SINGAPORE: The Government will provide free food and drinks for vulnerable families in the heartlands as part of a new islandwide initiative, South West District Mayor Low Yen Ling said in Parliament on Thursday (Feb 27).
“Community Development Councils (CDC) have been working together for a while to launch an islandwide initiative to provide meals in the heartlands for vulnerable families,” she said in her Budget debate speech.
“The upcoming free meals and drinks schemes will be redeemable at participating coffee shops, food courts and heartland enterprises. Details are currently being worked out and will be released in due course.”
The initiative comes after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in his Budget speech on Feb 18 that CDCs will get a S$20 million boost to do more for the community.
The fund injection is part of a S$1.6 billion Care and Support Package to help Singaporeans with household expenses amid the economic slowdown and COVID-19 outbreak.
READ: Budget 2020: S$1.6 billion Care and Support Package to help Singaporeans with household expenses
The new initiative will complement the package and bring business to heartland food joints and coffee shops that have been hit by the economic slowdown, said Ms Low, who is also the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower.
“In the past few years, some constituencies have been working with heartland businesses and retailers to meet the nutritional needs of low-income families,” she added.
“The mayors welcome the S$20 million injection of funds, which will provide additional resources for us to scale up these efforts across the nation and reach out to more of those in need, as well as boost the support for local businesses and heartland enterprises.”
Ms Low expects the meals in the heartlands initiative to benefit 100,000 vulnerable families, stating that each CDC will administer the scheme accordingly to meet the needs of residents.
“Being able to have a decent meal is a form of security and support key to boosting the resilience of families in need,” she said.
Currently, each of the five CDCs has schemes to provide meals for those in need. For instance, the North West CDC maintains a food aid fund to distribute food vouchers, cooked food and food rations to the vulnerable.
MORE HELP FOR LOWER-WAGE FAMILIES
Ms Low was speaking after some Members of Parliament (MP) stressed the need to help vulnerable communities.
For example, Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun described from experience how children from poor families who received monthly food goodie bags saw improved grades after parents used the leftover money for transport to school.
Beyond financial measures like GST and grocery vouchers, however, Professor Lim urged for more systematic mentorship for less advantaged children so they can be inspired by those who have overcome similar circumstances.
“We therefore need to invest strategically in more after-school programmes, where students from lower income families are offered targeted academic support and career guidance in order to bridge the privilege gap,” she said.
When it comes to inequality, fellow Nominated MP Walter Theseira said the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to hurt the livelihoods of those who already live "precarious economic lives".
One solution, Associate Professor Theseira said, was to pay and respect low-wage workers better, as he highlighted how major companies like SMRT and Capitaland have restructured and reduced the wages of senior management staff amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“They are important not just for the morale of frontline staff, who may yet face cost-cutting measures, but they also send a signal that the risks and costs of COVID-19 should be socially distributed,” he said.
Assoc Prof Theseira said more efforts this year should go to protecting and increasing the wages of lower-paid Singaporeans by “restraining and restructuring” the wages of the more fortunate, including MPs.
“Let me suggest that this year, we orient all efforts towards protecting and even increasing the wages of lower-paid Singaporeans, and paying for it by restraining and restructuring the wages of those higher up – which would include, I would suggest, Honourable Members as leaders in their own professions,” he added.
SUPPORTING PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
Meanwhile, other MPs said more could also be done for those with special needs.
This is despite the new Enabling Employment Credit scheme, also announced during the Budget, which offers wage offsets for firms employing persons with disabilities.
Mr Heng had said that the Enabling Employment Credit will replace the current Special Employment Credit and Additional Special Employment Credit schemes, which provide wage offsets for employers who hire persons with disabilities for less than S$4,000 a month.
Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Darryl David suggested that “more direct incentives” for companies, such as tax rebates, could “provide a strong impetus” for them to offer “fair and equal employment opportunities” for everyone.
MP for Jurong GRC Rahayu Mahzam noted that there was still a “lack of awareness” on the types of support available for families with children who have special needs.
She suggested customising the support to make it “more meaningful”, as each family has different circumstances. One family, for instance, may have more than one child with special needs, and thus requires more support.
MP for Fengshan Cheryl Chan pointed out that affordable legal support and a more streamlined search process for assistance schemes would also be beneficial, as “some may have disabilities or are cognitively challenged to handle legal matters on their own when their legal guardians are no longer with them”.
“Having trusted parties who have a long-standing relationship with them and being able to defend their interests, are crucial for those with special needs,” she said, adding that support should be provided throughout their lives.
"There seems to be a lack of in-depth lifecycle planning support pillars for people with special needs from childhood to adulthood to old age."
Ms Chan said this has to start by “allowing (persons with disabilities) to be a part of our community from young”.
For instance, pre-schools and schools should educate children to embrace differences and welcome those with special needs, while individuals should be “more gracious, accepting and forgiving” to families who have children with disabilities.
“There is no need for cold stares, harsh words or social media commentaries of any special needs individuals,” she added.
Mdm Rahayu said the infrastructure and services for persons with disabilities could also be “more pervasive and accessible” to families, highlighting that some of such facilities, like the Enabling Village in Bukit Merah, might be too far away for some.
“One theme that repeatedly comes up from the feedback from parents and family members is the need to build a culture of care and compassion towards persons with disabilities,” she said.
“There is therefore, a fervent hope that the Government continues to make effort to create awareness, build infrastructure and implement policies that would normalise inclusiveness and allow for people with different needs and abilities to be truly embraced as part of the community.”
Ms Low said the “fresh resources” and specific measures provided by this year’s Budget mean the Government is “closing ranks” with fellow Singaporeans.
“Although the months ahead may hold uncertainties, we can be sure on the ground the five CDCs are fortifying the network of support across the heartlands and strengthening our local businesses, vulnerable families and Singaporean workers,” she said.