Looking forward to 2017: Social services

New laws to protect the weak

Education will be compulsory for those with moderate to severe special needs, starting with the Primary 1 cohort in 2019.
Education will be compulsory for those with moderate to severe special needs, starting with the Primary 1 cohort in 2019. ST FILE PHOTO

Early this year, The Straits Times reported on the case of an intellectually disabled man in his 50s. His son used cigarettes to burn him, bamboo poles to hit him, and tied his hands when he did not do as he was told.

This went on for at least 10 years before hospital staff spotted scores of cuts and bruises on the man.

The hope is that such victims can be helped much earlier, when the Vulnerable Adults Act is tabled in Parliament, likely next year.

It will give the state more power to protect disabled and infirm adults from abuse, allowing the authorities to intervene earlier. For instance, government agencies will be able to enter homes to assess a person's well-being, and to move a victim temporarily to safe places.

Currently, the agencies and the community cannot intervene if a family rejects help or denies them access to someone who they believe is a victim of abuse.

  • 2016: Notable moves

  • More support for unwed mothers

    Unwed mothers will get 16 weeks of maternity leave - the same as their married counterparts - instead of eight weeks. This takes effect from Jan 1, after the law was amended last month.

  • Compulsory education for special needs kids

    It was announced last month that children with moderate to severe special needs have to attend a government-funded special education school. This will start with the Primary 1 cohort in 2019.

  • KidStart scheme for vulnerable minors

    The Government set aside more than $20 million for KidStart, a three-year pilot scheme which will help about 1,000 disadvantaged children aged up to six. Started in July, it coordinates government and community resources to support the children in their health and learning.

  • More protection for mentally incapable

    Under the amended Mental Capacity Act, the courts can appoint professionals to make key decisions regarding the personal welfare or finances of mentally incapable people.

  • Measures to safeguard children in divorce

    In a key change to the Women's Charter in February, couples with children aged below 14 who want to split up but cannot agree on matters, such as co-parenting plans, have to go for a parenting programme. The programme started this month.

  • National road map for disability services

    Details of the third Enabling Masterplan, a road map for disability services, were released last week. The panel's recommendations include introducing a disability office to improve coordination among government agencies.

If introduced, the Act will be a key milestone on Singapore's social services calendar next year, along with the Early Childhood Development Centres Act, which will regulate childcare centres and kindergartens under the same framework. These now come under different Acts.

Besides having more consistent requirements across the two types of pre-schools, the new law will give the authorities more teeth to ensure that pre-schools uphold standards.

Both new pieces of legislation underscore how Singapore is moving decisively towards extending helping hands to those in need.

Another area of focus is to enhance coordination so that gaps in the net are minimised.

Over the past few years, the Government has ramped up the number of touchpoints that provide services, with more childcare centres and a network of 24 social service offices.

The network of offices, together with the 40-plus family service centres, means that 95 per cent of the island's needy residents now have access to help within 2km of where they live or work.

This year, several initiatives were started to help various disadvantaged groups at a more "upstream" stage, to improve the coordination and quality of social services (see other report).

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will also respond, likely within the next few months, to the recommendations made by a government-appointed expert panel in the third Enabling Masterplan, a road map for disability services from next year until 2021. The report was released last week.

The proposals focus on areas such as supporting disabled people as they progress from one life stage to another, for example, from school to work, and improving coordination across various sectors.

Besides new laws and measures, the MSF is likely to build on some initiatives started this year.

One of these is KidStart, a three-year pilot scheme started in July with the aim of helping 1,000 disadvantaged children aged up to six. More than $20 million has been set aside for the scheme, which works with hospitals, pre-schools and community partners.

For next year and beyond, one key challenge in the pre-school and social service sectors would be to improve service quality and make it consistent across service providers.

One way could be to centralise services, but this may squeeze out smaller organisations, and result in more costs borne by the Government if it has to take over the services. There is also a downside to standardisation and uniformity.

Another solution could be to hire more staff, though there is a need to ensure that new staff have the skills and qualifications needed.

One other way is to ensure quality through regulation.

But some rules, such as fines for administrative lapses, could be seen as overly punitive, especially in a sector that aims to improve people's welfare.

Different approaches may be needed to improve the quality of services for disadvantaged groups. But, for a start, improving coordination among the different players would create a tighter protection net, ensuring that those who need help do receive it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2016, with the headline 'New laws to protect the weak'. Print Edition | Subscribe