Interview with Ng Bee Leng: Let trust be our intangible gain

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

Ng Kok Hoe, Head of the Case Study Unit and Senior Research Fellow at the LKY School of Public Policy, spoke to Ng Bee Leng, a social worker and community worker with 30 years’ experience, about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on poverty—especially intergenerational poverty—in Singapore.

Kok Hoe: Thank you for doing this interview, Bee Leng. Today I thought we’d discuss three main questions. The first is: from your perspective as a social worker and a community worker, what has been the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our communities? The second is: what can we do to respond to the crisis? And the third is to look towards the future: what happens after this crisis?

Can you tell us about your involvement in the social services over the years, so we understand the context from which you are experiencing what is happening now?

Bee Leng: My name is Bee Leng. I am social work-trained. For the past 30 years, I have been passionate about helping low-income families out of poverty. After many years of trying to help families, seeing all the things done by them, by the community and by institutions, you sometimes wonder, why is poverty still reproduced? So, especially in the last decade, I’ve become curious about the structural, the socio-economic conditions that perpetuate inter-generational poverty.

I’ve also become invested in generating a paradigm shift away from a charity model—the model of service provision by paid professionals in social services—toward a community model. I’m especially interested in ensuring that the low-income community has a voice, a collective platform to come together and, with other like-minded communities, co-create solutions. They are the experts on their own lives. Professionals only have a snapshot of what they are going through. So this has been my development. I’m very passionate about poverty, social inequality, and asset-based community-led development.

Recently people have noticed how the COVID-19 outbreak impacts different groups differently. It’s often most severe for the group you are most concerned about—lower-income communities. From your own observations, how has the outbreak affected them?

Bee Leng: What is happening on the ground is very dynamic. Things change very fast. Between three months ago, when we got in touch with families, and three months later, when we speak to the same families, things have changed swiftly. I imagine the same will be true one year down the road. And with all the circuit breaker measures in place, it is very hard for us to really have our ears close to the ground. So what most of us have is only a piece of a very dynamic puzzle, a jigsaw piece. But it helps to form the bigger picture.

We know that there is wealth and income disparity between the bottom and the top. How will COVID-19 contribute to the gap? Is it going to pull the bottom end further down? I suspect yes, for certain groups.

There are three existing groups. One group was actually likely to do better, in the next few years, once the children get out of school and get a job. But now with COVID-19, I don’t know what it means for these families, if their children are going to get a job. This is a group we need to look out for. Whether their effort all these years, now they are so near a chance to get out… how much they are going to be set back.

Another group will take a longer time: those with very young children. If you look at how committed they are to their children’s education, trying to keep down a job, get some income and make ends meet, despite having so little, I wonder how badly hit they will be. A lot are mothers who need flexi-employment—in between their kids being in school, they take on jobs that bring in some income. But they are also not protected—there is no income security, no health coverage. Stopping work means no income.

Of course, a third group is already in intergenerational poverty. They have gone through so many years on assistance and don’t seem to be doing any better. For this group, we typically ask our social workers to focus on the kids, the next generation. Don’t punish the family because of the so-called irresponsibility of the parents. Focus on stability for the children, better educational opportunities. This group, in some way, they are the most resilient now, they have coped with worse.

These are families with little or no buffer. And in a situation like this, whatever good work they have done in the years before can be totally wiped out in a short time. Although doctors always say that COVID-19 is blind to social class, meaning it can infect anyone, the social conditions are such that it will impact our low-income families unequally. They have fewer resources and I wonder how they can heed the advice not to go to work if they’re sick, because to stop working means no money, no food on the table. They also have no sick leave. When they go to work in ill health, it’s not irrational, it’s not socially irresponsible; it’s trying to meet first-order needs.

Bankruptcies are on the rise in Singapore and likely to generate a ‘new poor’ who may be unlikely to tap on the social service system as a first resort. (Screenshot from, taken on 25 May 2020)

My other question is: who will be the new poor? The people who, traditionally, social workers like myself never meet in the course of our work. In our language, these people are “not in the system”. As social workers, we must be on the lookout. We cannot just look at the same group of beneficiaries we have always been working with. We need to be attuned to this other group, who likely would not want to tap on the social service system, not until they are down and out. They are all very much part of this narrative of self-reliance and many will only reach us, if we are not attuned, when they are already caught in the bottom.

I have worked with families who, two, three years back, owned five-room HDB flats, owned businesses, but were hit economically by the financial crisis. They lost their businesses, went bankrupt and became heavily in debt. Even this early in the crisis, you hear of people filing for bankruptcy. This is just the tip of the iceberg, the first group to be hit. They are probably the smaller businesses. And these people will not come to us as first resort. I’ve seen this group come to us only when they are in rental flats, they have lost their home, they had to sell assets to pay their debts. Their health takes a hit, the family relationship also, because of financial stress. The spiral is quite scary, it’s fast, and the slope is very slippery. It’s not an acute situation where you can get out of it, if you just bear the hardship for a while. It almost like once you fall into that lower end, and you are playing within the rules of that bottom end of society, you can’t climb up.

What does social service delivery look like now, with all the disruptions?

Bee Leng: The services have been locked at a time when they are most needed. Many have stopped. Reaching out is very difficult, so what we are doing is very piecemeal. We are not close enough to the ground.

What I learnt from COVID-19, which presents very clearly now, is the limits of institutions, of service delivery by professionals and organisations. I’m not saying these services are not needed. We will need them for a long time to come. But when the institutions have to be locked down and stopped, no one can fill the gap, because everything is always driven by government, by institutions. We have not created and allowed the growing of the community space, the civil society space.

We have been responding to needs through social services. But there are many things that social workers cannot do in a situation like this. We have a certain role to play, but in countries where the civil society and citizenry are more active, this care machinery has been taken over by informal groups, because it has been there: it has been built, harnessed, encouraged. To them, it’s not work, not even services. But it is responsive, it meets needs in a relational way, it is not transactional.

I’m encouraged by the outpouring of initiatives from the ground, by individuals, informal groups and organisations. Time and again, when there is a clear need, clear cause, Singaporeans have come out generously to support and help. The government needs to learn to step back for this to flourish, and not quickly take over. In “peace time”, we need to do that. When we have more time, we need to build this kind of bottom-up response, for people to build relationships and trust at the hyper-local level. Not only step back, but encourage, support and fund these kinds of efforts.

Where is the line between formal social services and civil society? How are they different, how are their roles different in times like this?

Bee Leng: Formal services are typically provided by NGOs. These are usually managed by social workers and paid professionals, and some are highly specialised. I believe that in the whole ecosystem, there will always be a place for this group. There is a role and a scale in that, but there are small pockets… in a situation like COVID-19, where the institutions have to step back, you realise this gap is there.

Certain things are better done by, say, your neighbour. Take the example of childcare. Maybe in the past, when I go out and I have no one to care for the kid, I bring them along with me. But in a situation like this, we are not encouraged to go out as a family, yet childcare is a problem if my kids are very young. So if I have someone I can trust, if I need to run errands, I’d say let me buy for you as well, meanwhile can you keep an eye on my child? Imagine if this family goes to a social worker and says, “I need childcare.” In normal times, the only way is to put them in formal childcare. But with formal services, there is a whole gamut of regulations you have to fulfil. Even if the social worker wants to be creative, they cannot ethically advise that you go to a neighbour, because of safety concerns and so on. This is where the limits of institutions show up.

The other part of civil society that is not present is groups of people coming together, like low-income families, for example. Not just talking about poverty as case work, but having a voice about what would be helpful and what are barriers. It could be collaborating with other groups, with academics, with people who have IT skills, including those who today may be frowned upon as activists, who criticise during this national crisis. They do this because they care about Singapore, they stand for certain things, so all of them have a role. The critique may be hard to accept; it may be perceived as a critique that the system has failed. But that’s not necessarily the case.

A participant at 2019 civil society conference Apa Itu Activist? adds a message on a wall collecting aspirations for Singapore society. (Photo: CAPE/Sun Jie Min)

This may be a tall order… but imagine if the government and groups who are the greatest critics are able to dialogue… then we can pre-empt problems earlier.

Then we come to the biggest player on the scene: the state. The state of course has many roles to play, notwithstanding the important roles of communities and individual citizens. The state raises taxes, delivers direct services and puts collective resources to use, like the many schemes we have seen in response to COVID-19. As they interact with different parts of society, there are some areas where they can do more, some where they should do less, some where we want them to do differently. In your view, what is good government at a time like this?

Bee Leng: If I was asked, would I choose to live in any other country during COVID-19? I would say no. I’m glad I’m in Singapore. This is a salute to the government, the community, the low-wage workers, all the people trying to help. Although numbers are still escalating, I feel that the government has done a good job in certain aspects. They could have done better in some areas, but I don’t want to negate the good effort.

Having said that, I think the government needs to learn that as a society matures, especially with the new generation, they have to learn to govern differently, with more trust. In my last 30 years, I’ve met many people in the government who are dedicated to doing their best for the people they care for. I’ve also met many activists who may see things differently, but really are good citizens, wanting the best for our society. The government has to learn to trust, to allow for responses from the ground, to hold disparate views, even create an environment where they fund those efforts.

Fund people to critique them?

Bee Leng: I think if we want a system where the government knows what the blind spots are, and can respond to them, because you have the benefits of all those critiques—I think it’s more robust than if we keep hearing only all those things that are good. Even the best systems have blind spots that others can see, because of different vantage points. So it’s important not to be punitive when you get critiqued, but to fund these efforts. Funds can go to communities, not always institutions. And provide infrastructural support for informal groups. It may appear messy, clumsy, like there is disunity… but I think a false sense of unity is even worse.

When you said that you wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else at this time, the word that came to mind was trust. There is generally a lot of trust in the state in Singapore, as attitude surveys have found. So there seems to be an imbalance: the public seem to trust the government, but the government doesn’t trust the people. It doesn’t trust them to do the right thing, so regulations and fines; doesn’t trust them with information, so it must withhold some; doesn’t trust them to use public services responsibly, so the anxiety about people cheating the benefits system, and so on. Such a relationship does not seem healthy or sustainable. How can we get past this situation?

Bee Leng: I don’t really have an answer. I hope that COVID-19 becomes a wake-up call for all of us. We cannot just sit back and trust the government to do everything. If you want a voice, you’ve got to push for it. You must be prepared to do things. I hope the government can see that so many people among the citizenry, including those who are critical, where love for the country is their motivation. If we only harness their creativity, their commitment, instead of excluding them… if we lose so much to COVID-19, let this trust between people and government be our intangible gain.

What message do you have for readers?

Bee Leng: Every one of us can do something, big or small. It doesn’t have to be big scale. At this point, there are many things the government cannot do, so it depends on us, the citizens. I see many people doing these things and I get very inspired. The outpouring of donations, in kind, in money. I only ask that we move slightly away from this charity model of donations. Like the idea that “I don’t need the $600, I want to give it to people who need it more.” At a time like this, to think not of your own needs but of others, that’s wonderful; it definitely has its value. But it will be given as financial assistance and I worry that it may get locked into institutions and not disbursed fast enough. Can the money be used to support small businesses so they can remain viable? I think the most dignifying thing for many of us is to have a job and provide for ourselves. Maybe we are subscribing to the self-reliance narrative, but most Singaporeans will not want financial assistance if they can help it.

Ng Bee Leng is eager to see more participatory decision-making, involving not just professionals in formal roles but also citizens and members of the community. (Photo: Ng Bee Leng)

And we can also ask charities, how can our donations go towards supporting community initiatives? Not for case work and financial assistance but, say, someone wants to do something for the neighbourhood and needs the seed money to get going. How can we support these small initiatives? How can this money create new income-generating opportunities for families who have lost their jobs? That is the most dignifying because unlike with financial assistance, you can decide how to use your income. Some mothers, despite having very little, are in the community finding out how others are doing, trying to get families to help other families, but these activities are not recognised and paid as jobs. Can a pool of money support these community builders?

My final question is this. In general, Singaporeans work very hard. They work long hours, many years, and retirement age is fairly high even in comparison with other Asian societies. Yet, like you mentioned, sometimes it only takes one crisis to wipe everything out. This sounds very precarious and not a sustainable way for people to lead their lives and plan for their futures. For society as a whole, this doesn’t look like a foundation of security and confidence. Can this crisis mark the start of a different society, a different way of organising our lives?

Bee Leng: We had to learn a hard lesson. The group we most neglect—the segment of population we least pay attention to as a society, as a government—is our weakest link in the containment of COVID-19. In crises, systems get stressed, and it shows what is there, what is not there, the cracks, the flaws, the inadequacies. This is a good time to really learn, if we don’t take a very defensive stance. Pointing out or critiquing certain areas that are inadequate is by no means saying that the system has failed totally. The migrant workers have taught us the biggest lesson, and also the low-income groups.

Ironically, a lot of these people are in the essential services today. Without them, our society grinds to a halt. Migrant workers; low-wage workers and low-income families; people in the gig economy with no income security, no health coverage, so they cannot afford to stop work even when sick. Today these people have to continue to work, for the rest of us to be able to live and meet our first-order needs. We call these essential services, we all know that and we say that, but our salary structures, our social protection measures, don’t seem to match that valuation of how essential they are to our lives and our economy. If the system continues like that, then social workers will never be able to help families out of poverty.

I’m an idealist and a pessimist at the same time. I think Singapore has generated a decent amount of wealth, enough for it to be spread a lot more to the bottom end. But if our narrative does not change, if we still want a certain comfort and we are not prepared to do things differently as citizens, then I’m not optimistic. Post-crisis, people will be very busy with the “bread and butter”, people will be looking at how to bounce back as an economy, so the rules of the market will apply again, and people at the bottom of that market will stay there. But if we believe that equality and strong citizen participation make a more resilient society, then we must create the space and contribute. The change will depend on us.

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