Mr Lee is a 60 year old Singaporean who has not been able work for a few years. He injured his hand a few years ago and it is now permanently swollen. He cannot hold heavy things and can only grip objects very lightly. Mr Lee had asked if he could go for an operation to reduce the swelling but doctors said that it would not be possible. I asked Mr Lee about his medical bills – fortunately, because he cannot work and has no other form of financial support or savings, he was able to go under Medifund.
Mr Lee has only $2,000 in his CPF account, and he is waiting to withdraw it when he turns 62. $2,000 would be very little for retirement. This is because he had earned very low wages before he became disabled, and thus have accumulated little in his CPF. Since Mr Lee is effectively unable to obtain any gainful employment due to his medical condition which is apparently a permanent one – we suggest that he approach his MP and the CPF Board to allow him to withdraw his entire CPF account balance, under the permanent total disability provision. In this connection, we estimate that only about 1 in 8 Singaporeans may be able to meet the CPF Minimum Sum.
Currently, Mr Lee is only receiving social assistance of $250 every month. The rent for his one-room rental flat is currently waived. When asked how much he would need every month to use, he said that he would need $350. As we continued chatting, he shared further that even $500 isn’t enough – We think most Singaporeans would be able to attest to this. It is perhaps sad that even though Mr Lee needs more help, but since he believes that he knows the maximum financial assistance that one can receive for a single person like him – he had thus chosen to downplay his monetary needs. In fact, Mr Lee said that he doesn’t even meet his friends often nowadays as he said that they would ask him if he was wanting to meet them so that he could borrow money from them again.
In this regard, we would like to suggest greater transparency of disclosure as to what is the maximum monthly financial assistance for a single unemployed (due to medical condition) person like Mr Lee, on top of the HDB flat rental waiver and eligibility for Medifund?
When we asked Mr Lee what else he thinks could be done for him, Mr Lee was initially mum about it, but when another volunteer at the event (organised by the Happy People Helping People and Projek Sahabat to distribute free food and food packs on 16 February 2014 to the elderly who were collecting cardboard boxes and empty drink cans at Lorong 7 Toa Payoh Blk 15) that he could be open with us, Mr Lee shared that he does not expect society to help him. He said this repeatedly. However, in Mr Lee’s current state, it would be difficult for him to get a job, so how is he able to survive, if he does not get enough assistance? In fact, this was similar to other remarks we heard several times over the day – that older Singaporeans didn’t believe that society would help them.
On reflection – after all, these are elderly Singaporeans who in spite of their circumstance, toil daily to eke out a living collecting cardboard boxes at 10 cents a kilo to make as little as about $5 a day. There were also two elderly men who were in wheelchairs, and we understand from another volunteer that both of them are still working as garang guni men. Shocked, we asked how they were able to. Apparently, they would wheel themselves around to collect items from others.
We managed to talk to Mr Lee further as he was about to leave and videoed him. He shared that he is single (it was already tough for him on his own, so how would he be able to support someone else, he shared) and the current social assistance that he would receive would run out after April this year.
In this respect, we would like to suggest that whilst it is understandable that financial assistance cannot be expected to be provided for long periods without an end date and the need for review – there could be more sensitive communication to financial assistance recipients regarding the “end date”, so as not to “over-alarm” their anxiety about the continuance of their financial assistance. In our volunteer work doing financial counselling over the last decade or so, we have come across many needy Singaporeans who expressed their dismay and concern about the perceived fact that there is an end date to financial assistance.
And in light of how the richest 20% in Singapore actually earns as much as the poorest 80% in Singapore, one wonders why it is that all of us are Singaporeans but we live such unequal lives. Indeed, are all Singaporeans equal, but some are more equal than others (read: The Animal Farm book)?
Though we wonder – for people like Mr Lee who are unable to work and who are so poor, what else can we do to help Mr Lee? When there are occasional events where there is free food, this can help to defray Mr Lee’s costs. However, this isn’t a sustainable solution. A representative from Project Sahabat had shared that he hopes that if only higher-income Singaporeans would donate a portion of their wages regularly, we would be able to reach out to more Singaporeans. That sounds like a possibility. We would like to see a more progressive tax structure with a more redistributive mechanism which would allow all Singaporeans to access public services more equitably and be able to retire respectably.
Though what else can be done, in light of the current situation we are in.
In this regard, other than the financial counselling suggestions that we have mentioned above, we would be grateful for any suggestions or advice, as to how else Mr Lee specifically, or people like Mr Lee may be helped further?
Roy Ngerng and Leong Sze Hian