The ageing of Singapore society will see a rise in the number of vulnerable seniors unable to fend for themselves. For those with no family support, the state and the community must step into the breach. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Social and Family Development is piloting a service where social workers help to manage the finances of seniors who are losing their mental faculties. Such schemes need to be handled with care because they involve non-relatives taking decisions once reserved for close family members. Yet, the need is pressing. Last year, 47,400 seniors aged 65 and older lived alone, about double the number in 2006, and the figure is projected to swell to 61,000 in 2020 and 83,000 in 2030. Some of these seniors may have family but many do not.
Rapid demographic change means that the social sector will have to keep innovating so as to address emerging needs arising from trends such as lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates and a rise in the share of the elderly living alone or as couples. At the same time, Singapore has reached a stage in its development where there is greater interest and desire for ways to better protect society's most vulnerable members. The grim reality is that there are those who have no qualms about taking advantage of the weak for personal gain or about acting out in anger against them. The elderly and those with disabilities have suffered as a result. Those are two groups that would receive special protection if the Vulnerable Adults Bill were to be passed into law .
Also, the Court of Appeal has asked Parliament to give the courts enhanced powers to mete out tougher sentences in cases where the offender commits certain crimes against the vulnerable, especially children. The recent request of the apex court was in its grounds of judgment for a case that saw a woman abuse her four-year-old son so violently that he died. Two decades ago, Parliament did indeed enact legislation which identified a certain class of criminal action as deserving of harsher punishment. The group to which it sought to extend special protection then consisted of foreign domestic workers.
It has been said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. By that measure, Singapore is on the right track in extending state protection to those who most need it. However, while the Singapore state has wide reach, the responsibility of protecting the vulnerable is not one that it can shoulder alone, or would want to. All who call Singapore home have to step forward to play their part, whether by looking out for weaker members in their midst, by being family to those who have no family of their own, or by helping to change attitudes that cause the strong to believe that they can exploit the weak. The law can strengthen an enabling framework of deterrence, but it is people who must remain vigilant.