are increasingly complex. “Caseworkers need to be agile and resourceful to support them in personalised ways so they can have a good re-start in our community,” says Li Min.

Currently, youths are given post-care support for two months after they are discharged from the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes. After assessing that some of them continued to feel lost after the two-month period and unable to approach someone they could trust for advice, MSF will extend post-care support to one year. The pilot with about 15 to 20 selected youth will commence this year and will be progressively expanded in 2020 to include every youth discharged from the two Homes.

Under the initiative, MSF will work with appointed Voluntary Welfare Organisation partners to assign post-care workers to journey alongside the youths in the community. The post-care officers will engage the youths at least six months before they are discharged from the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes. Caseworkers like Li Min will then have a longer time to partner with these post-care officers to work out discharge plans and facilitate relationship building between the youth and their post-care officers. This will ensure a smooth reintegration and sustained rehabilitation.

Jervin Tay, now 19, is one of the youths counselled by Li Min. In 2017, after a rioting case, he was ordered by the Youth Court to reside in the Singapore Boys’ Home for 12 months. With the help of his parents and Li Min, Jervin turned his life around and even completed a barista programme.

Li Min helped Jervin to better communicate with his parents. Since his discharge in July 2018, Jervin has committed himself to making the best out of his life. He is currently in National Service and hopes to complete his ‘O’ Levels and get a diploma in the F&B industry.

Rehabilitation is not always smooth sailing, and Li Min says schools, employers and families should be prepared that these youths may “require a lot more support in the community” than in Homes.

“Building rapport and a relationship is key to being able to support a youth effectively”, she says. Only then will caseworkers be seen as “trusted adults” by the youths. “This gives them some motivation to change and move forward with their aspirations in life, knowing that they are safely anchored in someone who believes in them and whom they can fall back on.”

And relationship-building will continue to play a key role as caseworkers, and in the near future post-care officers, work hand in hand to support our youths.

 

 

Want to join social work? Be a ‘fool’ like this social worker

Ian Peterson has worked for 18 years as a social worker, without losing his resolve. His secret? Faith, openness, optimism and love.

When Ian became a social worker 18 years ago, people sometimes called him a fool. His profession was not well understood then and he was seen to be just a “paid volunteer”.

Now, though, “fool” has taken on a new meaning in his life.

Each letter of the epithet stands for one of his ideals.
“F” is for faith – in people and their assets.
“O” is for openness to the experiences of clients and their families.
“O” is for optimism in the face of difficulties.
“L” is love for social work.

The 46-year-old’s sense of purpose is an integral part of fulfilling his daily responsibilities as the Cluster Director (Northwest) of Care Corner Singapore Ltd.

He works with vulnerable clients and fellow social workers, overseeing three family service centres at Admiralty, Queenstown and Woodlands. In his time, he has helped those struggling with family violence, gambling and drug addiction. A proponent of an integrated approach to social service, Ian coordinates with his colleagues to identify common issues that clients face. Based on these findings, together they might launch targeted and group programmes for these clients.

Ian is now working with MSF, applying his knack for community-based care to launch Community Link (ComLink) at Marsiling. As part of this initiative, social service hubs will be launched in four areas: Jalan Kukoh, Marsiling, Kembangan-Chai Chee and Boon Lay. Overall, ComLink will benefit some 1,000 families staying in rental flats. While ComLink is new, Ian says it builds on current support networks.

“I believe that in every community so far that I’ve worked with, there is some level of community participation already.  You are just enhancing what’s existing to see whether you can take it to the next level.”

Ian-2420
Ian having discussion with his colleague

For Ian, the relationship between social workers and clients is a collaborative journey. Clients do not simply have deficits but bring their own assets to the table, he says. His work involves collaborating with clients and “helping them to reach that level of motivation, where they can move on in life and to increase their social mobility”.

For example, Ian once worked with a family going through a painful divorce. In “journeying” together with the mother and her three children, Ian saw them create new meaning in their adjusted lives. “They became strong pillars of support for each other, especially when they were able to open up and share how difficult it was to lose the dad.” The older children had to step up to help with housework, and for the youngest, the challenge was homework.

Community, it seems, is never far from Ian’s musings on social work. As the “fool” says: “Always know that there’s always a lot of team support and community network that exists.”

MSF will be working with community partners to launch ComLink in four estates to provide more integrated and coordinated support for families in rental flats. Read more about this here.

More on MSF’s announcements here.

Changing lives with a PoP

After an enviable medical and corporate career, Dr Rajeshree Nimish Parekh has dedicated her life to empowering women. Her method of choice: empowering women through the intricacies of beading and braiding.

Bracelet-making involves a rhythm. “Left, right, in, out, again and again,” says Dr Parekh, affectionately known as Gina by her colleagues, who has found the looping of strings into knots to be a “soothing influence”. Since turning this hobby into a charitable enterprise, she has introduced other women to its joys—and its empowering effects.

As part of her PoPstrings Project, residents at the Star Shelter bond through learning to make bracelets. PoP stand for “Power of Positivity”. For these survivors of domestic violence, braiding and beading are a means of earning supplementary income when the finished products are eventually sold.

Before turning her hands to beads and threads, Dr Parekh had applied her dexterity to surgery.

In India, where she was born, Dr Parekh was the chief operating officer and medical director at UnitedHealthcare India. She was also consulting and working for various companies from her time in India to Singapore. The corporate world, though, left her with the nagging feeling that “there was something missing in my life”.

She took a break from work and started braiding as a hobby. Along the way, she would gift family and friends her creations.

 Her bracelet-making hobby would evolve after a chance meeting with mutual acquaintances at a wedding in Kenya. One was a Star Shelter employee. They chatted and met up with fellow women at the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), which founded the shelter in 1999. At that meeting, Dr Parekh offered her medical skills. To her surprise, SCWO was most drawn to her PoPstrings Project.

Dr Gina-1746

When asked what empowerment means to her, she says it is a level playing field for everyone, and the ability to express yourself. “It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that women must have corporate careers or be at the workplace. Empowerment can even be having equal footing in the home environment, where you are respected for who you are and your opinion is valued.”

Looking back at her career, Dr Parekh recalls often being the only woman at meetings between senior leaders. With PoPstrings however, she is intent on keeping the project as inclusive as possible.

Residents sometimes will bring their children along for braiding classes. When a resident’s nine-year-old son asked if he could learn how to braid, Dr Parekh’s answer was obvious.

“I said ‘sure’. I’m not setting gender stereotypes here.”

 

This is what helping families looks like

Mohamad Maliki Osman For The Straits Times

When I was an undergraduate in social work three decades ago, I learnt that welfare to the poor is a temporary safety net: it is to help individuals “get back on their feet”.

This lesson resonated with me. Growing up, my family diet was often rice and soya sauce. Clothes and books were handed down from older to younger siblings. My bed was a straw mat in the corridor, because our one-room rental flat was too small for all of us.

Like many families back then, we struggled. But my father, a blue-collar worker who raised nine children, taught me the values of self-reliance, hard work and family support. “There is no shortcut to success – just work hard,” he would remind us.

My experience was not unique. Many of my contemporaries, now well-established in their careers, grew up in similarly challenging situations. For example, Professor David Chan of Singapore Management University lived in a rental one-room HDB flat in Bukit Merah with his parents and three siblings for the first 30 years of his life. He had to work full-time for several years to save up to pay for his subsequent university education.

Many of us grew up experiencing many years of being poor, but we also went through the journey of improving our lives with determination and hard work. So we can see things from the perspective of those who are not well-off, and also know it is possible to improve one’s life in Singapore. This became even clearer to me after I graduated as a social worker and later became a Member of Parliament, as I worked almost daily with families in need of different kinds of help.

But times have changed, and there is a real difference between my growing-up years and now. Today, families in rental flats receive much more help. Financial assistance, food rations, spring cleaning and home painting, changing to energy-saving light bulbs, free tuition for their children, and many other kinds of help are readily available and regularly offered by organisations and individuals alike.

Despite the extensive help extended, some commentators claim that the poor in Singapore, especially those living in rental flats, have severe unmet needs, and are being neglected.

They say the poor are struggling because help often comes with onerous conditions; that parents do not go to work because they cannot find suitable childcare arrangements, and that they do not qualify for childcare subsidies because they are not working.

But the facts disprove these claims. There are extensive healthcare and childcare subsidies available to mothers in low-income households, including those who are not working.

Low-income households are entitled to subsidies and can pay as little as $5 a month for full-day childcare service. This low monthly fee makes childcare services entirely affordable even for the poorest, provided the parents are willing to make adjustments and take up full-time jobs, like many other low-income parents in Singapore.

Taxpayers’ money should not just be given away, even to the needy, without expecting the recipients to help themselves. Social workers working with low-income households on a daily basis (sometimes for many years) have a good understanding of the difficulties they face, and the challenges in helping them. Many have learnt that imposing certain conditions on the families receiving subsidies does help them structure their lives, a necessary first step in progressing towards a better life.

The relevant point here is this: In making conclusions about the poor in Singapore, we need to be careful about using some particular cases or groups to generalise about the poor, the system, and the outcomes. We need to look at the facts and understand the situations. We should also draw lessons from the many inspiring households who got back on their feet because they took ownership of their problems, worked hard, and made good use of the help they received.

So what is really going on regarding helping low-income families living in rental flats? Let me illustrate with a real-life project we undertook over several years.

‘HOMELESS’ AND RENTAL FLAT DWELLERS

The rental flat dwellers I am referring to were previously homeowners. They had sold their flats for various reasons and used up the cash proceeds. They then lived with family or friends, or rented rooms in the open market, and when they outstayed the goodwill of friends and family or funds ran out, they ended up at the beach and parks.

They all asked for a subsidised rental flat, although most did not qualify. So as a temporary measure, the Government gave them a roof under the Interim Rental Housing (IRH) scheme. It is interim because the social workers need time to work with them on their more complex underlying problems and get them ready to sustain more permanent housing arrangements.

Clearly, these families were undergoing tough times. We empathised with them and mobilised community resources to help them – financial assistance, nightly homework supervision for their children by residents in the neighbourhood, employment assistance, parenting support, counselling, befriending, and so on. In five years, we helped 1,180 families in the IRH programme. Of these, 84 per cent were former homeowners, and almost two-thirds (64 per cent) had received more than $100,000 in proceeds from the sale of their last flat. This means that they previously had jobs to pay for their mortgages, and they had the potential to own a flat again. For those out of jobs, we helped them get jobs again. We helped place their children in childcare centres with large subsidies to enable the parents to work. Conditions were imposed. Work was the first condition because with work, they could get a loan to purchase a home again.

The helping process was not easy. Some families, with the parents and adult children all not working, would get upset when the issue of jobs was discussed. Some were unhappy when social workers asked how much they spent on non-essentials. What struck the social workers was that in some families, the young children asked our social workers why their parents could not give them pocket money when they could purchase cigarettes and alcohol.

Sadly, some families became verbally abusive and threatened the social workers when the help rendered did not meet their expectations. But the social workers persevered. The outcome was clearly positive – almost half of the families managed to purchase new homes, and moved into them, feeling proud that they were homeowners again.

Our experience in the IRH programme is not unique. All over Singapore, there are many examples of communities coming together to help those in need. Preventive programmes include Kids 0-3 by K K Women’s and Children’s Hospital and its community partners. This particular programme helps poor and vulnerable young, pregnant women until the children reach three years of age to give these children a strong start in life.

From my experience over 25 years, I have found that different families respond to similar life circumstances differently, producing different outcomes, even when they are offered the same help. What distinguishes those families who make it is their willingness to improve their life conditions.

Families living in rental flats elsewhere have the same potential to improve their lives, including those interviewed by Associate Professor Teo You Yenn (author of the book This Is What Inequality Looks Like) , who concluded from her research that families became or remained poor because our systems disadvantaged them. I disagree. I believe, like other families in Singapore, that these research respondents also have hopes and dreams, and they too appreciate the value of work, can acquire self-confidence and self-reliance and achieve their aspirations. What they need is the right kind of structured help and intervention. Help which comes with a trusting relationship, respecting and giving them self-confidence and hope, and which makes them realise that they have to do their part. This is what the social workers, the Government and the community have been doing, and will continue to do and do better.

WHAT HELPING FAMILIES MEANS

A fundamental issue in helping the poor is the definition of basic needs. Most will agree that poverty is absolute when one lacks access to shelter, clean running water, electricity, food, healthcare services, and affordable education. These are accepted internationally as basic needs. In Singapore, these basic needs are met for nearly everyone, including most of those living in rental flats.

The fact is that many, nearly 50 per cent of rental flat tenants, did have their own bigger (subsidised) flats, but had sold them and used up the cash proceeds. This means that while they may be down today, they were up yesterday and can certainly be up again tomorrow. If we attribute the cause of their being poor to the system, we should note that the same system that “disadvantaged” them today “advantaged” them yesterday. In fact, the system has not disadvantaged them.

As part of the continuous effort to help families, the Fresh Start programme was introduced last year to help rental flat tenants who previously owned flats to own their homes again. We provide social support and grants to guide and incentivise these families, giving them hope. And yes, there are conditions to be met, as conditions help families make progress, and ensure taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and responsibly to help the poor.

We have far fewer poor families in Singapore today than in the past, and they are receiving help in an ecosystem that works reasonably well by any standard. We need to continue improving the system and make sure all families in real need receive adequate help. Equally important, we need to understand these families’ actual circumstances over time. This understanding starts with objective facts and accurate descriptions. The underlying philosophy of Singapore’s approach is helping these families get on their feet, which involves providing resources and developing their sense of responsibility and resolve. This is what helping families means.

• Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman is Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Mayor of South East District. His doctoral degree is in social work.

Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Helping families find hope and courage to change

Sudha Nair For The Straits Times

What should social workers do with a family that spends $500 on cigarettes and cable TV, yet applies for financial aid? Questioning the poor on their needs and choices is part of helping them.

In a recent article, sociologist Teo You Yenn painted a bleak picture of the conditions rental flat dwellers live in (Let’s talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity; ST May 30). She argued, among other things, that insufficient space can lead to children being open to negative influence and that the process of getting help can cause families living in rental flats to lose their dignity because they are often asked demeaning questions.

As a practising social worker of 32 years, I started my career working with disadvantaged families. In the last five years, my team of social workers and I have worked at the Housing Board’s Bedok Interim Rental Housing (IRH) project, also called P4650 after the two blocks the families lived in. These are our experiences with them.

The residents of P4650 comprised three groups: families waiting for a rental flat; families in financial straits and downgrading to smaller flats which were still being built; and families ineligible for public rental flats but unable to afford their own housing.

Many of these families were overwhelmed and left with little family support, having exhausted the goodwill of relatives and friends. Some were living on the beach or in parks before arriving at the IRH. Most were previous home owners who had sold their flats for various reasons, spent the proceeds, and then became homeless.

We had the daunting task of getting these families permanent housing. At least a quarter of the families had deep-rooted, multiple problems such as untreated medical and mental illness, addictions, entrenched financial problems, incarceration and severe family conflicts.

We tried to help these families prioritise their most pressing problems before working on their housing goals.

Another challenge was a group of families who only wanted tangible aid – financial help, food rations, rental and utility vouchers. Put bluntly, they were saying to us: “Just give us what we want and leave us alone.”

They resisted discussing their problems. A few became angry and abusive when social workers suggested meetings. It was difficult, but we persevered because these families needed help, too.

At P4650, we learnt the complexities these families presented – lessons that caution against painting a simplistic picture of rental flat dwellers with a broad brush.

FAMILY PORTRAITS

Let me share some of our takeaways.

All parents have dreams for their children. Yet, many disadvantaged families feel that having such dreams is beyond them. Some stay angry and disappointed with their lot in life.

We found that getting parents to express their hopes and vision for their families was critical in bringing about change. For some, it meant saying: “I wish we could have our own flat.” For others: “I wish I could afford to send my children for enrichment classes or overseas trips.”

Once a parent articulated such hopes, the social workers could discuss options to make seemingly unattainable dreams come true, working out solutions, and identifying the resources needed.

This co-creation of solutions was possible even for the most challenging families. For example, we worked intensively with a jobless and angry mother of three who depended on financial aid and food rations for three years while her husband was in jail. She expressed hope for her children to get a good education. It took some effort to show her that having a job would enable her to buy an HDB flat and provide her children with a more secure environment.

She found work, went on to buy a two-room flat, and stopped relying on handouts. After his release from prison, her husband found work, and the family income rose.

Then there was a father of five who earned $1,600 a month and refused help because he felt it was his duty to provide for his family. To save expenses, he wanted his oldest son to quit school. The boy, a top student at the Institute of Technical Education, was devastated.

We persuaded the father to let his son finish his education, with help to pay the fees.

We worked with Workforce Singapore to get the father started on a diploma course which could help him double his income. He agreed to accept temporary financial aid while he finished his diploma.

Those efforts paid off, and the family left the IRH to move into their own three-room flat. It was small, but it was theirs.

Social workers are sometimes faulted for asking seemingly intrusive questions and for their obsession with genograms and ecomaps (that, respectively, map a person’s family and friendship networks) and income and expenditure assessments. Asking good questions and using tools appropriately are in fact relevant and important. They are vital to understanding how families make decisions, and the various roles that family members play.

QUESTIONING SPENDING CHOICES AND NEEDS

We have seen many families make poor choices. They need help to assess their needs and wants.

Needs fall along a continuum, and there is a difference between a felt need (a perceived need), a normative need (a desirable standard), a comparative need (when two groups with similar characteristics do not receive similar service), and an expressed need (a felt need turned into action). A social worker helps families differentiate between these different types of needs.

Yes, we ask questions. And yes, we ask how families strapped for cash spend the little money they have. What do you do when you find the man of the house is a regular smoker, and feels he is entitled to that lifestyle choice? And what if his family is also paying for a full slew of cable television channels? Should social workers not question such a family spending $500 a month on cigarettes and cable TV while at the same time applying for financial aid?

Some say it would be “judgmental” of us to advise him to stop smoking; that we would undermine his dignity.

In this instance, the man of the house did indeed respond by becoming angry and abusive. But that cannot make social workers desist from asking such questions. Not least because public support for social assistance schemes will wane if the public is convinced social workers are spending taxpayers’ money and donations with no conditions.

How can one justify not advising a person to stop smoking while we routinely advise our children, and doctors their patients, about the risks of smoking? Are we being “judgmental” when we do so?

Several months after that angry man stormed out of our office, he returned ready to relook his spending habits and make the necessary changes to get his family out of the IRH.

It took nine months before he was ready to act. The family finally moved out of the IRH to their own four-room HDB flat. Their income has risen to more than $4,000 a month. Grateful for the help they received, the couple have become grassroots volunteers.

If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.

Granted, change is uncomfortable. It demands learning new ways of behaving, and discarding old ones. So some families will resist change, preferring to persist with familiar habits. If truth be told, there is no shortage of help schemes to let families remain as they are.

But significant change was possible at P4650 because everyone worked together, and the families experienced hope, believed that change, although difficult, was possible and were willing to act once provided with information and workable options. We drew on many formal and informal organisations to make things happen.

The IRH site closed in April this year. In all, 1,183 families passed through our doors.

Approximately half the families went on to buy flats and fewer than half went on to rental housing. A small number chose to find their own housing or returned to live with relatives. These outcomes were far better than expected.

Some families who moved out earlier returned to the IRH to help others, in ways that facilitated them to get back on their feet. For example, one single mother came back to teach IRH mothers baking skills, so that they could make some extra money the way she did when times were tough.

P4650 was intensive and hard for the families and everyone involved.

But the true picture is one of continuous engagement, with many lives changed because families had the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change.

• Sudha Nair is executive director of Pave, a specialist centre that works on issues of family violence, child protection and disadvantaged families. She led Pave at Siglap, the team that worked at the Bedok Interim Rental Housing project.

Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Working together to break the silence on abuse

In celebration of World Social Work Day, Wei Ling (left), Centre Manager from the Thye Hwa Kwan Moral Charities’ Seniors Activity Centre and Shermaine, Senior Adult Protection Officer from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, share how an elderly woman facing abuse by her caregiver was helped.


When 80-year-old Mdm Jane* was finally convinced to leave her home to be admitted to the hospital, she disclosed that her caregiver Amy* and her siblings had threatened to harm her. Amy had also controlled her finances and restricted her food and water intake.

Amy, the daughter of Mdm Jane’s friend, became the elderly woman’s caregiver when she had to remain mostly bedbound after suffering a fall. Mdm Jane relied on Amy for all of her basic care needs.

It was a few months after Amy took on her caregiving role, that staff from the Senior Activity Centre (SAC) at Mdm Jane’s neighbourhood noticed that something was amiss.

Wei Ling, the centre manager of Thye Hwa Kwan Moral Charities’ Seniors Activity Centre, said: “We received feedback that Mdm Jane’s unit was always very noisy in the evenings, and filled with cigarette smoke. This was one of the signs that the home had turned too unconducive for Mdm Jane to stay. When SAC staff visited the unit again, the occupants did not answer.”

This differed from Mdm Jane’s usual friendly demeanour. She was usually welcoming towards staff from the SAC and social workers from the Cluster Support Service who visited her regularly.

Shermaine, a Senior Adult Protection Officer at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, was alerted to the case when the SAC staff approached the Social Service Office to seek advice. Together with community workers, Shermaine visited Mdm Jane and Amy on multiple occasions to understand the concerns surrounding Mdm Jane’s care.

Unfortunately, approaching Amy proved challenging. “Amy and her relatives were verbally aggressive, and she chased me out of the house once,” said Shermaine. They later learnt that Amy’s friends and relatives were occupying Mdm Jane’s home, which explained the unusual feedback from her neighbour.

Amy’s refusal to allow Mdm Jane to have private conversations with the community workers led to suspicions of abuse. Shermaine pulled various agencies together – including the Singapore Police Force, Housing Development Board, Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), SAC, Cluster Support Service and the Polyclinic – to piece together information that they had on Mdm Jane, and come up with a way to address her situation. Mdm Jane’s eventual admission into the hospital was a step towards ensuring her safety and wellbeing. She is now under the care of professionals at an eldercare facility.

Reflecting on the case, Shermaine feels heartened by the support she received from her partners. “Sometimes I felt a bit intimidated to visit Mdm Jane and Amy, but having the support from community partners definitely helped. For example, the Police were very supportive and accompanied us on home visits to Mdm Jane’s place. Staff from the TTSH also facilitated Mdm Jane’s admission to the hospital for medical examination,” she said.

Echoing her sentiments, Wei Ling added: “We could not have done it without the help of the authorities and various community partners. I was very impressed by the keen observations of the MSF officers and Cluster Support social worker. They found out that Mdm Jane was in need of help to leave the house, despite her claiming in the presence of Amy that she was well taken care of.”

It was the unwavering determination of all partners that enabled them to intervene and help Mdm Jane in a timely manner. Shermaine emphasised: “It makes a difference when we all collaborate and work effectively together”.

*Anonymised name


If you are facing family violence, or suspect that someone you know may need help, please approach your nearest Family Violence Specialist Centres or call the ComCare hotline: 1800-222-0000.

Visit NCSS’ website to learn more about starting a career in social work. If you are interested to pursue a meaningful career at MSF, find out more information on our website or at Careers@Gov.