When a parent often cannot pay his child's pre-school fees, that could indicate the family is facing some problems. And even if the pre- school is aware of this, it may not know how to follow up on the case.
Having a coordinated system in which such warning signs are flagged earlier could help the authorities to intervene earlier.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is looking into this issue, to better help vulnerable groups - one of three key priorities.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who took over MSF on April 9, on Monday said the other areas are building stronger families and promoting volunteerism.
In his first sit-down interview in his new capacity, Mr Tan said MSF is working with the Health and Education ministries to get data, find patterns to identify vulnerable children and intervene earlier.
This is to "bring them on an even footing... so they're not disadvantaged because of circumstances".
"Upstream work could mean a world of difference to the possibilities. Not doing some of this will not mean that every child (in such circumstances) therefore is destined to fare poorly, but the probabilities are there. For some, it will be a lifetime of social challenges."
He acknowledged that some may disagree with this approach. "Do you become over-zealous... too much of a nanny state...? But that's where we need to determine how we view these issues.
"Perhaps by taking steps earlier, could I actually prevent the situation from deteriorating? We're talking about lives here."
He did not indicate when these plans would be implemented, but did say that "work is ongoing and rather than wait till everything is fully cooked... we may want to perhaps push it out faster, and then experiment and learn as we go along".
The former manpower minister also hopes to see better coordination among the different groups that provide help.
He said: "One of the things that gets in the way is confidentiality... We protect individuals' data... and sometimes, there are challenges getting data from different ministries. But when you can't share, it means you may not be as effective as you should be."
Families are changing, he added, noting more one-person households of childless, divorced or widowed individuals are emerging.
So, for some policies which limit the definition of family to immediate members, "we may need to redefine some of these parameters", to make it easier for people to support their relatives, he said.
"Where does family start and where does it end... I'm not sure it's something for the Government to pronounce. Society needs to grapple with these issues because it reflects our sense of values and it has ramifications for policies ."
He also wants to have more people volunteering. Some are reluctant to do so as they feel they are not trained. One way to get them involved could be creating avenues in which they can volunteer "in a fairly straightforward manner, because there's a lot of work... that actually doesn't need trained personnel", like befriending the elderly.
And helping others will benefit the volunteers themselves, he said.
He recalled how meaningful it was for his soldiers who worked with prison inmates to pack goodie bags for National Day celebrations in 2009, which he helped organise.
Referring to a recent video of elderly abuse, he urged people to report such cases to the authorities. "If in doubt, err on the side of being a bit more kiasu...
"If you can get details and if you feel... like this individual needs help, let us know... we will follow up on every one of these cases."
This article was first published on July 29, 2015.
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