Inclusivity in Singapore, according to a person with a disability, single mother, and foreigner on a working visa

Inclusivity in Singapore, according to a person with a disability, single mother, and foreigner on a working visa

Home truly

Text: Tracy Phillips

Image: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

This month, the recent 'brownface' ad debacle has sparked a national conversation around the representation of ethnic minorities, racial integration, and what more can be done to make Singapore more inclusive for everyone who calls our island state home. This conversation has been challenging, bringing to the forefront a tidal wave of polarizing views. Ultimately, it has been necessary as it's only through communicating and sharing our stories that we can connect and expand our perspective beyond our personal experiences.

When it comes to international rankings, there's no doubt that Singapore is a very comfortable place to live for many. We've taken the top spot in Asia for the last three years in consulting firm Mercer's Quality of Living survey, judged on factors such as political stability, healthcare, education, and transportation. Singapore was also top in HSBC's Expat Global Report for four years, dropping to second place this year behind Switzerland, as the most coveted place for expatriates to live and work.

If we've learned anything from the recent turn of events though, is that even though we're doing well by global metrics, we still have a long way to go with regards to the representation of all members of our society. This stretches well beyond race to other minorities, whose voices are less heard in traditional media. I hope by hearing from more of them, we can raise our collective understanding and sensitivity about matters we may have never considered.

Lim Kay Choong, 29, Research Analyst

lim kay choong

How would you describe your disability? 
I was born in Singapore, and have had muscular dystrophy since birth.

What do you think about the state of inclusivity in Singapore? 
It is a lot better right now than it used to be. Improvements in technology have helped a lot. For example, I get to move around in a motorised wheelchair these days.

Since the early 2000s, a lot has been done to make the public transportation network more accessible and wheelchair-friendly. These days I can go to most places via the MRT. In the past, there were no lifts, and for safety reasons, I was not allowed to use the escalator while in a wheelchair. There are still many places like shophouses around Ann Siang and Chinatown that need to be improved, but Singapore has come a long way.

I feel fortunate in Singapore when I look at other countries around Asia, where I always have to get around in taxis because the walkways aren't safe.

Have you ever faced discrimination?
A few years ago, I needed help near City Hall MRT station. I needed to open a door to access the lift. I had to ask for help for a long time before anyone stopped to assist. Finally, after many tries, of people just walking past, someone helped, and not only opened the door but realising I would face the same problem once out of the lift on the upper floor, followed me up to help me open that door too.

I have been very fortunate since primary and secondary school. I had a good principal, who encouraged my parents to get fellow students to help me, instead of solely relying on my helper. It helped me make friends, mix more freely, and be more mobile. They built a ramp for me to get around too. Many of these friends I made in school are still my friends today, and they have been my support network.

At each stage of my education, there were more obstacles and I needed to get more independent. During my time at university, I needed to be much more comfortable in asking for help. My condition is severe, so this support network was very important. For example, if I'm out late, my friends needed to carry me to get me into a taxi.

In my current workplace, I'm fortunate that I met my working colleague when he volunteered with The Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore. That's where he learned about my interests in programming and analysing data. The fact that he understands my condition makes work life much less stressful.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you've faced as someone with a disability in Singapore?
The cost of living is the biggest challenge. Regular doctors visits, having to have a full-time helper, the high cost of mobility aids  these are not wants; they're needs for someone with my condition. A mobility aid starts at about $3000 but for many of my peers, they need customised units that cost in excess of $10,000. I've found that in the United Kingdom, their welfare department will assess your condition in order to support you with what you need financially to manage your living needs.

What more do you think could be done to make Singapore feel more like home for you? 
When it comes to helping people with disabilities to find a job, most companies want people who are already skilled but what about those who didn't have the opportunities. How can we help them to bridge the skill gap?

What is one thing you would like to say to other Singaporeans?
When you see someone as different, they will be different. If you have grown up together with them or taken the time to get to know them more, I believe, instead of seeing them as having disabilities, you would view it as part of their strengths and weaknesses and realise that they have different challenges like everyone else.

What's one thing that you're grateful for in Singapore?
The people around me, friends and family, and the organisations who raise awareness on muscular dystrophy and other disabilities in Singapore.

Michelle Chan, 30, Yacht broker

Inclusivity in Singapore, according to a person with a disability, single mother, and foreigner on a working visa (фото 1)

How would you describe your life in Singapore? 
I became a single mom at 17. I had a daughter, and I have raised her since as a single parent up to the beautiful 13-year-old "tweenager" she is today with the help of my parents. I struggled a lot with juggling parenting and trying to discover and grow up myself then!

I am now a mother of two; I just had another boy last year. He is super cute, but I'm still not married because I don't really see the need to. I am happily together with my boyfriend (my son's father), and we are raising both my children.

What do you think about the state of inclusivity in Singapore? 
When I had my daughter many years ago, single parents were excluded from society. It was as if we and our children were not seen as part of Singapore. We were excluded from the baby bonus scheme, the CDA scheme (child savings account), grants, and incentives for a lot of other things for as long as I can remember. 

I considered myself lucky because I had my mother's support. We always had enough to raise my daughter, but I've always wondered about others who might be struggling to afford the high medical fees and expenses. Besides, wouldn't a 17-year-old single mom be needing more of these financial incentives? That question has always baffled me. It might be perhaps one of the reasons why young single moms choose to abort instead.

As a working single mom, I don't even qualify for the Parenthood tax rebate. I can't buy a HDB either unless I'm divorced  even then, we get less grants, and there's a different category of "waiting list" for single parents.

Have you ever faced discrimination?
Because I was a teenage single mom, I got judged a bit more by others, especially by older people. I would get asked questions about my child's father, my choice to keep the child, and my financial status. There were plenty of judgemental looks. In one instance, when I got a place on my own, one of my neighbours didn't want to let her kid play with my kid, even though she saw my daughter trying to peep over the fence to look for her friend.

It also happened with teachers at schools. The kindergarten school made my daughter make a Father's Day card, just because all the other kids in class were making it too. The school was aware that she comes from a single-parent family and only has a mom. I made it so clear when I enrolled her into the school to not engage her in these kinds of activities that would make her question why she has no father, especially as a young kindergarten kid. I was furious that they were so ignorant about this, and it's like they didn't take me seriously because they felt I was like a kid with a kid.

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced?
The biggest challenges would probably be the financial aspects of having a kid, especially when I was still so young myself. We don't get the same degree of support from the government and from society as married parents do.

When my child hands me some father participation activity or program form from her school or when she sees all her friends with two parents, I always try my best to make her feel comfortable. Being a single mother is a big financial, physical, and emotional challenge.

What more do you think could be done to make Singapore feel more like home for you?
The laws and rules around incentives for single parents have been revised recently. Now that I've had my second child while I still don't get the initial baby bonus because I'm not married, my child qualifies for other incentives now. I still feel that they could do better, because at the end of the day my son still has to do National Service as well. He's no different from other Singaporean boys with married parents.

What is one thing you would like to say to other Singaporeans?
Don't be so quick to judge. Always consider other people's feelings.

What's one thing that you're grateful for in Singapore?
Access to good education for my children.

Megha Ramesh, 31, Copywriter

Megha Ramesh

How would you describe your life in Singapore?
I was single and looking for a big adventure before I turned 30. When I managed to land a gig in Singapore in 2016, I didn't think twice about moving. It's close to home, safe, and I knew I could get biryani whenever I wanted. I also have family here (naturalised citizens), so settling in was even easier.

What do you think about the state of inclusivity in Singapore as someone who has recently moved to Singapore?
I have thought about this a lot, and I'm not sure if it is the function of the industry I'm in which tends to be more open-minded  because I personally haven't felt out of place or treated differently. I'm an exception though, and it might not be the case for a lot of other people. I consider myself quite lucky to have made friends who don't really care where I'm from.

Have you ever faced discrimination?
It's usually small things, that I roll my eyes at and move on. I'd hear an offensive comment, that would trickle down through the workplace grapevine about Indians. I definitely felt it when looking for houses. Real estate agents are more interested in my cooking habits than my mother.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you've faced as a foreigner?
Thanks to the rich Indian culture here, it was easy to feel like I fit in. My challenges can be considered first-world problems really, like not knowing the names of dishes and ingredients here, trying to keep up with Singlish in conversations, and learning to appreciate meat that isn't drowned in 20 different masalas.

What more do you think could be done to make Singapore feel more like home for you? Honestly, it doesn't feel like 'home' because it doesn't feel permanent. There's always that nagging doubt if your visa will be renewed for another two years or not, and there's not much that can be done about that! Otherwise, it's great. I fell into a routine in no time and I can't believe I'm nearing three years here. Again, it comes down to having access to familiar food, hearing familiar languages around me and feeling like I have a community here.

What is one thing you would like to say to other Singaporeans?
We all have biases and that can't be helped, but we need to actively squash them and try to have an open heart  we all have more in common than we realise.