Efforts to address challenges of vulnerable groups have to be more determined than in the past: Panel

There are still poor, lonely, isolated and struggling people, but addressing these issues are more difficult today. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - On a recent home visit with one of his social workers, Mr Samuel Ng, chief executive of charity Montfort Care, came across a family of 13 crammed into a rental flat.

The head of the household was a woman in her 80s, who was taking care of her six-year-old grandson after his parents had run away, he said.

The child was still using a pacifier and did not know how to talk yet. Mr Ng and the social worker advised the woman to send the child to a pre-school while offering other support for the family.

Thirty years ago, when he first stepped into social work, he had encountered similar cases, Mr Ng said. Then, everyone's educational qualifications were not as high and the child could catch up once given a boost.

"The six-year-old from back then, we would be able to help easily. But 30 years later, it's much harder... A six-year-old today who doesn't know anything, it's very difficult for him compared to his peers," he said.

When people ask him about the challenges that vulnerable groups face, the problems are still the same as 30 years ago - people are poor, lonely or isolated, while families struggle with divorce or domestic violence - but addressing them is more difficult today, he said.

Society has progressed so quickly, but the vulnerable groups remain - so the effort required to help push them along has to be even more determined, he added.

Mr Ng was speaking at a dialogue organised by government feedback unit Reach and Chinese-language evening paper Shin Min Daily News on the topic of the challenges faced by vulnerable groups in society.

It is the second of a three-part series, with the first being on women's development and the next one to be on sustainability.

Joining Mr Ng on the panel was Mr Eric Chua, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth and Social and Family Development; and Mr Toh Soon Huat, chairman of social service agency Sian Chay Medical Institution. The dialogue, attended by 83 participants and held at the News Centre auditorium in Toa Payoh, was conducted in Mandarin.

Mr Chua said the way help is delivered today has also evolved over the years. Previously, social service offices would wait for those who need help to make the approach. Today, officers proactively reach out to the vulnerable groups, such as by conducting home visits at rental blocks.

"If we don't go proactively looking for them, the vicious circle will continue," he said.

But the problems remain complex, and the Government has to work very closely with its community partners - charities, social service agencies and the like - as they are the ones who engage closely with the vulnerable households and build a relationship with them, said Mr Chua.

He added that as Singapore moves towards the next stage of progress and development, "all the more we need to go from the broadcast to the narrowcast and... provide a more personalised and customised approach to helping people".

In response to a question from the audience on whether it is possible to eradicate poverty, Mr Chua said that on a micro level, it is definitely possible - if all stakeholders work together and the family itself has the will to get out of the poverty cycle.

On a macro level, it is more difficult, he said - sometimes out of 10 families, five or six may have been helped, but another two or three might then fall into dire straits.

He said: "Can we fully eradicate poverty? As Mr Ng said, not possible, but my answer is that we must make an effort."

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