Homeless in Singapore’s Island Paradise
You may recall that I wrote about the sad case of Rebecca Loh and the tragic consequences of our government’s callous policy of self- reliance at all costs. Recently I was saddened again by the plight of another victim of similar callousness though as yet still mercifully without the same tragic consequences.
I know of Madam L’s case because she had called our office to ask for help. Yesterday I met up with her along with the assistance of one of our Hokkien speaking members. Before this our means of communication had been restricted to Malay. (My generation of Singaporeans were taught in English but non-Chinese learnt Malay as a second language.)
I will tell her story as she told it although we are still working on her case and no doubt more details will emerge. I believe it is not atypical.
As with the case of Rebecca Loh , Madam X had been through a divorce and her ex husband had in fact passed away some years back. She had been renting an HDB unit until last year when she was evicted. Which is why she is now living on the streets. She is currently being pursued by HDB for rental arrears of over $5,000 (US$4,000). Strangely Madam L keeps the letters of demand from HDB on her person, folded into her clothing inside a plastic envelope. They constitute one of her few remaining personal possessions.
This is more remarkable for the fact that she is illiterate and has no job other than a small amount that she is able to make by collecting cardboard (according to her she gets paid about 8 Singapore cents a kilo). She looked as though she had not been able to wash or launder her clothes for some time.
It is the cornerstone of PAP policy that elder citizens who hit a rough patch must move in with their children. Naturally HDB told her to go and live with her son. However he is already a non home owner, renting and subsisting in a one room HDB unit which he shares with his wife and three children. He survives by doing odd jobs. Madam L says she has never had a regular job and thus had no CPF savings. Apart from her son she has a daughter but had become estranged from her many years back and has since lost touch.
The address on her NRIC card is that of her son and this is how HDB are able to contact her regularly with demands for the arrears. In fact I wonder if this listing of relatives on NRIC cards is how the PAP are able to claim that there are no homeless people in Singapore? Technically I suppose she is homed in the one room unit with her son and his family. HDB rules do not allow single people to rent a room and as moving in with her son was impossible, HDB had promised to match her up with someone to share with. However that was over a year ago now and the only communication she has had from them was in connection with the above mentioned arrears.
Although we were able to help her with her most immediate needs she clearly needs somewhere to live long-term as she is still only 65 and this is where she was primarily asking for my assistance. Madam L had immediately recognised the picture of my late father in our office saying, “Ah there is JBJ.” Unfortunately she mistakenly believed me to be a lawyer too. I’m not sure that being a lawyer would have been much help anyway. In fact, after going through this case and seeing how she had fallen through one gap after another I felt like I was back writing to the President of Singapore asking his office for a straight answer to the question, “ Did you approve this loan”. We all know how that got shunted from pillar to post.
As she was destitute I thought that she should qualify for Public Assistance. In the last Budget this was raised to S$450 (US$360) per month for a single person. She met the qualifying criteria since her lack of qualifications and advancing age would make it difficult to find a regular job and she had no other source of income. Her son already had several dependents and was presumably earning below the limit of $1700 (US$1360) per month. Though S$450 is not a princely sum, she told us that her HDB rental used to be S$50 (US$40) per month so she should have had something left over for living expenses. Clearly collecting cardboard is not something our elderly citizens should be doing.
We phoned ComCare but they referred us to the Family Centre in Ang Mo Kio. When we called that office their attitude at first was that of not being bothered. Eventually however an employee phoned us back (we will refer to her as Ms J). She at first tried to fob us off by asking us to call Samaritans of Singapore, though it is hard to see how a counselling service for the suicidal (incidentally set up by my mother in Singapore) could help an elderly woman who was destitute. We asked that they send somebody down to interview the woman and see how they could help her, given that she clearly qualified for Public Assistance. Finding a roof over her head is obviously the most urgent priority. I said that her situation was pretty desperate and she should not have to wait too long. Would they be able to come down on Friday and meet her at or near our office?
Ms J did not sound very hopeful but said she would get someone to call us back about possibly coming down on Friday at 4pm or failing that on Monday at the same time. As of today we are still waiting for them to call us.
It seems incomprehensible to me that the public housing agency would make a senior citizen without a job or any means of support homeless, even if she had run up rent arrears. They could at least have referred her to ComCare for assistance. Madam L had also used up her savings and meagre CPF on medical treatment which involved having a body brace fitted. She also told us that she had lost all her personal belongings when she was evicted including some medical equipment that she was using after that operation. Naturally, I will be following up the arrears demands with HDB after we deal with the more pressing needs.
Just as in the case of Rebecca Loh, it seems incomprehensible that a country where the government has accumulated surpluses amounting to several hundred billion dollars over the last few years should place so many obstacles in the path of its citizens in genuine need. After all the reserves belong ultimately to the people not to the government and the people produced that money that is the reserves. They are the financial equivalent of Hotel California. You can put them in any time you like but you can never take them out! If you want to know more about our reserves read here and here. For my views on the losses accumulated by MAS read this.
I also wrote that Rebecca and Gabriel were known in her neighbourhood, that they were not recluses behind hidden doors. Madam L is also known to the organisations that should be assisting her. Although I have found again and again that even the limited amount of assistance available is frequently not taken up because those who need it do not know it is there or have trouble accessing the information. When people do apply then mean-minded bureaucrats often reject their applications on dubious grounds. Even in the case of something that should be automatic like Workfare, many of the poorly educated are not even aware of the scheme’s existence or how to apply.
I will update you shortly on whether the Family Centre has responded to her need for assistance. Meanwhile we are contacting various voluntary organisations to find Madam L a place in a hostel where she can have access to a bed and washing and laundry facilities. That can only be a temporary situation and really I don’t see why our genuinely deserving are reduced to begging for charity in the midst of so much government affluence?
I feel the same way about the Straits Times pocket money fund. Every year they raise a few million dollars and this amount is celebrated. But why should families be reduced to asking for charity to provide meals, clothing, basic stationary and books so that our children can attend school because in fact education is not yet free? After all the Straits Times’ profits are inflated because it enjoys a government monopoly through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.
I will finish up here by quoting from my piece on Rebecca Loh where I explained my use of the rice bowl metaphor:
“….Remember I wrote this in February 2011 two and a half years before Gabriel died. If it sounds prophetic it is not. I was only stating the facts of life under the PAP then and they have not changed. Here is what I said,
“Sometimes the rice bowl slips from our fingers and cracks or breaks through sheer ill luck. There will be precious little sympathy for you in a porcelain rice bowl State should you be foolish enough to be retrenched, to have elderly parents, a chronic or terminal illness, a child with special needs or to be caring for a mentally or physically challenged dependant.”