Last month, a Ministry of Social and Family Development officer at a Social Service Office (SSO) was assaulted while talking to a person about his financial situation. Her experience is not surprising, the staff at Bukit Merah SSO tell Foo Jie Ying.
Five Social Service Offices (SSOs) have security guards. All 23 have closed-circuit televisions. And officers working there are trained to handle the extraordinary, including violence. Why such extreme measures for an organisation that is simply trying to help people?
These are some of the horror stories that reveal why.
Once, a drunk client defecated in his pants while talking to the counter officers at Bukit Merah SSO. The excrement dripped out from his pants onto the carpet.
"I think he couldn't control his bowels because he was already drunk. It was not so pleasant... We had to get our cleaner to clean up the whole front counter area," said Mr Jai Prakash, 38, general manager for the Bukit Merah and Kreta Ayer SSOs.
Another inebriated client simply collapsed in a drunken stupor in the middle of his interview.
"He just fell flat on the table. We couldn't wake him up. We couldn't carry him or move him anywhere," Mr Prakash said.
The man eventually had to be taken away in an ambulance.
Then there are the strange requests the SSO has had to entertain - like when a man leashed his dog to a pipe outside the office and told the staff to look after it. He then went for lunch.
One man demanded that officers find him a companion, while another asked for a maid.
"You really don't know what will happen for the day. That is the kind of situation we are in," said Mr Prakash.
First introduced in the 2013 Budget debate, SSOs work with voluntary welfare organisations and community partners in their areas to better coordinate social services. There are 23 such SSOs today.
Front-line public servants are often at risk of aggressive clients. Sometimes, the clients turn physical, like what happened at Toa Payoh SSO last month.
At Bukit Merah SSO - one of the five SSOs with auxiliary policemen - staff have seen their fair share of verbally abusive, loud and rowdy clients, said social assistance officer Esther Ho, 29.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that those working in SSOs may face more aggression than other front-line service staff because of the difference in clientele.
He explained: "Viewed from a more gracious angle, one may argue that many among this clientele are desperate and angry, and harbouring high expectations of government agencies, and therefore have a low threshold for expressing their frustrations in socially acceptable ways.
"Viewed from a less sympathetic angle, one may argue that such people may be prone to violence when they do not get their way, regardless of the context. They may feel they have little to lose from violating a social norm, and perhaps much to gain if they succeed in intimidating others."
Ironically, the quieter and clear-headed clients are sometimes harder to handle.
Some seek help but are tight-lipped about their situation, said Ms Ho. When probed further, they get defensive and are offended by the intrusion of privacy. "Sometimes, they are afraid to say the wrong thing as they think it may affect their chances of getting assistance. But that's not true," she said.
A handful also expect monetary help but refuse to step out of their comfort zone to find a long-term solution.
Said Mr Prakash: "It is difficult for us to just give a client money when the client refuses to seek employment.
"We want to help them financially, but we also want to help them in such a way that they don't have to keep coming to us for money."
When she first started this job six years ago, Ms Ho said she "cried many times".
"There was a persistent client, who would call every single day to scold me and demand for assistance. I felt drained. What more could I have done to convince him that we had done all we could?" she said.
Ms Ho gradually realised she needed to detach herself from her clients.
"I kept telling myself not to take things personally. I knew (my clients) talked to me in a certain manner because of their situation. When you empathise, they see that you are sincere in helping them and usually they become okay," she said.
This article was first published on Dec 2, 2015.
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