'Range of aid for needy, flexible rules'

He was also to head the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), a new ministry set up in November 2012.

SINGAPORE - Singapore has many helplines for people with differing needs, and the rules are flexible when they do not meet the qualifying criteria but are genuinely in need, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Monday.

This assurance from Mr Chan came amid renewed calls for Singapore to identify an official poverty line after Hong Kong set one in September.

Some MPs had argued it would focus on the state of poverty here and track how it is addressed.

But Mr Chan had rejected their argument at last month's parliamentary session. He said it risks a "cliff effect", where those below the poverty line get all forms of help while citizens who are genuinely in need but outside the poverty line are excluded.

Yesterday, he defended again Singapore's multi-pronged help strategy as Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), Ms Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong asked about the eligibility criteria of social assistance schemes.

Handing out a rainbow-coloured chart of a range of aid that gives bigger sums to the low-income, Mr Chan said: "It shows how we share the fruits of our success with all Singaporeans by providing more for those with less."

On one end are broad-based subsidies for essentials such as housing and health care, and for development, which stretch from early childhood care to education and training.

Such help covers a broader group of Singaporeans, and the lower-income get more support, he said, citing the Community Health Assistance Scheme for lower- and middle-income families with per capita household income of up to $1,800 a month.

About 340,000 cardholders qualify for subsidies of up to $18.50 for a visit to the doctor for common ailments like a cold, and up to $80 a visit for chronic conditions like diabetes, with caps that rise to $480 a year.

On the other end are targeted schemes for a smaller lower-income group who need more help.

For instance, with ComCare, more than 8,500 citizens receive up to $108 a month in kindergarten subsidies, and more than 10,000 get wage supplements of varying amounts.

To be eligible for ComCare, the household income ceiling is $1,700 a month or per capita income of up to $550.

But Mr Chan assured Mr Yee that ComCare has no "cliff effect" as those who apply are assessed not only by income, but also by family size, number of children in school and medical status.

"It is not the case that everyone under ComCare gets the same amount," he said, adding that more than 1,500 households who did not meet the income criteria got ComCare last year.

While MPs acknowledged the Government's efforts, Ms Foo, Mr Zaqy Mohamed (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said such help did not always reach the needy, because they might not know of it or are daunted by the application process.

Dr Intan said a wait of two to four weeks for ComCare frustrated her residents. She called for front-line staff to be trained to be flexible in giving help, and for better coordination among government agencies.

Agreeing that more could be done, Mr Chan said: "I urge all Members of the House to join us in this, to mobilise the volunteers, to reach out to these groups of people so that... they do not need to go through the difficult moments in life alone."

chinlian@sph.com.sg

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