'Don't just take an image, write and slam': Tan Chuan-Jin addresses viral post on elderly dishwasher

PHOTO: People's Action Party

From generous job offers and well-intentioned efforts to track an elderly dishwasher down to heated debates on the implementation of a minimum wage, it's safe to say that a certain viral post had Singaporeans in a tizzy this week.

But what started out as an attempt to highlight the plight of an elderly woman has turned into a cautionary tale about taking things at face value.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) clarified on July 29 that the woman, featured in a viral post by one Koh Meng Shuen, lives in a five-room flat with her son and daughter-in-law, who provide her with food and shelter, and uses her earnings of $675 a month to supplement her additional expenses.

Koh's Facebook post on Monday (July 27), describing his encounter with the woman on the MRT and her seemingly dire financial state, had amassed over 20,000 shares before it was taken down.

However, the woman, identified only as Madam L, was not made aware that her photos and comments would be shared on social media, MSF said.

Tan Chuan-Jin, who served as Minister for Social and Family Development from 2015 to 2017, also weighed in on the matter on Facebook, appealing for members of the public to stop approaching the woman as the attention has caused her "significant distress".

This is the consequence. (Just corresponded with some of the folks who helped to locate the lady and who had spoken to...

Posted by Tan Chuan-Jin on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In Koh's viral post, he related a heartrending conversation in which the woman reportedly told him that she earned only $5 per hour as a dishwasher and was seeking extra work.

She also said that she sold her house to pay for several heart surgeries and claimed that she did not receive compensation after her son died in a heli-rappelling accident while serving his National Service, Koh wrote.

But as the post exploded on social media, the story began to unravel.

Koh, who declined AsiaOne's request for an interview on Tuesday (July 28) and publicly rejected other media outlets, later posted an update on Facebook clarifying that the woman was living with her family and not living alone with her friends as she had previously mentioned.

Additionally, the Ministry of Defence said the woman had, in fact, received full compensation after her elder son, a regular warrant officer, died during a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) freefall training session in May 2009.

You may have come across a Facebook post, about a member of public’s encounter on the train with an elderly woman who...

Posted by MSF Singapore on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In light of the fallout from the post and the "harassment" that the woman has faced from well-meaning strangers trying to offer their assistance, Tan shared his advice on approaching those who may need financial assistance.

"Speak to them, listen, find out more, take down details and let us know so that we can follow up and verify.

"Things aren't often as it seems but we will help where needed. Don't just take an image, write and slam but yet nothing structurally is done to help the person," he said.

The reality is that MSF Singapore’s clarification will NEVER viral the way the original criticism did. A number of folks...

Posted by Tan Chuan-Jin on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

However, it seems some good may have come out of the entire debacle — in the wake of the viral post, the Social Service Office (SSO) reached out to Madam L, a permanent resident, to offer their assistance.

Grassroots organisations will support her with $120 food vouchers monthly for the next six months. She will also receive "some help" for her medical expenses, MSF added.

kimberlylim@asiaone.com