This is a speech I made during the debate on the President’s address at the opening of Parliament on 4 September 2020.
Mr Speaker, I support the Motion of Thanks to the President for her address.
I would first like to express my gratitude to the voters of Aljunied GRC for giving me the opportunity to contribute in this House again. I cherish the trust that you have placed in my teammates and I, and we will do our very best to represent your concerns and work towards building a better future for Singapore.
While we may be called “the Opposition” for historical reasons, we stand here not necessarily to oppose, but to work with Parliamentary colleagues, along and across the aisle, to refine existing policies and propose new approaches to the challenges we face as a nation. Singapore’s economic, social and security challenges have grown more complex over the years. The policy responses must rise to the challenge. To do so, we need earnest and robust discussions on substantive policy matters both in and out of Parliament.
Today I would like to discuss ways in which we can improve how we care for some of the more vulnerable members of our society. I will touch on the concerns of people with disabilities, means testing, healthcare expenses and the welfare of migrant workers.
People with Disabilities
People with disabilities (or PwDs) are not a homogeneous group but a diverse community. They include individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual and developmental challenges of varying degrees.
I raised disability issues seven years ago during my previous term in Parliament, specifically about improving public transport and pedestrian infrastructure accessibility for the visually-impaired. I am glad to see some progress has been made since then, although some gaps still remain.
For example, most junctions with traffic lights still don’t have audible pedestrian signals (APS) and for those that do have the chirping sound turned off at 9 or 10pm to avoid disturbing nearby residents. This could pose a safety risk for visually-impaired pedestrians who are out at night.
I hope MOT will re-consider my proposal to add vibrotactile walk indications at these crossings. These are special buttons positioned at the traffic signals which vibrate when it is safe to walk. These complement the APS and can continue to operate even late at night without disturbing the peace.
In my conversations with PwDs, the number one issue on their minds is jobs — not unlike most other Singaporeans. They are not asking for handouts, but more equal opportunities in employment. However, PwDs face much higher hurdles, and not just because of their disabilities.
One such hurdle is that it is common for employers to assume PwDs will not be able to perform on the job just because of their limitations. PwDs have shared with me their unpleasant job search experiences, whereby they met all the job requirements, only to be rejected when the employer learned that they had a disability. In fact, with modern assistive technologies, PwDs can be as productive at work as their able-bodied colleagues.
The government has done well to provide schemes like the Enabling Employment Credit and the Assistive Technology Fund. This needs to be complemented with better public education, for both employers and the general public, in order to clear misconceptions about PwDs in the workplace. We also need to ensure that employers do not discriminate on the basis of disability by introducing anti-discrimination legislation.
Another area that needs to move forward faster with the times is our approach to means testing for social assistance schemes. The process often requires too much paperwork and imposes an undue burden on the very people we are trying to help. Mr Leon Perera, also raised this issue in his speech on Tuesday.
The application for Public Assistance, for example, requires applicants to submit at least 10 documents to prove their neediness. Some of these documents require applicants to log in to government websites with their SingPass and print out documents such as CPF statements, both of which can be an obstacle for those with no computers and printers at home. When they apply for assistance schemes with other government agencies, or need to renew their assistance, the same exercise has to be repeated.
The process for PwDs applying for disability support is not a walk in the park either. They need to get a doctor’s certification of their disability — and pay the clinic for this service. They then need to repeat this process for every agency they are applying for support from.
All this is a painfully low-tech way of means testing. In fact, we already have the capability to integrate and automate such systems. For example, the Tax Portal from IRAS pulls data from multiple sources to fill up a taxpayer’s income, deductions and reliefs, and computes their taxable income after just a few clicks. The Government has also been building its capabilities in data analytics.
We clearly have the technical capabilities to collect taxes efficiently and seamlessly. Can we now develop the same capabilities for disbursing social assistance to deserving individuals and families? For PwDs, the Government could create a centralised system that keeps track of each individual’s disability, which can be tapped into by various agencies to assess if they are qualified for disability benefits.
I am glad to learn from the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative in his addendum to the President’s address that all Government services will be digital from end-to-end by 2023. I hope our means testing process will be one of the first to go paperless and “presence-less”. By doing so, deserving citizens can receive the help they need more quickly and conveniently, and won’t fall through the cracks just because they have difficulty gathering and submitting the necessary documents.
My third area of concern is helping Singaporeans cope with the burden of healthcare expenses.
Chronic diseases are imposing an increasing burden on our ageing population. The Ministry of Health has said in its addendum to the President’s address that it will look to identifying best practices that can help us in our fight to better manage diabetes and other chronic diseases.
A key challenge in chronic disease management is ensuring that patients follow their treatment regimens and show up for their regular appointments with their family doctors. I have met residents who have lamented about the high costs of treatment for their chronic conditions. Some have shared about missing appointments because of cost concerns. In the long run, missed or delayed treatment will cost both the patients and the healthcare system more if their conditions worsen and they need to be hospitalised.
I welcome the introduction of the MediSave700 scheme, which allows patients with multiple conditions to draw up to $700 a year from their MediSave accounts. This is up from $500 a year currently.
However, I remain concerned about the limitations of the scheme. Patients whose condition is not one of the 20 chronic conditions specified under the Chronic Disease Management Programme, or whose treatment costs exceed $700 a year, still have to fork out cash for their treatment.
I have two suggestions for MOH to consider. First, that MediSave withdrawals be allowed for the treatment of all chronic conditions, not just those on the CDMP list. This will ensure that no one is excluded just because they suffer from a less common chronic condition. Second, the annual withdrawal limits for MediSave should be removed for patients who have sufficient MediSave balances and are over the age of 60.
To reduce the risk of a “buffet syndrome”, these two changes can be rolled out first at polyclinics and restructured hospitals, where tight procedures are already in place to ensure that only medically-necessary treatment is prescribed.
Migrant workers’ welfare
My fourth area of concern is the welfare of migrant workers. These are some of the most disadvantaged yet invisible members of our society. They are neither voters nor Singaporeans, but they are part of the Singapore community and their interests must be protected too, as is befitting a developed country like ours.
At the heart of many of the issues that migrant workers in Singapore face, is their lack of bargaining power vis-à-vis other parties like employers, the government and employment agencies. This makes them susceptible to being taken advantage of. NGOs have reported that migrant workers often pay as much as $10,000 to secure jobs in Singapore. The costs include agent fees, course fees and sometimes kickbacks. When their contracts end, some are asked to make cash payments of up to $4,000 to third party “agents” to renew their contracts or find subsequent jobs.
For both these fees, they take up huge loans and spend many months servicing them on the back of their salaries of around $500 to $800 a month. This makes them almost like indentured labour for much of their time in Singapore. A few unscrupulous employers are in on the act, working with illegal agents to profit off the workers they employ.
Because such payments are usually made in cash, there is often no paper trail to prove the offences if they file a complaint with MOM. Furthermore, workers risk losing their jobs and being sent home if their employers find out they have filed a complaint. Hence many violations go unreported.
I urge MOM to step up enforcement and intelligence gathering, so that errant parties will be taken to task and made an example of.
We could also set up a jobs portal for employers to list available jobs so that workers don’t have to go through intermediaries to find new companies to work for once their contracts end. This will reduce the opportunities for collecting kickbacks and correct some of the power imbalance that currently exists.
Mr Speaker, it has been said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. The President alluded to this in her address too.
We have come so far as a country, uplifting the standard of living of generations of our people. Let us take this progress to the next level as we further improve how we care for the vulnerable members in our society.
 NRIC of all adults in household, birth certificate of all children in household, latest CPF statement, bank book, medical certificates, marriage/divorce certificate, latest power supply bill, latest S&CC bill, latest HDB statement.