Category Archives: 2012

Banking for A Better Singapore

By Izyan Nadzirah

In a country that is already saturated with banks, it may seem something of a surprise that two siblings should decide to found yet another. But this is not your typical bank. Rather, with the establishment of The Food Bank Singapore, Nichol and Nicholas Ng have sought to invest in the wellbeing of the less fortunate using food as the main currency of trade.

Excess Food?

The siblings decided to establish The Food Bank Singapore in January 2012 after conducting extensive surveys with food companies and concluding that there are definitely “pockets of…excess food ‘floating’ around in [Singapore’s] food chain.”

The food bank is meant to make it easier for companies in the food industry and members of the public, to donate food at a central location as well as to ease the workload of Volunteer Welfare Organisations and charities that ensure families in need have access to food.

But Nicholas and Nichol had another reason for setting up the food bank as well, one that hits closer to home.

“We have a family business, FoodXervices, dealing with food,” explains Nicholas. “And over time, we realised that, although we mostly deal with non-perishable items, there were still instances where we threw away food.”

“We’re always on the lookout (to see) how we can be socially responsible Singaporeans, (so) it was only natural to begin to introduce corporate social responsibility within our own company.”

At first, FoodXervices collaborated with other companies facing similar issues. Soon afterwards, the Ng siblings opened The Food Bank Singapore.

What’s a food bank?

13 Nov 2012 (2)

The Food Bank Singapore, though the first of its kind in Singapore, is based on a concept that has been around for years

In essence, it is a place where Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies, food retailers, producers and members of the public can donate surplus or leftover foods. The food bank then matches the donations with VWOs and charities that distribute them to needy families.

The first food bank was founded 1967 in the US state of Arizona. A community dining room volunteer named John van Hegel realised that grocery stores were throwing out products which had damaged packaging or were nearing their expiration dates. With the help of St. Mary’s Basilica, he created a central location where grocers could drop off these unwanted perishables.

Over the past forty-five years, food banks have been established throughout America and Europe. In 2006 a Global Food Banking Network was set up, followed by a Food Bank Leadership Institute the following year, to provide a platform to educate, strengthen and expand existing food bank operations.

Banking Hopes and Food Dreams

Since its launch, The Food Bank Singapore has received monthly donations from companies, shops and concerned citizens, though the amount of food donated varies.

Nicholas recalls receiving a phone call from an expat recently who was in the midst of packing up to return to her home country and had come across a few non-perishable items. She wanted to know if they would accept small food donations – about three to four items in total.

“The Food Bank Singapore accepts all kinds of food donations – from a single can of tuna to cartons of dried bee hoon. What is extra to someone can provide for another or a whole family. Every bit counts,” says Nicholas.

When it comes to getting support from FMCGs, however, it can be pretty hard. Some companies are unwilling to contribute, notes Nichol, because they don’t fully understand corporate social responsibility. There are also companies who have a policy against such donations because they want to protect their brand. Nichol and Nicholas are positive though that by increasing public awareness, more and more companies will donate over time.

Word of Mouth

The siblings have depended mainly on word-of-mouth to create awareness of The Food Bank Singapore. Initially they would rely on business partners in the food industry and beneficiaries like The Salvation Army and Willing Hearts to spread the word. Recently, though, they’ve received more attention, including feature articles in The Straits Times and Lianzhe Zhaobao and at the Food Hotel Asia exhibition.

Students have also seeked their advice on how to conduct food donation drives and to find out about other avenues to support the food bank. Both Nicholas and Nichol are glad that there seems to be a strong sense of responsibility among the younger generation, which can help ensure the food bank’s success by publicising the project.

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The ONE Food Drive

On Saturday 17 November 2012, ONE (SINGAPORE) with the support of Class 95FM is organizing a food drive in support of The Food Bank Singapore and the soup kitchen, Willing Hearts.

“The Food Bank Singapore is a fantastic initiative to match food donations with people who need assistance and those working to help them,” explains ONE (SINGAPORE) president Vernetta Lopez, when asked why ONE (SG) chose to work with the food bank. “It’s a new charity – just founded this year – and so we’re really excited to tell more people about them.”

“Nichol and her brother are really inspiring,” adds ONE (SINGAPORE) co-founder Michael Switow. “We’ve worked with them for several years through the Every ONE Can programme, a grocery warehouse sale to support people in need. They’ve transformed their family business and made a solid commitment to the community. In fact, Nichol subsequently accepted an invitation to join ONE (SINGAPORE)’s Executive Committee.”

To learn more about how you can support the ONE Food Drive, go to

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This article was edited by Rob Teo. Images courtesy of The Food Bank Singapore

Building a New Social Compact

By Nicole Seah

Inequality hurts not just the poor, but ALL segments of society. Research in the field of social science has shown that social indicators such as life expectancy, rates of imprisonment, social mobility show poorer performance across the board when there is greater inequality.

Inequality has many practical implications, the most important one being dissatisfaction and discontentment across different classes.

Economic progress accounts for more than just pure output or growth. Other indicators of well-being include consumption, health and longevity, leisure time and income distribution.

Even though our per capita GDP was 83% of the US, the well-being of Singaporeans was disproportionately a mere 44% in comparison.

With regards to the issue of inequality, we cannot continue to look outward to other countries and assume that there is less for us to do because we are in a much better off situation on the whole.

Singapore is well-poised to take on the challenges of the global economy with the strong growth policies that have been put in place.  I believe that now is the time for us to look inward and draw our focus back to the core of good governance . . . and the core of good governance is the ability of a state to take care of its people.

So a National Conversation is good. It is important. But if we do dig deep into what makes this country tick, what makes people stay or go, then we will only be left with just that – Conversation. Singapore is in a good position to transform its social policies.

Policy biases

For too long there have been several arguments AGAINST giving more to the poor. We do not want to create a welfare state, we do not have the finances to sustain a greater amount of assistance. Our policies have benefitted the population at large, there will always be poor people in society no matter what you do, so the fact that our numbers are less than other countries means that we are in a good position.

There are so many of these arguments.

And this is where I think, the Singapore government needs to re-engineer the way it thinks about the poor.

Think of them, not just in terms of statistics, but as people. People who could be our neighbours. The uncle next door who might have to take up 3 jobs to provide for his family. The karang guni lady, who makes a pittance sourcing for my broken fan and making her rounds every morning and night.

I know these people, because I live right next to them where I stay in Tampines. And that is why it always breaks my heart, when I meet people who have had a much more privileged upbringing, who have all the creature comforts that they could possibly ask for, say that the government has done enough and that there will always be poor people in this society.

It is easier said than done, when these people will never understand what it feels like to live below media wage. They will never understand what it feels like to get paid by the hour, or to spend their last dollar note in their wallet and not know where the next one is going to come from.

And that is why it is time for us to build a new social compact.

Sceptics may argue that we will not be able to get the money, it is not fiscally feasible.  To that I say, if the government sees value in closing up this inequality gap, if they start to place emphasis on doing so, it will be important enough to have a budget. We could have used the same argument against F1, the Youth Olympics or the Integrated Resorts. But the government felt that the benefits would be important to Singaporeans, and so, money was put aside for these projects.

In that same vein, as we reconsider what it takes to close up the income gap, I’d like to remind all of us that we need to be mindful in the way we render assistance to the poor. Drawing back to the old cliché of teaching a person how to fish versus giving him a fish, we need to relook at our social infrastructure rather than merely increasing assistance or doling out more money, which is important and it is good, but it is not sustainable in the longer term. We need to start looking at things with a new approach and perhaps make unorthodox suggestions to orthodox policies.

One area we can consider is that Singapore needs to create more hands and feet for the people who are down and out, and aren’t able to get up on their own two feet. This can extend to employment agencies, childcare centres, the social work sector. Make the pay packages more attractive. Acknowledge social work as a legit profession. Streamline the job scope so that existing social workers do not wade through a mountain of bureaucracy which may further aggravate an emotionally demanding job. Jobs creation of this nature needs to stem from a willingness to change the system. We can’t just rely on creating ad campaigns without changing what is unattractive about the job. It’s not going to solve the problem of expanding the social work talent pool in the long run.

With that, I’d like to end off on one point about our social spending, and a couple of other possible solutions in brief . . .

Singapore spends 16% of its GDP on social programmes. Other developed economies average out at 25%-30%. While we do not need to go as high as 40%, compared to some other developed countries such as Sweden or France, I believe that alot more can and should be done to push for more social spending in Singapore.

With that in line, the increment in social spending can then be considered for some of the following areas:

(1) Worker retraining and income support – Allow the poorer in society to search for better opportunities

(2) Healthcare – Universal Healthcare insurance models in places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have seen out of pocket expenses for locals fall significantly. Singapore currently has the highest risk of extremely high personal spending in healthcare compared to other developed Asian economies, which really gave rise to the heartland idea of “Better to die than to fall sick in Singapore.” Currently, the system limits claiming for chronic long term care, which is actually the area that tends to affect low to medium income families the hardest.

(3) More subsidised infrastructure – Void deck or government-owned spaces can be converted into eldercare centres or childcare centres. With subsidies in rent, cost savings can be passed on to Singaporeans who might not be able to afford private facilities.

This article is based on the opening remarks given by Nicole Seah at a panel discussion on “Reducing the Income Gap: Finding Practical Solutions” organised on 12 September 2012 by ONE (SINGAPORE) and the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

18 ways to reduce the income gap

1 Oct 2012

By Leong Sze Hian

With the gap between rich and poor widening, financial advisor and commentator Leong Sze Hian argues that new government policies are needed in several key sectors. But that Singaporeans need to change their mindset as well.

“We need to tweak our labour policies, then automatically wages will rise,” Sze Hian told a packed room at SMU in a panel discussion about income inequality organised by ONE (SINGAPORE) and the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

But the outspoken advocate of poor and disenfranchised families also notes that the government can not do everything.

“We cannot put all the blame on the government. Look at the issue of cleaners. Two years ago, their pay was S$800, now (the amount is) less. Why? Because every time the workers’ levy goes up, (companies) cut workers pay and we accept it. As Singaporeans, we need to be more compassionate.”

In this article, Sze Hian focuses on four key areas where new policies – or in some cases, a return to previous rules – could reduce the income gap, increase purchasing power and ensure that catastrophic illnesses do not also bankrupt families.

Wages and CPF

  1. Peg the interest rate paid on CPF accounts to the GIC’s historical rate of return (minus a one-percentage administrative fee).

Singaporean’s retirement funds are essentially invested by the government in securities chosen by the Government Investment Corporation. While there has been some controversy about how this works, it appears that the Government sells bonds to the CPF Board and then provides the funds raised to GIC.

Currently, ordinary CPF accounts pay 2.5%. There’s a slightly more complicated formula for calculating the return on Special, Medical and Retirement Accounts (SMRA), but they tend to pay 5% on the first S$60,000 and 4% on subsequent funds.

But the GIC has a historical rate of return over the past twenty years of about 6 percent in US dollar terms. So instead of paying Singaporeans a 2.5% rate of return on their CPF accounts, it would be more equitable to pay about 5 percent (providing GIC with a profit for administering the funds).

By the way, Malaysia’s Employees Provident Fund (EPF) paid a dividend of 5.8 and 5.65 percent in 2010 and 2009, respectively, and has historically paid a return of between 4.25 to 8.5 per cent.

  1. Change the rules for self-employed Workfare accounts.

Self-employed individuals currently do not receive any cash payments from Workfare. Instead, Workfare transfers to the self-employed are paid into their CPF Medisave accounts. This discourages older lower-income self-employed Singaporeans from contributing to CPF to qualify for Workfare.

  1. Require employers to pay CPF for foreign employees too.

Current policy exempts employers from having to pay a 16 percent contribution to CPF for foreign employees. This policy puts Singaporeans at a disadvantage as employers save 16 per cent of salary costs when they employ foreigners.


  1. Pay Medishield premiums

Instead of making periodic CPF Medisave top-ups to older Singaporeans, use the funds to pay for their Medishield premiums instead. Otherwise, such top-ups can easily be consumed by rising medical costs.

  1. Provide coverage for all infants

Currently, CPF Medishield does not cover new-born children with congenital illnesses.

  1. Increase public spending

Singapore’s spending on healthcare is one of the lowest in the world. The government currently spends about 1.6 percent of GDP on healthcare. We need to invest more in the health of our citizens.

  1. Stop Privatising Healthcare

Private sector spending on healthcare, as a percentage of total healthcare spending, has risen from 25 percent not long ago to 60 percent now. We need to reverse this trend. Private healthcare costs patients more.

  1. Subsidise out-patient treatments for those in need

Out-patient treatments at polyclinics can be expensive and a large burden on low-income families and individuals. The government Medifund programme should pay for these treatments. Instead, the government has transferred S$86 million of Medifund surpluses to the Protected Reserves over the past decade or so.

  1. Better coverage for workplace injuries – Part 1

An injury at work can be all that it takes to push a family into poverty. The Workmen’s Injury Act was amended a few years ago to reduce employers’ and insurers’ liability for medical expenses arising from workplace accidents to S$25,000. But according to the Ministry of Health, medical fees from five percent of industrial accidents exceed this cap, placing an unfair – and potentially debilitating – financial burden on employees.

  1. Better coverage for workplace injuries – Part 2

Require public hospitals to extend the same subsidies to all patients, whether they are in hospital due to an industrial accident or other matter. Currently, ‘subsidised wards’ are actually not subsidised at all if you are hospitalised due to a workplace injury. This means that patients are paying five times as much to stay in a Class C ward.

  1. Fight higher costs by changing the way hospitals are reimbursed.

Hospital fees have doubled over the past four years. A major reason for this is that the government reimburses public hospitals based on the MOH’s average treatment type subsidy computation. Yet hospitals are still free to charge higher prices and pass the difference on to patients. Instead, the government should reimburse hospitals for the actual subsidy shown in medical bills.

  1. Better means-testing

Review means testing for patients who request for down-grading to lower-class hospital wards. The last time a reply on this was given in Parliament, it was revealed that only one percent of those who applied for downgrading from a higher class ward were successful.


Information is a key for effective governance and developing solutions. There are a number of facts though that are not currently public knowledge. For example . . .

  1. If someone can not afford medical treatment, what is the likelihood that s/he will receive government support?

MOH discloses the number of successful applications, but not the total number or number rejected. What is the percentage of Medifund applicants that are accepted because they can not pay their medical bills?

  1. Make public the criteria for approving Medifund applications.
  1. Disclose the “Standard Drug List”.

Patients should be able to know in advance which drugs are subsidised and which are not.

  1. How many people discharged from hospital are unable to pay their medical bills?

We know that 21 percent of Singaporeans who seek assistance from Credit Counselling Singapore are requesting help because of medical fees. But we do not know how many patients are left with financial problems due to medical expenses.


  1. Remove the income ceiling of S$2,000 for two-room flats.

This limit is based on a simplistic assumption that every household earning more than $2,000 can afford a three-room flat, regardless of family size or financial circumstances.

  1. Do not increase rents for households earning more than S$800.

Families earning between S$800 and S$1,500 may already be finding it heard to make ends meet. The state does not need to add to their burden by increasing their rent. It’s time to reverse this relatively recent policy change.

The Ultimate Survival Challenge – Fighting Human Trafficking

By ShuQi Liu

23 Sept 2012 (1)

Trudging through the slums of Davao City, I am overwhelmed by the stench emanating from the murky waters of the city’s river delta, filled with feces and rubbish. Yet, as bad as it is, the smell is not nearly as vile as the human trafficking crimes that are committed here.

On a trip with The Chain Reaction Project (TCRP), I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines to learn more about human trafficking and raise funds for a safe haven that protects and empowers people directly affected by the modern-day slave trade.

Together with thirty-two other change-makers (better known as “catalysts” at TCRP), we plan to climb Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ highest mountain with an altitude of nearly 3000 metres.

Our first stop is a town close to the coastal crossroads of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines called Davao City, a hotspot renowned for one of the country’s largest organised crime syndicates. I quickly learn that not only are women, men and children trafficked overseas, but that trafficking within The Philippines is a huge issue as well.

At a halfway house, a young girl recently rescued by the Centre of Hope – the safe haven that we are here to support – shares her story.

“Marie” tells us she was promised a good-paying job working for a local family in Davao City when she was 16 years old. Her family needed the money and Davao City was also her hometown, so she took the job. But then, against her wishes, she was taken to Marawi, a town that is 350km and about a 5-hour drive from Davao City. There, she was forced to work in a household of sixteen people, where she was frequently starved, physically abused and not paid the wages due her.

23 Sept 2012 (2)ShuQi with a girl in Davao city, a hotspot for domestic human trafficking

Many of the other girls here in the halfway house were coerced or sold to work in the sex industry. One young woman, now barely 18, was kidnapped from her family and locked up in a brothel. We meet another woman who was mercilessly beaten by brothel owners for resisting customers. Some of the girls here are as young as seven years old.

The girls that I meet are just a few of the 300 women that turn to the Centre of Hope for refuge every year.

Poverty and an insecure future make the women and children living in Davao exceptionally susceptible to human trafficking crimes, social workers from the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF), which runs the centre, tell us.

In addition to providing shelter and a safe space, VFF counsellors work to empower the women and provide them with new skills to live normal lives again.

Gaining a first-hand understanding of human trafficking stories increased my motivation to raise funds for VFF. The start of the TCRP Ultimate Survival Challenge afforded us the opportunity to put months of rigorous physical training to the test.

Climbing Mt. Apo meant hiking through thick tropical rainforests, sulfurous vents and 87-degree ascents. For many of us, it was our first shot at mountain climbing. Through sheer grit and tenacity, we manage to reach the summit, which at times seems like an impossible task. In the process, we also raise over S$100,000 for the Centre of Hope.

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I still cannot believe that I made it to the top, yet I know that the women and children at the Centre of Hope face far greater challenges as they rebuild their lives.

23 Sept 2012 (4)

23 Sept 2012 (5)ShuQi, 5th from the left, on Mt. Apo, helps spell “Actually” the nickname for her group of TCRP ‘catalysts’. “

This article was edited by Emma Gatehouse, Rob Teo and Michael Switow.  Photos courtesy of The Chain Reaction Project.

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For more information on human trafficking and what we can do to stop it, please take a look at ONE (SINGAPORE)’s portal, ‘Stop Human Trafficking!’

Tan Cheng Bock to be Guest of Honour at The ONE Ball

Tan Cheng Bock – a Member of Parliament for 26 years and a candidate in the 2011 presidential elections – will be ONE (SINGAPORE)’s Guest of Honour at The ONE Ball on Saturday 8 September.

Cheng Bock began his career as a physician in 1968 and continues to practice medicine.

Known simply as “Doc” to many of his constituents, Cheng Bock has a reputation for providing free medical care to those who can not afford it.

He has actively supported a number of non-profit organisations, including the Centre for Third Age, Disabled People’s Association, Credit Counseling Singapore, Handicap Welfare Association and the Tsao Foundation.

As a member of parliament, Cheng Bock was the first chairman of the government’s Feedback Unit as well as the co-coordinating chairman of all Government Parliamentary Committees.

ONE (SINGAPORE) looks forward to welcoming Dr. Tan and his wife Lee Choon Lain to The ONE Ball . . . Making a Difference.

The ONE Ball is expected to become an annual event, both to finance ONE (SINGAPORE)’s campaign as well as to remind the organisation’s supporters of the ways in which each and every one of us can contribute to the community and make a difference in people’s lives.

Tickets for the The ONE Ball 2012 are on sale for S$250 per person or S$2500 per table. Sponsorship opportunities are also available.

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By Iman Fahim Hameed

9 Aug 2012 (1)

Volunteers driving beneficiaries to shop for groceries

For many, the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan is a time to recognise the hardships faced by those less fortunate than ourselves and to engage in volunteer service to help out.

It is this spirit of sadaqah that has driven the Malay Youth Literary Association- better known as 4PM, an abbreviation of its Malay-language name, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu – to organise Ramadhan-on-Wheels (ROW) to distribute assistance to low-income families and treat them to a day out.

This year — on Saturday 11 August 2012, during the last week before Hari Raya – more than 1000 volunteers and 270 low-income families will come together at ITE East in Simei and visit a local grocery store to stock up on provisions for this annual celebration.

Since 2001, more than 1700 families have benefited from the programme.

V.I.P. for a day

“It’s not just about giving (the beneficiaries) a voucher, but treating them to a day out,” says 4PM case manager Evina Suban.  “They are like a V.I.P. for a day.”

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Volunteers assist with the shopping

This is the second year that Richard, an 82 year old beneficiary, will receive shopping vouchers from 4PM.  He appreciates the time that volunteers take to drive him to and from the market, particularly since his wife must often stay at home due to ill health.

In addition to food vouchers, ROW provides assistance in other ways as well. Each year is different.  In the past, 4PM has distributed computers and baju kurungs, new clothes for the Hari Raya celebrations.  This year, ROW volunteers have helped clean beneficiary homes and provide them with a fresh coat of paint.

Evolution of ROW

In its early days, 4PM volunteers used to row sampans to Singapore’s outlying islands to assist those in need during Ramadan.

But that was back before Singapore became independent — 4PM was founded in 1948 — at a time when most people here still lived in kampongs.

ROW, which is now in its 12th year, is rooted though in those early ideals.  At first, volunteers delivered groceries to the beneficiaries.  However, over the years the ROW committee realized they could do more.

“We used to give in the form of groceries,” says Evina.  “But we realised different people have varying needs (depending on their age and health status).”  In 2009, ROW replaced the groceries with vouchers.

While 4PM’s roots are in the Malay community, it assists families across Singapore, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  Currently about 30-40% of 4PM’s beneficiaries are non-Malay.

Simple gestures

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Each year, volunteers say they gain as much from the outing as the beneficiaries.

Take the example of Nadya Hasheem, a third year volunteer who was initially a committee member.  During a home make-over, she was touched by the experience of an elderly couple who lost their home due to their children’s spending.  The couple never blamed their children.

“It made me realize the lengths of sacrifice parents will go for their children and how they can still love with no bitterness, and only goodwill,” says Nadya.  “I am honoured to serve them.”

And when she heard that this was the first time someone has offered to help the aunty, Nadya says she learned an even more important lesson: “appreciate even a small simple gesture, for all we had done was clean and paint the house for them.”

Volunteering for ROW “is a humbling experience and working with a diverse team of volunteers is very rewarding,” adds 2012 ROW chairman Syed Faisal, who looks forward to making all the participants feel like a VIP-for-a-day.

Join the Fun

You can still join the celebrations – and break the daily fast with the Muslim participants – at ITE East on Saturday 11 August.  In the morning, volunteers pick up the beneficiaries and bring them to ITE East, the festival venue.  At 2pm, the guest of honour, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan, will present the beneficiaries with the vouchers.  Around 4pm, volunteers will drive the families to the Giant supermarket in Tampines to go shopping. And then finally there will be an iftar break-fast back at ITE after sunset.  While at ITE East, please visit the ONE (SINGAPORE) booth.

If you would like to join the post-fast meal, please call Noraini at 9653-8921 to RSVP.

At the event, visitors can also make donations to 4PM.

Corporations or groups of individuals who are interested in supporting 4PM’s student assistance and mentoring programmes, please contact ONE (SINGAPORE) to ask about our Corporate Adoption Programme.

This article was edited by Rica Facundo and Michael Switow.

Adrian Pang to Host The ONE Ball

Actor Adrian Pang will host “The ONE Ball . . .  Making a Difference” on Saturday 8 September at The Fullerton Hotel.

Along with his wife Tracie, Adrian Pang is the Artistic Co-Director at PANGDEMONiUM! Productions, “Singapore’s most kick-ass theatre company”.

Adrian is widely acclaimed for his work in television and theatre, including Best Actor awards for roles in the comedy Ah Girl, the drama series Red Thread and the stage productions of The Dresser and Much Ado About Nothing.

His favourite role by far though is “Daddy”.  He and Tracie have two sons, Zack and Xander, which helps explain perhaps why he is enthused to step outside the theatre to help ONE (SINGAPORE).

“I’ve always had an overwhelming feeling of needing to do something outside of my little ‘fake’ world to reach out in some tangible and meaningful way to the ‘real’ world,” says Adrian.  “ONE (Singapore) is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

The ONE Ball is not the first time Adrian has lent his voice to help build a better world.  Pangdemonium!’s production of Spring Awakening addressed issues of adolescence, like teen pregnancy and suicide, in a creative but provocative manner.  Adrian and Pangdemonium Productions have also previously supported AWARE, the Children’s Cancer Foundation and the Singapore Children’s Society.

Adrian is taking time out from an intense rehearsal schedule to host The ONE Ball.  Barely a week later, you can catch him on stage, along with Janice Koh and George Young, in Pangdemonium’s production of the dark comic showbiz satire, Swimming with Sharks at the Drama Centre from 20 September to 7 October 2012.

The ONE Ball is expected to become an annual event, both to finance ONE (SINGAPORE)’s campaign as well as to remind the organisation’s supporters of the ways in which each and every one of us can contribute to the community and make a difference in people’s lives.

Tickets for the The ONE Ball 2012 are on sale for S$250 per person or S$2500 per table. Sponsorship opportunities are also available.

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Suspending Judgement

18 Apr 2012 - 2

Braema Mathi

“How are we talking about the issue of human trafficking?
When a woman shares a story of being duped by a promise
of quick money in Singapore, only to be forced into the sex trade,
do we ask ‘how could she have been so blind?”
As individuals we need to suspend judgement of the victims.”

~ Braema Mathi

By ShuQi Liu

Prostitution is legal in Singapore. Sex Trafficking is a crime.  Prosecutions against sex traffickers are rare.  Victims of sex trafficking can be fined or jailed for immigration violations. Singapore’s new National Plan of Action promises a more compassionate approach.

In the face of so many conflicting and changing realities, what does it mean for an individual to suspend judgement?

This is the question I posed to Braema Mathi, a civil society activist and former Nominated Member of Parliament who spoke at ONE (SINGAPORE)’s panel discussion about human trafficking.

We need to start by looking more closely at ourselves and our history, Braema says.

For as long as Asian men have sought to flaunt their success by acquiring concubines and mistresses and frequenting houses of prostitution, human trafficking for sexual purposes has been part of our culture.  In some chauvinistic Asian societies, a man’s coming of age is still expressed in terms of sexuality.   A father encourages his young son to take the virginity of a female child as a symbol of manhood.  The status of women, who are viewed as sexual objects and subject to the whims and fancies of men, is secondary.

Singapore’s rich economy meanwhile has attracted large numbers of foreign women, particularly from rural areas where income opportunities are scarce, to come here with the hope of making quick money.  Men need only travel from one street to another in Geylang to hire women from China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, among other places. This diversity of nationalities creates an even larger tendency among Singaporeans to judge.

How were these sex workers recruited to come to Singapore?

Did a woman choose ‘the world’s oldest profession’ willingly or was she duped or forced into the business? It can be difficult to know the truth. Traumatised victims often fall into silence, unable to speak of their ordeal, which then makes detection and prosecution even harder.

The definition of trafficking, like the victims themselves, is entwined by the complexities of the trade.

A first step to suspending judgement is to recognise the victimisation of many women in the sex industry.

Sex trafficking as a whole can only be tackled if society engages men to reevaluate our value systems and transform thought into legislation and suitable processes to fight this modern form of slavery.

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Bought and Sold – Voices of Human Trafficking

“As long as there is demand for cheap labour or paid sexual services,

there will always be syndicates and individuals ready to exploit

the innocent for profits, especially the impoverished.”

– Sylvia Lee, Founder of EmancipAsia

Bought and Sold

by Emma Gatehouse

Bought and Sold – Voices of Human Trafficking is a photographic art exhibition on modern-day slavery whose theme is inconspicuous to people on Orchard Road until, that is, they pause to look closer at the powerful images and stories recounted by award-winning photographer Kay Chernush.

Chernush focuses on 18 victims’ individual experiences through an ensemble of creative imagery and anonymous victim narratives. Disarmingly inviting, a very different tone is revealed upon closer inspection. The narrated images are shockingly thought-provoking as individual accounts are suddenly brought to life and local pedestrians are afforded a glimpse of the experiences of young men, women and children who have endured the atrocities of modern-day slavery.

‘I was about 10 when she sold me. After first time they stitch you up – two, three, four times. I was four times virgin,’ reads one exhibit detailing the account of a Cambodian girl who had been trafficked within her country.

18 Apr 2012 (1)

In another, a Nigerian girl recounts the torture and abuse she underwent as she was passed through trafficking rings in Nigeria, Morocco, Spain and The Netherlands. ‘I was young…ten…he put water in the bath and put pepper in it. So I had to get naked and lie down…I was screaming, crying, begging him.’

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Closer to home, a migrant tells of her nightmare where, upon arriving in Singapore, her documents are confiscated and her right to freedom obliterated, before being forced to perform sexual acts in her new place of employ.

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An opposing view on the subject is on offer too, when the perspective of a sex tourist in Thailand is shared: ‘The women are different here. They’re available. How do I know she’s being forced?’

The exhibition is central to a campaign organized by Singapore-based EmancipAsia, a small non-profit organisation that aims to combat human trafficking by raising awareness, advocating change and empowering individuals, communities and businesses to take action.

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In another true tale, a young Burmese migrant is sold to the captain of a fishing boat bound directly for months at sea.

Founded in March this year, EmancipAsia’s interpretation of human trafficking speaks candidly to the local community through a number of different events currently being held in an effort to raise awareness of the prevalent issues here in Singapore.

It’s not surprising that mainstream society, globally, has an emotional aversion to recognising the very real issue of modern day slavery. However, ignoring this crime against humanity is deplorable. According to an international NGO called Free the Slaves, human trafficking is more prevalent in society now than it has ever been and Asia is host to the highest number of victims.

Chernush recognises the devastation of human trafficking globally from her own personal encounters with victims. She was invited to document human trafficking cases in an expedition across Asia and Eastern Europe in 2004. Her images later became an integral part of a report on human trafficking for the US Congress. What started as an assignment has become a passion as Chernush exhibits her photos across the world.

‘I’m enamored by that idea – so egalitarian, reaching people who are not necessarily aware of the problem,’ Chernush tells the CNN Freedom Project. ‘It’s not the anti-trafficking crowd, not the gallery-going crowd, it’s everyday people.’

“Almost every country is involved in human trafficking, either as a source or destination country or both,” adds EmancipAsia founder Sylvia Lee in an interview with Salt Online. “Human trafficking happens in rich and poor countries, developed and developing countries. It is only a matter of scale. Any country which employs high volumes of foreign workers is an attractive destination for human trafficking.”

In addition to Bought and Sold, EmancipAsia’s human trafficking campaign includes a film forum and a symposium, in conjunction with the National University of Singapore, on solutions and preventative measures to target modern-day slavery.

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Bought and Sold – Voices of Human Trafficking is on exhibit until 6 September, in front of the Mandarin Gallery on Orchard Road.  From 7 – 21 September, you can view the exhibit at NUS University Town. Admission is free.

This article was edited by Rob Teo.

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The Economics of Living: Discussing Poverty in Singapore

By Dilpreet Kaur and Michael Switow

The seminar room was full house when the moderator, Kirpal Singh, Director of Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre, opened the talk-show style discussion by noting that the topic of poverty in Singapore is an issue that has not set easy with the government here, but that a mandate of the Wee Kim Wee Centre is to address issues that others might be shy or anxious to discuss.

Four panelists – civil society activist Braema Mathi, community reporter Radha Basu, grassroots social worker Nadia Bamasri and Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien – and audience participants from a range of organisations including Beyond Social Services, Mendaki, NCSS, ONE (SINGAPORE) and the catholic church explored the nature of local poverty, government schemes to address and cultural attitudes that help and hinder the provision of essential social services.

Dilpreet Kaur, of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), provides a detailed account of the discussion. (Note: this is not a complete word-for-word transcript.)

“What is poverty in Singapore?”

12 Apr 2012 (1)

“Do we have the right to judge
and say ‘sorry we can not help you’?”

Braema Mathi: I’m glad we can use the word “poverty”. I want to broaden it rather than deal with the word ‘poverty’ per say. I am wearing a hat as regional president of the ICSW, a 76 year old organisation, primarily looking at communities in need.  There is a disconnect between social policy and communities in need. Why?  Poverty is a result of income disparities and consequently limited access to basic necessities for day-to-day living.

From our politicians, we hear “cheaper, better, faster”. What does this mean? This rhetoric of “cheaper” can be very problematic if we just keep switching vendors to increase profit margins without a thought for workers’ livelihoods, particularly if there is little governance, few regulatory tools or even a lack of proper laws.

To come back to the question, what do we mean by a person in need? In the 1960s, the person in Singapore in need was different. He didn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Today, food seems to be in abundance, yet in our midst we see people at hawker centres who pick on the leftovers from your tray and plate.

Homelessness has also been vividly described in the online media – people who are caught out without shelter and by their own silly mistakes. What has gone on from the 1960s to 2012?

What do we do then if someone got on the bandwagon of upgrading then got caught? The waiting out period is thirty months, which then forces them onto the streets or to bunk in with relatives or to fork out for rentals in the private sector. There is a disconnect here. These thirty months are a definite period, so what do we do during this time? The social policies are limited. What then is the role of society here as well? Do we let them be or do we start to look for ways to help? Do we have the right to judge and say ‘sorry, we can not help you”?

“So then Braema, is there then a remedy, a quick solution or is this is a complicated problem?”

Braema: Despite the government’s Many Helping Hands approach, we have a disconnect where meeting the needs of people are concerned. It’s not that there aren’t schemes or that we’re not doing enough. But people are still falling through. What are we going to do about this? Singapore needs to start thinking about the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPFI), which is driven by the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation and supported by ICSW. The government needs to start reviewing the trends of people falling through the net and what it can do for them in terms of establishing a concrete floor from which they can step up. Developed countries are using the SPFI, especially because of ageing societies. It is time Singapore considers this approach.

“Radha, as a Straits Times journalist, you’ve actively reported on social issues. Could you tell us about some of your personal encounters with people in need?”

Radha Basu: I want to contextualise poverty, which is a very strong word. I’ve covered malnutrition and areas where people have no access to food and shelter. I don’t think anyone dies from starvation in Singapore. But are there unmet needs? Absolutely. And personally, I feel it is growing.

12 Apr 2012 (2)

“We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it.”

There is no official poverty line but there are 200,000 local families who are living in the bottom fifth of the income scale.  Their average monthly income in 2010 was $2,040, but the poorest 10 per cent – about 100,000 households – earned only $1,400 per month.

We don’t have current household expenditure figures, but in 2007-2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the average monthly household expenditure among the lowest 20% of resident households was $1,760.   That’s about $500 more than their average monthly income at the time ($1,274).

There is a gap in income and basic expenditure before state cash-transfer policies like Workfare are put into place. There is also a disconnect between people not knowing which schemes are available or considering it onerous to seek help. Recently, though, MP Amy Khor announced that there will be just one form to apply for assistance at the Community Development Councils (CDCs).

Who needs the most assistance? Generally, these individuals have uncommon or multiple needs. The existence of multiple problems is what exacerbates their conditions. Consider these examples:

  • * a low-income earning couple with a special needs child
  • * homeless men who cannot go to CDCs for help because government schemes require an address
  • * foreign brides — with Singaporean children, but estranged or widowed from their husbands — who are not eligible to rent a HDB
  • * the mentally ill, who have homes but cannot get along with parents or family members.
  • * unwed mothers who have been low on the government’s priority list for fear they might procreate more illegitimate children
  • * and foreign workers who have been cheated or injured.

“You must have followed up with the government on these issues? What were the official answers to these hardship cases?”

Radha: There is both a lapse in communication outreach in terms of implementing the schemes by the State as well as the “shame” factor among potential applicants of such schemes. So something needs to be done.

“We are Singaporeans, but yes we have subsets of groups like Mendaki, etc that focus on one group. Nadia, you work with 4PM, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. Are we wrong to assume that the Malays are out of proportion when it comes to poverty or hardship?”

Nadia Bamasri: At 4PM, our work revolves around children, youth and their families. We do not only work with Malays; we have a 70-30% policy to help non Malays as well.

12 Apr 2012 (3)

Nadia Bamasri at “Ramadan on Wheels,” an annual project to assist low-income families.

But there is a Malay problem. Statistics have shown that when it comes to education, Malay parents have lower levels of education and as a result are in the lower income bracket.

We don’t see poverty and slums because we live in these boxes called flats. But you just have to open the door and you can smell and see the poverty.

Braema talked about withholding judgement. We are not supposed to judge, but as a social worker, we are required by funders or the government to ask so many questions about income and other family characteristics before we can help these families. However, do we really know what these families/individuals need? That’s a more pertinent question. Handouts are not always the solution. There needs to be more cross cutting measures, not just within the Malay community, but across all groups.

“Radha alluded to single mothers. I was brought up in Geylang in the 1950’s. Malays then were very communal and would support each other all the way. Is this apparent today?”

Nadia: Today, we live in flats and have lots of social issues. Who’s fault is it? We never blame ourselves. If you ask people, they’ll tell you about the government, their long working hours, etc. This is different from the kampong days. People nowadays are much too worried about labels and judgement.

For example, if you are pregnant and Malay, first thing your parent will do is to send you to a home. Why? To cover it up. The pregnancy is taboo. It is very embarrassing to the families. However, there is no support at the home. The young women are allowed to go to work or school. This only entrenches poverty further, especially for these single mothers.

“Laurence, in your maiden Parliamentary address, you spoke about introducing a Social Health Index in Singapore. What is this? And how do we achieve social health?

Laurence Lien: At the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and the Community Foundation of Singapore, my job is to get the well-to-do to give. Almost all the time, the question I get is: “where are the needs in Singapore?”. I explain, then they say “What is the government doing about it?”. Then I have the burden of explaining why we must not wait for government.

There is little visibility of our social realities on the ground. As a society, we like to hide our problems and the marginalised. We need to stop hiding poverty, especially if we want people to be part of the action to address social problems.

12 Apr 2012 (4)

“We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.”

I visited the Boston Foundation in the United States two years ago. This foundation publishes the “Boston Indicators Project” every two to three years. It wasn’t initiated by the government; they started it. They publish this wonderful report that galvanises people to think about how to address issues in society.

We need to do this in Singapore. We track the economic indicators so closely. But isn’t social health just as important?  The last elections demonstrate that social issues are critical to our citizens . When it comes to economic health, the government has all the levers. But when it comes to social health, it’s scared that it doesn’t have all the levers and they don’t want to be accountable in the same way. We need to look at individuals, families, community cohesion and happiness as well. We should measure subjective well-being.  This idea was poo-poo-ed by the politicians. But at the end of the day, this is what we want. What is life for if we do not seek to be happy?

The Social Health Index is to help identify the needs of the people and what the government is doing about it. For it to work, the community must be accountable as well and it must have equal ownership of the issues

We are so fixated with economic indicators, don’t we care about social health indicators?


Dr Kirpal thanked all the speakers for their answers and sharing of experiences. One hour into the discussions, it was time for the audience to pose some tough questions . . .

People are falling through the cracks. What is the real role of elected govt in resolving poverty problem?

Laurence: I see the government as putting big stones into a container. It has the power to tax and redistribute resources. They must use the levers; these are the big stones. But there will be gaps and that’s where civil society comes in. The government must have a cutoff by income, but often that criteria is insufficient. This is where civil society can come in to play a role. The government can also set a poverty line and minimum wage. I’m not convinced by the arguments against the minimum wage. We need more informed dialogue about this.

Braema: MCYS receives the smallest budget of all the ministries. This is unacceptable. When I started the Straits Times School Pocket Fund, it was because the criteria were too tight. But today 1700 is not enough for children and their families. The goal posts have shifted.

Radha: It’s too easy to bash the government. In fact, a lot of the anti-government bashing online is misinformed. Take Comcare. It’s a 1 billion dollar fund. When I asked Mdm Halimah last year, she told me that only 1 out of 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income scale uses Comcare. Why? Because, when asked, most needy families said they don’t need government assistance; they say their relatives will help them.

And take the recent discussion about cleaners wages. The first reply is that foreign workers are pushing down the wages. But three-quarters of our cleaners are local. What’s the elephant in the room? It’s cleaning contacts. The town councils enter into blatantly one-sided contracts. Cleaners earn $40 a day, but and be fired at will for no reason.

We can say the government isn’t doing enough, but will Singaporeans accept higher conservancy charges?

Braema: I need to reply to that. During the budget discussions, a minister asked ‘Singaporeans, would you like for your tax to increase?” I’m quite tired of this manner of discourse. Every time we raise a social issue, the politicians response is ‘are we willing to pay more?”. We are complicit in this way of thinking. It’s become like a contract we have with each other and we have to break it. It’s a question of shared responsibility.

Another member of the audience from a large local non-profit organisation shared these observations:

  1. When this forum started, I was taken aback with being uncomfortable with the term ‘poverty’. Factually the underclass community in Singapore is present. How come the word ‘poverty’ is seen to be so strong and taboo?
  2. Today we have more working class with low wages. Permanent jobs are scarcer and scarcer. Contractual work is becoming much more common instead.
  3. Bluntly speaking, the ‘blaming the victim’ attitude is quite prevalent, from the apex of the hierarchy to the bureaucrats at the bottom rung. Self-help bodies, including my organisation, are so busy trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the well-being of our clients. The public at large is not used to the term poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from getting to know what poverty is all about.

Another participant comment:

Our government has consistent budget surpluses, except in 2009. After a period of time, the surpluses are locked into reserves. This comes from the society, but what’s being done with the surplus?

The conversation in singapore drifts towards schemes and an incrementalist approach. We should move towards a different type of score card. By changing the method of assessment, we can measure the unmet needs more easily, for example, how many people with income less than $5000 have had to pay $100,000 out of pocket due to catastrophic illness?

A woman from another social agency disagreed with a suggestion by Braema that Singapore needs more social workers . . .

We need to shift the discussion to ‘what can i do’ to help people in need. Otherwise the blame game will continue. We need to shift policy. How do we handle the poor? Can we resolve poverty? Who should be resolving it? As professionals, what can we do to activate the citizenry?

A member of the clergy added this reflection:

It’s not lack of money that prevents the government from helping. 25% of the budget goes to defence. My feeling is what’s lacking is the voice of the poor. The poor here are docile. We need stronger unions.

The Panelists’ Final Reflections

Laurence: We are confronting this not just as a nation, but as a globe. Income inequality is hitting the whole world. The whole capitalist model has to be reviewed. We shouldn’t be ashamed. There are poor here and we need to talk about it more openly. But they are not helpless and always receiving. We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. It’s the mindset. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.

Nadia: I think I speak for social workers and all the wonderful people who do this work, we need a lot of workers who are passionate . . . we see are a lot of people with zero income and nothing in the bank. How do you compare that with 1500 a month? These are the people we look at. I agree with Laurence, I see our beneficiaries with strengths. They are resourceful, but their basic needs are not met. How much can we really do?


  1. We touched on minimum wage and contract jobs. Go to wikipedia and type in minimum wage and collective bargaining – almost all developed countries have one or the other, if not both. We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it. Contract jobs and immigration may be worldwide phenomena, but other countries have support systems that we don’t.
  2. We need more discussion as well from welfare groups. When I asked them for interviews to discuss unmet social needs, they refused to talk because they saw our story as being ‘too negative’.
  3. Should we be spending $850 million on baby bonuses every year, but less on welfare?

Braema: At the end of the day, we are talking about people in need. We need to treat the person coming through the door with dignity. Yes, they have a blame approach. Now they talk about teaching the person to fish, but what if you fence the pond or what if the pond has no fish? Having a conducive environment is equally important. I want to go to fish, but i can not find the pond because there are too many obstacles in my way.

Kirpal: Sometimes, it’s easier to say yes and sign protocols, but when you visit them on the ground they are not as good as Singapore. There’s a lesson by old guys like me. We always begin by saying to government, ‘it’s your job to help me’. The government might be less anxious if we see them as a partner rather than always putting them on the defensive. They’re human too. There are practical ways of moving forward, without judgement and the blame game.

resized to width 750 15/4/2012 13:43:43

Joe Wan, Michele Yap, Braema Mathi, Laurence Lien, Radha Basu, Nadia Bamasri, Hani Mohamed, Thulasi Mahadevan, Michael Switow