SINGAPORE - When a parent often cannot pay his child's pre-school fees, that could indicate that the family faces some problems. But even if the pre-school is aware of this, it may not know how to follow up.
Having a coordinated system in which such warning signs are flagged earlier could help authorities intervene earlier.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is looking into this, to better help vulnerable groups - one of three key priorities that MSF will focus on.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, the former Manpower Minister who took over MSF on April 9, said the other two areas are building stronger families and promoting volunteerism.
In his first sit-down interview on Monday in his new capacity, he said MSF is working with the Health and Education Ministries to get data, find patterns to identify vulnerable children and intervene earlier.
This is to "bring them on an even footing... so that they're not disadvantaged because of circumstances", he said.
"Upstream work could mean a world of difference to the possibilities. Not doing some of this will not mean that every child (in such circumstances) therefore is destined to fair poorly, but the probabilities are there. For some, it will be a lifetime of social challenges."
He acknowledged that some may disagree with this approach of early intervention.
"Do you become over-zealous... too much of a nanny state to intervene when perhaps you really shouldn't? But that's where we need to determine how we view these issues. Perhaps by taking steps earlier, could I actually prevent the situation from deteriorating? We're talking about lives here."
While he did not say when these plans would be implemented, he said: "Work is already ongoing and rather than wait till everything is fully cooked... we may want to perhaps push it out faster, and then experiment and learn as we go along."
He also hopes to see better coordination among the different groups that provide help.
He said: "One of the things that gets in the way is actually confidentiality... We protect individuals' data quite seriously and sometimes, there are challenges getting data from different ministries. But when you can't share, it means you may not be as effective as you should be."
Families are changing, he noted. For instance, more one-person households of childless, divorced or widowed individuals are emerging.
So, for some policies which limit the definition of family to immediate family members, "we may need to redefine some of these parameters", to make it easier for people to support their relatives, he said.
"Where does family start and where does it end, especially when these (family) structures unravel? I'm not sure it's something for the Government to pronounce. Society needs to grapple with these issues because it reflects our sense of values and it has ramifications for policies ."
He also wants to have more people involved in volunteering. Some are reluctant to do so as they feel that they are not trained or cannot commit their time, he said.
So one way to get them involved could be creating avenues in which they can volunteer "in a fairly straightforward manner, because there's a lot of work done that actually doesn't need trained personnel to do", such as befriending the elderly.
And helping others benefits the volunteers themselves too, he said.
He recalled how meaningful his soldiers found working with prison inmates to pack goodie bags for National Day celebrations in 2009, which he helped organise.
Referring to a recent viral video of elderly abuse, he encouraged people to report such cases to the authorities.
"If in doubt, err on the side of being a bit more kiasu... Step forward. When you identify individuals who seem to need help, talk to them.
"If you can get details and if you feel that it sounds like this individual needs help, let us know. That's really important because we will follow up on every of these cases."