No lack of sophistry from the government concerning the homeless
Written by Ng E-Jay
29 April 2010
It appears that there is absolutely no lack of sophistry and intellectual dishonesty on the part of the PAP government concerning the homeless in Singapore.
It is widely noted that every nation has its share of homeless folk. But our government leaders, who insist on paying themselves multi-million dollar salaries independent of the wishes of the electorate, have thus far taken a reactive, rather than proactive approach in dealing with the situation.
Worse still, the government has engaged in repeated acts of chicanery and sophistry with regards to the homeless.
It is therefore the height of ludicrousness that Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, has recently slammed alternative media channels for selective reporting of the facts, when in reality it is the government’s abhorrent track record in addressing the social problems associated with the homeless in Singapore that should be put under intense scrutiny.
Is this a government that truly cares, or is this a government that merely wishes to save face and put up a show when the spotlight has been placed on it? My answer is unequivocally the latter.
The PAP government’s track record of taking a reactive rather than proactive approach regarding the homeless in Singapore
The PAP government has thus far taken a backseat, reactive approach to dealing with the homeless situation, as opposed to a proactive approach. It is both unfathomable and unconscionable, coming from a government that prides itself on being world-class.
Take for example the group of around 15 families who camped out in Sembawang Park for many months until January this year. No government department did anything to help them find appropriate shelter until The Online Citizen ran an article on them. (See here and here.)
A few days after the TOC article was run, officers from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and NParks, together with some 10 policemen, evicted the campers from Sembawang Park, citing that they had broken “rules and regulations”, even though most of them still had valid camping permits. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had himself visited the camping site earlier.
Two of the families were then escorted to Angsana Home, located at Buangkok Green, next to the Institute of Mental Health. The home is part of Pelangi Village, a purpose-built Social Welfare Complex that houses the elderly, destitute, and ex-drug addicts.
However, at the new facility, the families were not provided adequate food. A woman later lost her job because she was not permitted to leave the facility to go to work.
The homeless families were eventually relocated to Block 29 of Havelock Road, an HDB flat earmarked for demolition 7 years ago under the Selective En block Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). In the interim period, this block could have been used to provide shelter to homeless folk but had been used instead to generate income for the government by renting out to foreign students. (See here.)
Homelessness in Singapore is a symptom of the PAP government’s flawed housing policies
The stark reality is that much of the homelessness situation in Singapore is the doing of the PAP government, as its rigid and inflexible housing policies as well as overly bureaucratic machinery lead to many families falling through the cracks and finding themselves with nowhere to turn.
When families fall on hard times due to the economic downturn, sometimes they are late on their mortgage payments and HDB threatens to repossess the flat. Many choose to sell their flat in order to avoid repossession. Unfortunately, regulations prohibit such families from applying for a rental flat from HDB for a period of 30 months after the sale of their previous flat.
Even those families who qualify to apply for a HDB rental flat have to wait anywhere from 5.5 to 19 months before they are allocated a unit. In the meantime, they have no choice but to be homeless, because the PAP government has callously refused to provide ample social safety nets and temporary housing facilities for families who have fallen through the cracks. Families seeking help from their PAP MPs or from the HDB have to jump through hoops of thick bureaucracy and screening before they even have a chance of obtaining assistance. (See here and here.)
Exacerbating the plight of the homeless is the fact that the government continually turns public housing facilities that could be used to shelter them into profit making entities used to provide accommodation to foreign workers and foreign students instead. (See here.)
And while all this chicanery is occurring, the government still unrepentantly pursues policies that continually lead to escalating HDB flat prices which are forcing average Singaporeans out of their own market and which are also resulting in higher incidences of foreclosures and more cases of homelessness. (See here.)
PAP government declines interview invitation by Al Jazeera, then turns around to accuse Al Jazeera of biased reporting
As far as the issue of homelessness in Singapore is concerned, the PAP government has always been more pre-occupied with damage control and face-saving, rather than genuinely providing assistance to those who require it.
In March this year, Al Jazeera, the popular news agency based in the Middle East, was in Singapore to do a programme on the issue of homelessness here.
Al Jazeera had contacted MYCS to find out if they were willing to be interviewed and to provide the government’s position on the homelessness situation in Singapore. But after a few phone calls and email requests, the ministry turned down the interview invitation.
After stone-walling Al Jazeera, MCYS then discreetly sent officers to raid Changi Beach of the homeless families camping there. Some of them were fined $200 for breaking NParks’ regulations concerning outdoor campaing. (See here.)
The Changi Beach raid took place at a time when Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had boasted that the government will deliver free meals to the poor and that his ministry has done its duty “for the people who need our help.” (See here.)
Al Jazeera proceeded to do a documentary on the homeless in Singapore, entitled “Singapore policies force some onto streets“. It is uploaded on Youtube here.
On April 27 in Parliament, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan slammed Al Jazeera for not checking the facts about a couple it featured, who claimed they had been homeless for nearly two years following divorce proceedings. (See here.)
Dr Balakrishnan said the man had sold two direct-purchase subsidised HDB flats and one resale flat for a profit of $224,000, and that the woman owns another HDB resale flat with her former husband and has been getting financial assistance from the South West Community Development Council since last July. He also said that the couple had rejected an offer to be placed in a shelter and other services by his ministry.
“This is a clear example where the foreign media has failed to ascertain the facts,” Dr Balakrishnan said. “Even worse, some irresponsible websites had gone on to fuel these falsehoods by circulating this widely on the Internet. Now that the facts are out, let’s see whether these people … have the courage and the honesty to set the facts right.”
On speculation that negative reports by Al Jazeera were the reason it was taken off SingTel’s mio TV, Acting Minister for Information, Communications & the Arts RADM Lui Tuck Yew said: “I would say that this is not unexpected given their penchant for sensationalising such stories and being selective with the facts.”
Al Jazeera has responded to Dr Balakrishnan’s and RADM Lui’s allegations, saying that it stands by its report on the homeless in Singapore. (See here.)
Al Jazeera emphasized that “the homeless couple featured in our report were locked out of the system of state support because of bureaucratic regulation“, and that “the real point of story was to illustrate how the safety net in Singapore sometimes fails to catch those who have fallen on hard times – whatever their background – because of the rules governing access to assistance“.