In marathon to help the poor, finishing the last mile is key

SINGAPORE - Among those who are still to be convinced of the Government's shift to the left of centre, a few more may have changed their minds after yesterday's parliamentary debate.

From transport fares to public assistance, for over an hour, the House heard the extent to which the Government is determined to go to uplift low-income families.

In fact, low-income workers can look forward to paying lower transport fares next year than they do now, pledged Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, with the Government using public funds to foot the bill for such discounts.

Yet a real problem still remains amid all the schemes and concessions. There is still a lack of awareness of what is available and who it is for. Those in need continue to fall through the cracks.

It was a point made by five different Members of Parliament yesterday, no less.

Despite the many schemes and the amount of help provided by the Government, anecdotal evidence on the ground shows there are still vulnerable families and individuals who are not benefiting from them.

Fundamentally, as both the ministers and MPs pointed out - good policy does not end with its crafting. Good policy needs to be supported by communication, outreach and accessibility in order to be effective.

Take for example the last fare review exercise in 2011.

Of the 200,000 vouchers available to needy families to offset the fare increase, just over half were taken up, Mr Lui said. And this was after the Government had made two calls for applications.

"It is not the situation where we do not have enough vouchers, but really it is how to reach out to them, how to make sure that they are fully aware of some of the schemes," Mr Lui said.

It is also the case for social assistance schemes, MPs said, despite Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing taking the opportunity to raise awareness among MPs on the myriad schemes available with the help of a multi-coloured, 18-layer bar chart.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) all raised this concern about the lack of awareness leading to lower rates of access.

Ms Foo said: "Somehow the people who need the help have the impression the schemes are available on a case-by-case basis."

Communicating the assistance schemes clearly to the target groups, she added, will help residents better understand who the schemes are targeted at, and raise awareness of the availability of the scheme.

It would also give more confidence to residents to come forward if they need help.

Mr Chan acknowledged the shortcomings.

He said that during his own house visits he finds families who do not apply for education bursaries for their children because they simply do not know about them.

At the heart of the matter is this: the lack of awareness and knowledge about schemes raises the inevitable question of whether the schemes are targeting the right people, and if the resources are being used most efficiently.

It is a question made all the more critical as the Government is expanding its use of financial resources to fund social needs.

This is a problem that has plagued the Government before and is not limited to social assistance schemes or transport vouchers. In the business world, productivity-enhancing schemes for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have also met with similar limitations because they are either too complicated or firms simply do not know about them.

So what can be done?

Mr Chan's ministry is increasing outreach efforts with 10 new social service offices being set up, and more family service centres being built. But he also acknowledged that the officers need to be well-informed first, so that the person in need is not put off by the complexity of the scheme.

The heavy lifting need not be done by the person seeking help, but by the officer helping him. The schemes too need to be simplified and the application process made easier and more flexible.

There is also room to collaborate with and leverage on the platforms of civil society groups.

One particular campaign is the recent Caritas-led Singaporeans Against Poverty, which is using social media to draw attention to those living with less.

Caritas is the charity arm of the Catholic church, and it is not the only group working to raise awareness of poverty, as more people are becoming conscious of the plight of the less fortunate and want to help.

While it may be natural for the Government to be sceptical of such intentions, it should not shy away from working with such organisations, because these groups could help to publicise government schemes.

While raising awareness of the plight of the less fortunate, why not raise the awareness of the help available to them too?

Yesterday's debate shows just how much the Government is willing to do for the low income, but its policies will continue to be questioned and their impact diluted, if outreach cannot be improved.

As Mr Chan said: "It is about closing that last mile, making sure that our communication reaches the people to whom we are targeting the message."

In this regard, the Government, and indeed all Singaporeans who care, cannot be satisfied and must do more.

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