Singapore — Playwright Alfian Sa’at has weighed in on a viral post from earlier this week concerning an elderly dishwasher and her struggle to make ends meet, a matter which the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) sought to clarify in a Facebook post on Thursday (July 30).
The ministry wrote that the elderly woman, Mdm L, a permanent resident, lives with and is provided for by her son’s family and that she works in order to supplement her other needs. She was visited by its Social Service Office (SSO) staff to see how they could help her further.
The post also explained that she earns “S$675 for working part-time in 4-hour shifts (or about S$6.50/hr)” as her income was reduced by nearly half due the Covid-19 pandemic, but she will be reemployed on a full-time basis when business picks up again.
The ministry is seeing if she qualifies for the Covid-19 Support Grant, an amount between S$500 and S$800 per month to make up for her wage loss, and added that she will be given S$120 food vouchers by grassroots organisations for six months, and that arrangements for aid for her medical expenses are also being made.
It added: “We appreciate the effort of members of the public in reaching out to those who seem to be in need. However, posting and sharing their circumstances on social media may lead to further distress for these vulnerable groups of people and their families. Such posts may not correctly reflect the circumstances of vulnerable groups of people, who may be elderly, or may not share all the details accurately because of the stressors they are facing.”
It was reported that Mdm L was distressed by all the unwanted attention she received after the post about her went viral.
Mr Alfian wrote that he believes that the man who wrote the original post about Mdm L had done so in good faith, pointing out that he did not hide any details about his identity.
He added: “How many would have accompanied her to her destination to ensure that she would not get lost? How many of us would have taken the time to listen to an elderly person’s story? We are urbanites, we pass by numerous people without knowing their stories, and for many of us the guy became our proxy. What if one day we stopped to listen, what if the veil was lifted and we realised the poverty in plain sight?”
The man who posted about the elderly woman received considerable backlash online as he was accused of being critical of the government’s social support schemes, with some people even writing to his employers to complain about him.
Mr Alfian wrote: “I wasn’t sure why there was so much blowback against the story. Was it because they didn’t like the idea that one might hitch an argument for the minimum wage on a supposed sob story? (And yet I remember a minister in the recent elections breaking down as he told a story of his mother saving and scrimping— to justify why we had to hold on to our reserves for the next generation).
“Or was it just a knee-jerk response to a belief that everyone is cared for in Singapore, and if they aren’t, then it’s their fault for not qualifying for help, and not the fault of the state for imposing those criteria for qualification? Why didn’t these people save enough, why did they keep selling their houses, why have so many children, why didn’t they try to get citizenship, etc?”
He said that some details of the woman did indeed ring true. “She works 4-hour shifts for $6.50 an hour. (Her claim was $5 an hour, so that could be her take-home pay after CPF deduction.)
“She does not qualify for various welfare schemes … as she is a non-citizen. Her son did pass away during an SAF training exercise .… While MSF is ‘arranging for her to get some help for her medical expenses’, it is silent on whether she did undergo multiple savings-depleting surgeries in the past.”
He added: “I really think there needs to be a balance between trying to ensure faith in the system (the institutional reputation of MSF) and ensuring faith in the stories that the poor and vulnerable tell us.”
The playwright also said that while verifying the facts of the stories we hear is needful, there is a danger that Singaporeans will listen to such stories with scepticism rather than compassion.
“In the torrent of that outpouring maybe some facts get tangled. I worry that with every high-profile gotcha ‘correction’ issued, we learn the habit of listening with scepticism instead of listening with compassion. If that is not already the habit.” /TISG