Friday, January 29, 2010

Homeless and homeless-to-be

Over the past few weeks, I had become involved in some activities organised by TOC to visit the homeless, bring some gifts and listen to their personal histories. It was an eye-opener.

Through these outings and talking to other participants, I learned that all the homeless shelters in Singapore are packed. There is no room for more. HDB rental flats had a long waiting list with a waiting time of about 2 years. Hence the "latecomers" started camping at the beaches.

And here they encounter problems with NParks regulations. To pitch a tent in the park, a permit is required. Each person is allowed to book up to 8 days each month. If anyone is found to be camping without a permit, he will be fined and ordered to leave. If anyone is found in the tent whose name was not in the permit, the permit applicant is blacklisted so that he can no longer apply for any more permits. So where are these people to go? That does not seem to be anybody's problem except the homeless themselves'.

Not all of the homeless are jobless, some are still holding jobs, but the pay is too low for them to buy / continue paying for a flat. In one case, the husband had a job, a night shift job, and he had to give it up because he could not leave his wife in the park alone. Once you are homeless and jobless, it can be very difficult to get back on track. How do you apply for jobs, without an address/telephone number where you could be reached?

But TOC had published several articles on this before, and hence I shall not dwell too much on the same case.

Recently the appalling situation has come closer to home. A friend is in immediate danger of becoming homeless due to her divorce. I could not believe it at first. She has custody of her children, so they do form a family nucleus, and they are still paying their mortgage, so I could not understand why HDB is ordering them to sell the flat. I called up HDB to seek clarification. HDB explained that she and her ex-husband co-own the flat, but due to the divorce, HDB cannot allow them to continue to co-own it. Hence, either the husband or the wife must buy over the share from the other party. But unfortunately, neither one of them had the money to buy over the flat and refund the other party's CPF. Hence it must be sold. I then went on to ask why they cannot be allowed to continue to co-own the flat since both parties were happy with that arrangement. The officer explained that it would be unfair for the ex-husband who might want to apply for another flat. While this is perfectly understandable if the ex really wanted to apply for another flat, but in this particular case, he wanted to continue with the co-ownership so that his children would have a home. So I discover that it is actually with the good intention of protecting the rights of the husband that the HDB is now going to force his ex-wife and children into homelessness. Isn't that just lovely? A rule meant to protect does the exact opposite, and yet no amount of persuasion / appeal (seen MP and all that) can effect any change in decision.

She does not qualify for HDB rental flat but can't afford to buy a flat on her own, or to rent a flat at market rate (which I discover to my horror is getting close to $2k for a 3 room flat!). Her son, would you believe it, is serving full time NS now, but has already secured a job with a GLC. When he starts work in 2 years time, he and his mom will be able to buy a flat together. So, please sir, can we just delay this until the son finishes serving his NS ? No can do!

So it looks like a new homeless case will be created. This could have been avoided if some flexibility could be exercised / built into the rules. And it seems hers is not an isolated case. How did we come to this? 8% of HDB households are behind in their mortgage payments. If we continue to deny the existence of homelessness, it will only get worse, contributed by people who are unaware that their actions are agravating the situation. A simple acknowledgement of the problem could pave the way for plans to be hatched, actions to be taken.

As for my friend, she plans to send her sons to a relative, while she goes to Malaysia to live with another relative, until her son finishes NS. But she is very sad at having to leave her sons, so we are going to try and help her out, to chip in with rent so that she can stay in Singapore.But she says it is very "pai seh" and she has not yet agreed to accept our help. But we are still trying.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Employment Assistance Payment (EAP)

The chinese have a saying, shang you zhen ce, xia you dui ce ( the people above set the policies, the people below device counter measures).

Regulating that employers pay ex-gratia payments to older employees when they can no longer find suitable positions for them creates greater disincentives to employ older workers. Couple that with the virtually unlimited supply of foreign workers, what would companies do?

Companies are bottomline driven and it would be naive to expect otherwise. Would they:
A) Avoid employing anyone over the age of (say) 40 so that there is very little risk of having to incurr this additional expense
B) Offer only contract employment to avoid incurring this additional expense
C) Employ foreign workers to avoid incurring this additional expense
D) Find ways to legitimately let go of older employees (e.g. poor performance appraisals, transfer to onerous/unsuitable positions, etc) to avoid incurring this additional expense
E) All of the above
F) Embrace the employment of older workers and dutifully pay EAP giving absolutely NO THOUGHT whatsoever as to how they can avoid incurring this additional expense

Which is your answer?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Loan Sharks

According to Straits Times 13 Jan "Law gets tougher on loan sharks", parliament yesterday toughen the legislation on loan sharks. I am all for it. Seeking profit by taking advantage of people when they are down is definitely an action that we want to get rid off.

However, subsequent paragraphs caused me some disquiet. It says " He (AP Ho Peng Kee, Sr MOS for Law and Home Affairs) said that while the focus had been on the loan sharks and their helpers, the ministry had also looked into whether borrowing from loan sharks should be made a crime. The issue drew mixed views and for now, it will not be a crime to borrow from loan sharks."

I am very relieved the govt is not going to criminalise borrowing from loan sharks for now. It would have been disastrous. If the borrowing is also illegal, where are we pushing the people who are so desparate that they had to borrow from loan sharks? They will start to hide from the govt as well, falling deeper into the hole they have dug for themselves, and making such illegal activities even harder to eradicate.

I would have approached this problem from a different angle. Why do loan sharks lend money? Because they can profit from it. So lets make it a non-profitable business, better yet, make it a money-losing proposition. For example, extend the full protection of the law to the borrowers and their family. Publicise widely that borrowers need not repay a single cent of any loan that charges an interest rate above the legal limit since the loan is illegal in the first place. Offer police protection for those who face harrassment from loan sharks. If the lenders cannot get their money back, they are not going to lend. They are not going to get so many runners (many of whom are borrowers themselves who cannot afford to repay their loan) to do their dirty work. In my view, this would be more effective and more in keeping with my innate sense of justice.