The Sunday Times says

'Gotong royong' in social services

It has been 20 years since Community Development Councils were set up as umbrella grassroot bodies. CDCs were viewed then by the Government as "a return to the old community spirit of mutual help" (gotong royong), but new in that more state resources were given for their work.

To stay true to its name, the community was asked to pitch in with contributions, both financial and voluntary services. The hope was that deeper social bonding would take place when the successful help the needy; and when benefits flow from people to people, rather than from a faceless bureaucrat to an approved applicant. Such an approach has merit. When people simply associate vital help with schemes or centres bearing official-sounding names, a sense of gratitude is displaced by one of entitlement.

CDCs were initially asked to manage Medifund and Public Assistance cases. Over time, however, CDCs' social assistance officers were moved to Social Service Offices managed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. The rationale for this was to create one-stop centres for the needy (termed "citizen-centred social services"), so they would not need to go to different agencies when they are facing various difficulties.

From the efficiency angle, this move made sense. But being "citizen-centred" shouldn't just be about recipients. In the delivery of services, there's value in encouraging citizens to help their fellow citizens. By fostering interaction among people from all walks of life, CDCs have played a part in strengthening the social glue. They can keep doing so by playing new roles like helping citizens to embrace lifelong learning and skills upgrading, as was suggested recently. There are many government and NTUC schemes that people can now tap. Also valuable is the personal touch at the grassroot level when, for example, people help each other to make choices and learn.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline ''Gotong royong' in social services'. Print Edition | Subscribe