SINGAPORE- A long-awaited law that allows the Government to step in and protect seniors and people with disabilities from abuse and neglect, was passed in Parliament on Friday (May 18).
The Vulnerable Adults Act will allow officials from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to enter private premises to assess a person's well-being.
It will also grant officials powers to temporarily relocate vulnerable adults to safe places such as shelters and disability homes.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee stressed that the law will be invoked only as a last resort in high-risk cases, where family and community interventions may not be effective.
"In cases like this, the Government must take a proactive approach and intervene early, as any delays may lead to further harm, or worse," he said, adding that the law must not replace the social work supporting vulnerable adults and their caregivers.
First first mooted in October 2014, the Bill was more than three years in the making.
On Friday, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh asked why it took so long.
Mr Lee said extensive consultations and studies were needed. "This Bill involves intrusive statutory intervention in the realm of family and personal matters, so we did not want to rush this."
The new law will accord protection to whistleblowers and professionals, in a move to encourage people to help vulnerable adults.
Among other things, it also raises the penalties for offences committed against vulnerable adults, to deter abuse and neglect.
Mr Lee said the law will allow MSF to step in to protect individuals like intellectually disabled waitress Annie Ee, 26, who was abused to death by her flatmates. Her case had sparked widespread outrage, due to the extent of abuse inflicted.
Twelve MPs spoke on the Bill on Friday. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) asked how a balance would be struck between intervening and violating a vulnerable adult's autonomy, while WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) voiced concern about possible overreach.
Mr Lee said a qualified assessor will determine if the vulnerable adult is physically or mentally incapable of protecting himself. An adult will only be removed if his safety and well-being have been compromised or are at risk, he added.
Replying to Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) and Dr Goh on why the Bill did not cover financial abuse, Mr Lee said MSF can step in when such abuse occurs alongside other forms of abuse and neglect that are already covered under the law.
He added that there are already other levers in place, such as other family members stepping forward to stop financial abuse. "For now, the Bill's focus is on physical and emotional abuse," he added.
Addressing Mr Seah Kian Peng's (Marine Parade GRC) suggestion of implementing a mandatory reporting system, Mr Lee said professionals were concerned that such laws may prevent abusers from seeking help for themselves or their victims, as they fear being taken to task.
Mandatory reporting laws in other countries have led to over-reporting, the minister added.
He emphasised that the new law will only be effective if everyone plays an active part. "Everyone... has a role to play to prevent vulnerable people from being abused, and to stop it if it happens."