Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Vivian B and the destitute

Lending the Poor a Helping Hand

By Dr Wong Wee Nam


10 March 2011

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan disappoints me. In a recent debate in Parliament with Dr Lily Neo he could have done much better. But he didn’t.

The MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Dr Lily Neo, had urged the minister to provide a permanent and constructive safety net so as to improve the plight of the children from the lowest income families. The request was not unreasonable. She was not asking for much, just help for the neediest of families; the children of those in the bottom 5 percent of earners.

Such a plea has always been close to my heart. It is becoming even more necessary now. In Singapore, the policy of profits and gains has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Amongst the developed countries, Singapore has the highest level of inequality. With inflation, increased cost of living and depression of wages, the people in the lowest income sector of population are finding it harder and harder to cope. This means that the people who will ultimately suffer will be the children of those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder.

We know income inequality is related to crime, poor physical health, suicides, mental illness, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, violence, social immobility, poor education and lack of trust in the community. If we do not take affirmative action to help these children, many will be condemned to live out their lives in such undesirable social milieu.

For this reason, this is something to be concerned about and some concrete plans need to be in place to address this.

Yet in his reply to Dr Neo, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, instead of saying he would give the problem a thought, chose to highlight the various existing schemes that are already in place which the MP for Jalan Besar GRC rightly pointed out had not worked.

He then when on to reiterate the government’s position on helping the needy and that is to “avoid a permanent, unconditional, needs-based social safety net.” In simple English, it means there is no need for any kind of permanent, unconditional social safety net for the needy. The problem of helping the needy, as he explained, is first and foremost, the job of the social workers and not the politicians.

In other words, Dr Lily Neo should have brought up the problem of the needy to the social workers and not to the minister. Is the minister trying to say a politician should not be bothered with such problems and just leave such social concerns to the social workers?

Come on, minister, the politicians’ job is to solve problems that affect sectors of the population and leave the social workers to handle only individual cases. That’s what we elect and pay politicians to do.

When asked to reconsider giving resources to the vulnerable group that are really in need, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s reply was, “I just want to reaffirm that we do allocate more resources for people who need more help.”

What kind of vague answer is that? What are the resources allocated? Who are the people who needed more help who had benefitted? Surely not the needy people in the lowest 5% that Dr Lily Neo was talking about, otherwise she wouldn’t be complaining, would she? Or is the minister trying to tell us there is a stratum that is even lower than the lowest 5% that the ministry is allocating resources to?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is in charge of Community Development. He should realize the importance of leveling up when we are faced with an increasingly unequal society. It is not only good for the individual concerned; it is also good for the country.

Research has shown that greater equality makes societies stronger. Closer equality promotes trust that bond the community together. It makes a country more cohesive, more united and more resilient.

The money spent on helping the poorest of poor would certainly be more beneficial for the soul of society than hundreds of millions of dollars so generously lavished on a now-forgotten Youth Olympic Games.

In the 19th Century, Alexis Tocqueville, the French political and historian had observed that difference in living standards is a formidable barrier to empathy.

It is heartening to note that there are still people like Dr Lily Neo whose empathy had refused to be barred.

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