To tackle the issue, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been leading an inter-agency effort called Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce (Uplift) since 2018. There are several initiatives under Uplift, one of which is the Uplift Community Pilot.
How does this initiative help children from disadvantaged backgrounds? A key element is the Uplift Family Befrienders. Ms Anjali Kumar and Mr Aiyadurai Rajeevan share their experiences helping two families cope.
She inspires with compassion
Ms Anjali Kumar is often deeply moved by the people she meets in the course of her volunteer work.
It is clear from the quiver in her voice. The 44-year-old, who is a senior technical trainer in a software company, becomes emotional talking about the plight of families and children.
One such family is that of housewife Nadia (not her real name), 44, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Her husband, Mr Hassan (not his real name), 48, has digestive system issues after a surgery last year. His body is weak because of his illness and it is preventing him from working long hours.
Of the couple’s six children, aged between eight and 21, three have special needs, which has resulted in them often being absent from school.
The youngest and fourth child suffer from a sleep disorder, with the latter also being diagnosed with dyslexia. The fifth child is unable to attend school regularly due to stomach issues.
Ms Nadia’s children are among a small group of children who tend to miss school due to personal and family difficulties.
In a parliamentary session in February this year, the Education Ministry said that other reasons for long-term absenteeism include a desire to earn an income rather than study, negative peer influence outside of school, and difficulties coping with studies leading to a lack of motivation to continue schooling.
But the numbers have remained low. For the past three years, the number of secondary school students who were absent from school for more than half the school year was at three per 1,000 students.
In Ms Nadia’s case, the family is struggling financially. Mr Hassan lost his job as a lorry driver when the pandemic struck last year, and is now trying to find work as a ride-sharing driver.
Things changed for the better when the family was introduced to Ms Anjali.
Ms Anjali, a mother of two, was searching for a meaningful way to give back to society during the pandemic.
When browsing the national volunteering portal volunteer.gov.sg, she came across an opportunity to be an Uplift Family Befriender and decided to apply.
Her application was successful and, after completing a two-month basic training programme, she was assigned to Ms Nadia’s family by the Town-Level Coordinator (TLC) in the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Social Service Office.
Speaking about the Government’s efforts to help students from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, at a Civil Service College event on Monday, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said: “We will also mobilise the public and community resources to provide greater support at the family level, as family problems can have outsized impact on a child’s attendance and engagement at school.
“The Uplift Community Pilot in four towns, which brings together schools, community partners and Government agencies, has seen an improvement in attendance for eight in 10 of the students. We will further strengthen this programme, together with other support.”
Drawing on her experience
Ms Anjali was drawn to this volunteering opportunity because she felt that her experience as a mother and her profession as a trainer could come in useful in tutoring children.
“Being a mother of two daughters, an 18-year-old teenager and a seven-year-old primary school-going child, I can relate to the challenges the parents may have with their children and the kind of support they want,” she says.
One of Uplift’s key strategies is about strengthening after-school care for those who do not have support, says Ms Anjali.
Helping the less fortunate has always been important to Ms Anjali. In India, where she is originally from, she regularly volunteers at an elderly home and orphanages in New Delhi.
Since moving to Singapore with her family six years ago, she has been volunteering with non-profit organisation Man Fut Tong Welfare Society, delivering meals to homes of the elderly, and the Lions Befrienders where she takes the elderly for medical check-ups.
Despite being highly motivated, Ms Anjali did have some initial reservations working with Ms Nadia’s family.
Coming from a different cultural background, Ms Anjali was unsure how the family would react to her.
“I did not know whether I would be accepted by the family and gain their trust enough (for them) to share their concerns and (tell me) what is stopping the children from going to school.
“There was also the worry about whether I would be able to do justice to the role as a befriender, given that I’m someone from a different culture.”
But her fears were allayed when she met the family in January — they were more welcoming than she expected.
She tried to break the ice by making small talk with the children in English, and when the mother saw that the children were talking to Ms Anjali, she opened up too.
Since then, Ms Anjali has paid visits to their home in Marsiling at least once a month until recent Covid-19 restrictions in May led them to hold meetings over Zoom.
So far, she has tutored the children, both face-to-face and online, and has lent a listening ear to Ms Nadia. Ms Anjali also guided Ms Nadia, who previously worked as a cook at a restaurant, on where to look for work-from-home jobs so that she could continue caring for her children.
The volunteer and the family have established such a level of trust that when Ms Anjali meets the family online, the children eagerly greet her and open up about their day.
When Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed, Ms Anjali plans to teach the eldest son some basic coding skills as he is keen to work in the IT sector.
“It’s about getting them to be independent rather than just helping them with groceries and finances,” she says.
Ms Anjali knows that she alone cannot provide quick-fix solutions to the family’s financial problems or provide for all their household needs.
So she regularly updates the TLC on the changes in the family’s situation. The TLC will then coordinate efforts among relevant government and social service agencies to provide the family with more targeted support.
Her experience has encouraged her husband to sign up as an Uplift Family Befriender too. The client manager in the financial sector, who completed his training in April, believes it will be an “enriching experience”.
For now, Ms Anjali is grateful she can plan her volunteering activities around her job, which involves shift work, and that her daughters are old enough to manage on their own.
But what’s more important to her is that her values of compassion and concern for the less privileged are imbibed by her children.
Commenting on the programme, she says she is encouraged by the support Singapore offers to its citizens.
He inspires with positivity
Mr Aiyadurai Rajeevan has been a befriender to Mr Ashraf (not his real name), 35, and his family since they met.
Their first meeting last November saw Mr Rajeevan, 35, an IT professional, filling in forms to enrol five of Mr Ashraf’s children in tuition classes conducted by Mendaki, a self-help group for the Malay-Muslim community.
It was a great start, says Mr Rajeevan, a senior technical leader in software development, as it helped establish that he was there to help.
As someone who regularly volunteers with children, Mr Rajeevan, who is married with a four-year-old son, was looking out for more opportunities to give back to the community amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, he chanced upon the Uplift Family Befriender recruitment on volunteer.gov.sg.
The minimum six-month commitment period appealed to him because he would have more time to journey and progress with a family.
The children are the future, he says, and that motivates him.
“I want to do my bit to help them when they are still young, support them in their studies and for the betterment of their families.
“Doing so helps me gain personal experience, understand the dynamics of the community and gain the skills to also help people in my life. It’s a win-win situation,” he adds.
Mr Rajeevan signed up as an Uplift Family Befriender last August, and after undergoing basic training, he was assigned to Mr Ashraf and his wife Farah (not her real name), 34, who live in a 2-room rental Housing Board flat in Kreta Ayer.
The couple has six children, aged between 10 months and 14 years. The oldest is in Primary 4, while four are in Primary 3. The family had lived in Johor Baru for about 10 years, before returning to Singapore in 2019.
The children had difficulty adjusting to the academic level in Singapore, particularly in English. It has also led to them being absent frequently when they first started school.
“The children could not speak English well when we first came back but the school has really helped them a lot and their English is improving,” says Mr Ashraf.
They used to skip school due to peer pressure and fear of exams. But since enrolling in English and Mathematics tuition classes by Mendaki, they have improved and are more motivated to learn.
“Now, they look forward to attending school and don’t want to miss it.”
Mr Rajeevan agrees: “Since the children started attending school more frequently, they also saw improvement in their exam results.”
During his monthly visits, Mr Rajeevan helps the children with their schoolwork, listens to them and offers emotional support.
As a father himself, he is aware that it takes time to understand children.
“It is all about trying to understand their point of view, letting them know they can speak openly with me and approach me for help with anything,” he says.
He also taught them how to navigate Microsoft programs and to use video-conferencing platform Zoom, which came in handy for home-based learning.
Mr Ashraf feels Mr Rajeevan's help has a positive impact on the family.
“He is very close to the children and they are always excited to talk to him over the phone,” says Mr Ashraf.
As his children improve in their studies, Mr Ashraf is keen to look for other opportunities for himself. He is the sole breadwinner and has been working as a food delivery rider since the start of last year.
He aims to find a job in the logistics sector and has also enrolled for driving lessons. He completed his final theory test in June.
Ms Farah, who used to work as a cook, is also eager to start her own home business and was referred to the Micro Business Programme offered by AMP Singapore, a charitable organisation for the Muslim community.
About Uplift, Mr Rajeevan says: “I’m glad that various government agencies are coming together to enhance the lives of needy students and their families so they can progress in life. And that I can do my part to contribute to a good cause.”
Organisations and individuals interested to contribute to Uplift efforts can write in to MOE_UPLIFT@moe.gov.sg. Look out for volunteering opportunities to be Uplift Family Befrienders on volunteer.gov.sg.
This concludes a four-part series in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.