'Who'll look after them when I die?'

Last week, the Ministry of Social and Family Development announced a pilot programme in Parliament where multiple agencies would work together to give specific help to vulnerable families.

For sole breadwinner Lai Peng Nan, however, being able to get food and medicine may not be enough to ease his worries.

Mr Lai gets help, such as monthly food packages, from various welfare groups. His family also gets public assistance.

But finances are not his only worry. He can afford to live, he told The New Paper, but not to die.

His wife, 75, daughter, 55 and son, 52 are mentally disabled.

Mr Lai has another son who works as a labourer, but he has a family to feed in Batam. His two other daughters committed suicide 10 years ago.

He said: "Luckily, I'm still healthy for my age, but who'll look after them (his family members) when I die?"

Taking care of them is not easy.

When TNP caught up with him recently, he was heading home with a spring in his step.

The plastic bag the 82-year-old was holding was bursting with the spoils of the day - five discarded aluminium pot lids. Mere trash in other people's eyes, but they were worth far more to Mr Lai.

He said in a mixture of Mandarin and Teochew: "Do you know how expensive aluminium is?"

When sold to the karung guni man, the lids would fetch $2 or $3, he estimated.

That meant a boost to a monthly income ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars.

Madam Tay, Mr Lai's wife, scuttles into the bedroom whenever visitors arrive. Mr Lai said: "She doesn't like people seeing her in this state. She used to be okay, but now she stays at home and doesn't like to go out."

It was only when The New Paper left the three-room flat in Serangoon that she re-appeared.


Meanwhile, Mr Lai has become used to his younger son's occasional disappearances.

"Last year, he went missing seven or eight times and didn't come home for a few nights," Mr Lai recounted.

"Maybe he was lost and forgot how to find his way back."

Neighbours said the younger Mr Lai would urinate at the corridor and staircase landing. He also sleeps at the corridor. Knowing the family's situation, many neighbours take the inconvenience in their stride.

Grassroots volunteers said the younger Mr Lai had been arrested previously for stripping and urinating in public. On several occasions, the police had to bring him home.

He was not always like this. Mr Lai said his son grew up normal, but "lost his job, got dumped, couldn't take it and ended up like this".

TNP understands that Family Service Centre staff have been helping the son since 2000.

The younger Mr Lai visits the centre regularly for counselling and support.

Mr Lai declined to talk about his daughter, except to say that she hides in her room.

Aside from worrying about what will happen to them after he is gone, Mr Lai also frets about whether his family will be able to continue living together.

A counsellor with 15 years' experience said the state is likely to intervene only if there is no living next-of-kin. If that is the case, "the family members would likely be sent to homes".

The Ministry of Social and Family Development said that social workers "will work with (the) dependents and various agencies to provide alternative care arrangements". Institutionalisation is a last resort.

The suicides of Mr Lai's daughters more than 10 years ago still haunt him.

A neighbour, who wanted to be known only as Madam Ang, 80, saw one daughter's body at the void deck.

She recalled: "There was a canvas sheet covering her. The parents were standing there silently. There were no tears, no sound, no reaction."

Madam Ang's relative, who declined to be named, said: "Maybe they have no more tears left."

Get The New Paper for more stories.