Expanding family excellence circles

It is a matter of concern that about two-thirds of low-income Malay households do not seek help from social services. Explaining the reasons for the misplaced reticence, the study that revealed this astonishing fact cited a lack of awareness of available schemes and the fear of stigmatisation.

The first reason could be addressed through making more information available to families at risk, so that they know where to turn in a crisis. Since some households are deterred by the need to fill up several forms, a database of needy families, that includes the latest information on them, would help social security officials to expedite assistance. The key task is for the Government and voluntary welfare organisations to intervene before the financial and family situation becomes precarious.

It is the second reason that is more problematic. The fear of stigmatisation is a sign of the dignity these families possess. Their attitude is markedly different from the welfare dependency mindset in societies where reaching out to the state has become a habit of first resort and an increasingly unsustainable fiscal burden. However, Malay families should not go to the other extreme of viewing the need for assistance as reflecting poorly on themselves and, worse, on the self-esteem of their community. There is no pride in falling into a poverty trap that is avoidable. The more this happens, the more the community will suffer and, with it, the nation.

It is here that family excellence circles make a cultural difference. Consisting of parents in similar circumstances, these social support networks enable low-income Malay families to assist one another. The spirit of self-help in these 45 groups keeps community pride intact while encouraging families to participate more fully in the education of their children, instead of denying the reality of challenges in self-inflicted despair. The peer pressure that exists subtly in the groups acts as an added incentive in motivating members and preventing them from giving up. At a practical level, the circles have contributed to the pooling of resources, such as after- school care.

The initiative furthers Malay-Muslim self-help group Yayasan Mendaki's overall mission of advancing the community's interests through excellence in education. Educational achievement and expectations empower the young for the employment market and enhance their prospects of social mobility - a matter that Singaporeans as a whole have a stake in.

The effectiveness of the circles points to their utility in preventing the formation of an underclass within other communities as well. People helping each other can represent a powerful force for change.