Whose Money Is It Anyway?

by Zubaida Ali


“You know you are getting all this for free right?”, said a medical social worker whose job was to assess and dispense government funds to Rahimah, her client.

Never mind that Rahimah is wheelchair bound, suffers from organ failure, needs an external stoma bag in place of a kidney and is due for several surgeries just to stay alive. The implication is that since Rahimah is on the receiving end of state welfare, she shouldn’t have any preferences or make any requests. 

We expect the weak, vulnerable and those in high-need, to have only feelings of gratitude for the help rendered, and that they are stripped of the basic right to choose, something we all take for granted every day. It is all so Dickension , calling to mind that one scene in Oliver Twist where dared to ask for more porridge, and the Superintendent yelled in his booming voice , “What! We clothed you and fed you and gave you a roof over your head, and you still dare to ask for seconds?” 

We as a society tend to look approvingly at the amount of social service agencies in Singapore, staffed by thousands of social workers and government employees, disbursing millions of dollars in funds to those who need it. This can be the sick, frail elderly, people with disabilities, and families that have fallen on hard times and need time to get back on their feet. But how is this service rendered? Do we ever think the recipient of this help deserves to leave the social service office or Family Service Centre with their dignity and heart intact?

What is our obligation to help those who cannot cope with the demanding challenges of being economically productive and even if they are, do not seem to be earning enough to support their families?

It is our understanding that the funds allocated to help the community belongs to the people, to alleviate suffering and poverty. We appoint gatekeepers like social workers and social service officers to be good custodians of the funds but also allow those who need those funds through the door. We expect that they be treated with dignity and respect, the same as any other citizen, rich or poor. 

My friend, Marie, reported to her social worker that she has earned $400 working part-time at a children’s enrichment center, after months of looking for work. When potential employers learnt that she was a single mother of several young children, the job interview whether by phone or in person will abruptly come to an end. Instead of congratulating Marie for trying to get back on track to support her family, the social worker immediately went to work to cut her financial assistance by $400. When I was in social service, my colleagues and I always advocated to social service workers to not be so quick to terminate or cut back on financial assistance, when someone finds employment. Starting a new job will always come with extra costs such as transport costs, lunch with colleagues and takeaway meals or snacks for the children, as mum has to rush home after work. Giving a period where she gains stability and confidence, will be helpful for the whole family going through this period of adjustment. In fact, sometimes, women fail during these first few months of balancing work, family responsibilities and even feelings of guilt and inadequacy that they quit their jobs so as not to disappoint their co-workers or family. 

Sarah, a bright and articulate woman in her 30s has been to every job fair and taken as many courses and workshops that her Skillsfuture funding allows her to. Her dream is to work in admin, working in a nice office surrounded by office colleagues who welcomes her sunny and helpful disposition. After countless job interviews she is convinced that the job market does not want her due to her darker skin tone, and the fact that she does not speak Mandarin. She has a deep desire to contribute to the work force but are there any employers willing to give her the opportunity? Recently she went for a job interview at a government agency and was told she got the job. She was elated and told her children and friends of the good news. However, after a few weeks of hand wringing waiting, was told that the job scope has changed and the offer is withdrawn. She cried bitter tears, at yet another disappointment. 

We talk of patience and resilience to women such as Marie, that the right opportunity will come along. One employer will see how special she is, and her anguish will be over. I say these comforting words, yet at the same time knowing that it is an uphill battle for someone who looks like Marie, and her caregiving challenges. 

I wish things could be different. That instead of one-off Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) events and feel good HR programmes, employers do extend a helping hand to the people who normally will not make the cut in their recruitment practice. That they recognize a workforce that has diversity of people of many backgrounds and income stratas, will make for a rich and interesting group dynamic. That such genuine company initiatives will be able to create depth of understanding and a lively working environment of leaning and learning from one another. 

We have seen such forward-thinking employers, who reach out and seem to want to embrace the culture of inclusion and acceptance. We hope to see more, not only at the hiring stage but also at a deeper level, where a working culture of openness, fun, colourful and richness is present. 

But to reach that level, one has to give someone like Marie a fighting chance to get through the door.


Zubaida Ali is a community worker and an activist on social issues concerning the rights of women and children. She occasionally writes on relevant issues pertaining to the Muslim community.

Illustration by Elisa Tanaka