Never Let A Good Crisis Go to Waste

Parliamentary Speech, Resilience & Solidarity Budgets’ Debate, 6 April 2020

INTRODUCTION

Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to first thank DPM Heng and everyone in his team at the Ministry of Finance for the immense amount of work they did to make this supplementary budget possible within such a tight timeline.

For many of us, these first three months of 2020 have felt like a ‘horror suspense’ movie that keeps us anxious and on the edge till the end. Except, we are not watching this movie — we are living it, and we still don’t know when’s the end and how it will end.

Many people — some I know and some I don’t — have reached out for help as their lives are turned upside down. An acquaintance almost killed himself last Monday because he’s lost all his gigs as an event emcee. A single mother of a young boy, who lives with an elderly mother, has had her salary cut by 50%. Many migrant workers struggle to pay for their daily essentials because there’s no more overtime pay to make..

Sir, it’s hard to fault such a generous budget trying to avert an economic calamity and save jobs and industry — even lives. Yet the crisis illuminates long-term cracks that we must address decisively for a good and strong rebound as a nation.

Every crisis is an opportunity to observe the cracks, rectify the causes, and become more prepared for the future. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will first spotlight the cracks in two areas: (a) mental health of our people in this crisis; and (b) low income households who will bear the brunt of the crisis. I will then raise suggestions from the communities that aim to not only cushion the immediate impact of Covid-19 but also future-proof our social and psychological resilience for a more equal and united people.

MENTAL HEALTHCARE AND SUPPORT IN A CRISIS

Mr Deputy Speaker, this House is familiar with my call for mental health to inform our Budget and national policies. I was initially alarmed that the Resilience Budget did not allocate any funding and resources to mental healthcare, support and research for this period. I’m now slightly relieved that DPM Heng acknowledged the need for mental health support as part of the national response in the Solidarity Budget announced today. But I don’t think we are doing enough, allow me to elaborate.

Pandemics inflict psychological carnage. Pandemics can trigger new psychiatric symptoms even in the healthy. Safe distancing, constant fear and anxiety, the loss of loved ones, job losses, industrial failures…. will wear down our national psyche.

AWARE has received 33% more calls than usual on its Women’s Hotline in the last month, as social isolation measures entrap victims with their abusers. Our senior citizens are left to battle loneliness as community activities cease. A Straits Times report yesterday confirmed that some living with mental illnesses have suffered a relapse or that their conditions have worsened.

I also worry for our office-holders and civil servants, who bear the weight of spearheading the fight. I read the recent news of the German State Minister’s suicide over Covid-related stress with alarm and sadness.

Now, more than ever, we must prioritise mental health support. In fact, a mental health disaster is starting in Wuhan just as the coronavirus crisis is easing. PM Lee has said that it might take several years for Covid-19 to run its course. For us, the psychological toll has barely started.

Sir, I propose that relevant experts be appointed to join the multi-ministry Covid-19 task force to advise the Government on mental health implications and commensurate policy interventions. This proposal has been raised by mental health experts themselves. A budget should also be set aside without delay to implement public health experts’ recommendations on mental health to avert a further public health crisis.

I urge the Government to broadcast — through all its publicity channels, practical advice on maintaining mental well-being in various Covid-related situations. NHS Inform in Scotland dedicates an entire section of their website to this.

Guidance should be published for all employers on supporting their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Sir, this House will recall that I asked MOH at COS to start a national mental health hotline for distress support. I am relieved that Minister Desmond Lee announced the National CARE Hotline yesterday. I hope it will be strategically designed and implemented to continue beyond this crisis.

I also repeat my call made at the COS that the Government consider allowing the first mental healthcare consultation for all Singaporeans to be free so as to incentivise help-seeking. We can pilot this during the crisis. We must enable quality mental healthcare and subsidise fees for individuals whose mental health has suffered due to Covid-19, especially for lower-income households. More resources must also be funnelled to organisations like Samaritans of Singapore, AWARE, and Silver Ribbon, whose free counselling services are likely to become strained in the days to come.

Last but not least, I urge the Public Services Division to provide the necessary mental health support for all our civil servants and healthcare workers through this intense period.

LOWER-INCOME HOUSEHOLDS AND INDIVIDUALS ARE DISPROPORTIONATELY IMPACTED

Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me now move to the impact of the crisis on lower income households and individuals. I do not underestimate the imminent cash flow struggle that many Singaporeans face — my own friends and family are treading water. But lower-income families will suffer more than most.

Adam (not his real name) is a hotel cleaner in his 50s. Because of the crisis, he has had no work since 25 March. Beyond Social Services has reported that their members who are disproportionately engaged in low-paid and precarious forms of work have suffered sharp drop in household income, or lost their jobs altogether.

Families like Adam’s live on the edge. Even in good times, he took home about $1,600 each month. $1,400 went to his wife for groceries and household expenses. That amount is not always enough for them and their four young children.

Such want is normal in parts of Singapore. In 2018, about 300,000 residents earned less than $2,000 per month [1]. Household expenses for the average Singaporean household in the lowest income quintile have consistently exceeded income for the past ten years. [1] 27,000 of the poorest households in Singapore have, on average, $246 in savings per household member. Our low-wage workers have always been insecure, and this insecurity will be exacerbated in an economic crisis.

Unfortunately, the measures announced are not enough to bail out a low-income household that loses its income, especially for those with several dependents. Based on my calculations, Adam will receive $7,632 [2] through the various schemes including the $600 solidarity payment. Mr Speaker, the estimated household expenditure alone for his family for the rest of 2020 is already in excess of $13,000.

(a) Giving More Support, Faster, for Longer

Sir, it is for such families that we must provide more assistance, more quickly, and for longer. So I welcome the change to a longer period of assistance of at least 6 months from the usual 1–4 months for ComCare Short to Medium Term Assistance.

However, application processing times must also improve. Angie (not her real name) is a widow in her 60s who is unfit to work. For one year, she received ComCare Financial Assistance in short tranches and had to apply for renewal at the end of each tranche whilst waiting up to a month for a reply without financial support. For two whole months, she could not afford food, bus fare, or essential medical treatment.

If processing times are challenging in normal times, they will reach breaking point at crunch time. More than 60,000 applications have been made for the Temporary Relief Fund since applications opened last week. I’m relieved that we are exercising flexibility and finally allowing for online applications from this week.

In addition to getting help to those who need it fast, we must reduce the administrative load on our SSAs so they can focus on supporting Singporeans affected. Given these priorities, we may have to trade off the luxury of deep-diving every case to test its deservedness. For applicants, this also cuts out the need to apply in-person and prove their suffering over and over again.

With that, I would like to make two recommendations:

First, make automatic disbursement the norm. The Temporary Relief Fund and Covid-19 Support Grant could be automatically disbursed based on self-declarations or proxy indicators such as changes in CPF contributions. [3]

Second, make help unconditional and reduce the amount of evidence required to prove to MSF that the applicant is struggling. Instead, MSF officers could be given the power to investigate end-users whom they suspect are abusing the system.

As SSOs struggle with the crunch, families who need their ComCare assistance reviewed will be stuck in financial limbo. I propose extending the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) and Covid-19 Support Grant (CSG) to all these families to ease their cash flow at this time. More immediate relief can also come in the form of HDB rental waivers till end of 2020 as well as further rebates to S&CC fees.

(b) Providing Food Security and Supporting F&B Businesses

Food security is another big concern, Mr. Deputy Speaker, despite the best efforts from charities. For Singaporeans in the lowest income quintile, 49% of income is spent on food [4]. At the same time, F&B businesses are suffering and the Resilience Budget may be insufficient to prevent the industry from going under.

Therefore, just as the Government galvanised a multi-sectoral effort with the hotels to accommodate returning Singaporeans for their 14-day self-isolation, I urge the Government to work with the F&B sector and food delivery companies to provide food to all families like Adam’s and Angie’s for the period of this crisis — as a national response, not a fragmented approach like it is now. This has a double advantage: it ensures absolute food security for our lower income households and frees up household liquidity, whilst supporting our local F&B businesses and self-employed delivery riders.

© Improving Home Environment to be Ready for Next Crisis

Mr. Deputy Speaker, this crisis highlights the vulnerability of our rental flat communities — my final point in this speech.

The very nature of frontline work like Adam’s entails a higher risk of Covid-19 infection. Adam and his family share 20 square metres [5] of living space in a one-room rental flat. If he is infected through work or job-search, his family will not be spared. Risk of community spread is also high. Their home opens into an enclosed corridor, along which several other families live. Neighbours’ children run all around.

Infection risk is simply a logical consequence of overcrowding. There is moderate to strong evidence of association between crowded housing and the risk of acquiring respiratory infectious diseases.[6] There are at least 1,425 households where 5 persons or more are crammed into a 1-room flat. Many more live in 2-room flats.[7] Such crowded living conditions create a ripe environment for infection which in turn could spread to the wider community.

The World Health Organisation strongly recommends that national strategies be developed and implemented to prevent and reduce household crowding. That includes a.national definition of overcrowding. Our vulnerable families should be housed in flats with features to protect public health, such as ventilated corridors, rooms to enable distancing, and separate elevators serving different floors.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Covid-19 dormitory clusters should alert us to the danger of overcrowding in a pandemic. I wish to record my deep concern regarding the isolation of 20,000 of our migrant workers in these cramped facilities — this must not become the “Diamond Princess” on our shores. Alternative and more favourable living arrangements in spaces freed up from the circuit breaker measures must be urgently considered to avoid a large scale tragedy of infected cases and mortality.

We must rehome our most vulnerable in conducive spaces. We may not be able to do that for all during this crisis, but we can do it in time for the next, and our people will be more resilient for it.

CONCLUSION

All of us are only as strong as our weakest link’, said PM Lee at the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit. Indeed, unity is strength. Yet inequality is our weakest link in this fight against Covid-19 and to our future as a strong united Singapore. The short-term measures announced in the Resilience and Solitary Budgets are essential. Our reserves are meant exactly for times like these. But we must not let a good crisis go to waste. We must boldly address the structural inequalities in wage and housing conditions that are clear and present, made more exigent by this crisis. Because Adam and Angie are part of our own. As we must too with supporting the mental health of our people in a strategic and comprehensive manner through, and beyond this crisis.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it’s not what happened to us but what we choose to become because of the crisis that will define us as a Government, as a people and as individuals. If we pause and think about all that’s going on, it’s rather humbling to know how the tiniest of a living organism that can’t even be seen by the naked eyes has such power to change us for the better, by making us face our fears and flaws so that we can finally see who we are, and who we are to each other. It’s up to us to choose how this ‘horror suspense’ movie will end for us as a nation. Because this, too, shall pass and when it does, a more mentally resilient and equal Singapore must and will be what becomes of us.

Before I conclude, I want to thank every healthcare worker, civil servant, social worker, community practitioner, volunteer and everyone who has worked tirelessly and selflessly to support fellow Singaporeans and residents affected by Covid-19. But please do take care of your mental wellbeing, you mustn’t pour from an empty cup because the work you do is important for us, for Singapore.

Thank you. SIr, I support the supplementary budgets.

[1] Household Expenditure Survey 2017/18. This figure excludes employee CPF contributions.

[2] Adam is the only eligible Singapore Citizen in the household, with all of his children under the age of 21, and with his spouse being a foreign spouse. In total, he will receive $1260 from ComCare Short to Medium Term Assistance (STMA) from March — May, $600 from Solidarity Payment in April, $1000 from the Care and Support Package — Cash (the sum of $600 from enhanced Care and Support Package + $300 as a parent, + $100 Passion Card Top-Up as a senior) , $3000 from the Workfare Special Payment, $400 of Grocery Vouchers, $300 from GST Voucher — Cash, $1000 from GST Voucher — U-Save, and $71.75 from S&CC rebates. The total is $7,631.75, or rounded up to $7,632.

[3] The Silver Support Scheme (SSS) and Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) are precedents.

[4] Based on the Household Expenditure Survey 2017/18, for the 1st-20th income quintile, the Average Monthly Household Expenditure Among Resident Households adds up to $723.40 for “Food And Non-alcoholic Beverages” And “Food Serving Services”. For the households in the same income quintile who reside in 1- and 2-room flats, the Average Monthly Household Income (excluding Employer CPF) Among Resident Households is a total of $1,482. Hence, computing Average Monthly Household Expenditure (Food) over Average Monthly Household Income (excluding Employer CPF), the result will be that people from 1st-20th income quintile AND who live in 1- and 2-room flats spend 48.81% of their disposable income on food.

[5] A generous estimate, excluding kitchenette and toilet: see https://www.teoalida.com/singapore/hdbfloorplans/ under “1960s Typical Floor Plans”.

[6] WHO Housing and Health Guidelines pg 25.

[7] The Sample Household Survey 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng