Helping those who can't help themselves
Officers from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) have been writing on blog 'MSF Conversations' to give readers a glimpse of what they do. CATHERINE ROBERT (firstname.lastname@example.org) speaks to three of them
Gamblers don't intimidate her
She oversees government-imposed casino exclusions, among other gambling-related matters for Singaporeans.
The majority of her clients are aged between 51 and 64.
Gambling safeguards officer Lee Xinyi, 27, says some of the reasons for their frequent visits to the casino make her feel sad.
They include escaping loneliness, depression and helplessness, especially when they are in debt.
Miss Lee, one of the 15 people in her team, recalls a case of a gambler who spent a lot of time at the jackpot machine to "cope with loneliness".
"After speaking to her, I realised the jackpot machine was actually her friend. On top of living alone, she didn't have much of a social circle or anyone else to talk to," she says.
The gambler eventually stopped visiting the casino after receiving a casino exclusion.
Miss Lee, who joined MSF in 2011, says the people she meets are not gambling addicts.
"The only reason we exclude them from the casino is because they are financially vulnerable. If they continued spending the amount they did, they would soon find themselves in a bad financial state.
"My job is to help prevent that."
While Miss Lee explains to her clients that she is only trying to do what is best for them, not all of them are appreciative of her efforts.
"There was one particular incident where a man was unhappy about being excluded from the casino.
"He raised his voice and tried to intimidate me.
"Those situations are hard to get through, because being a frontline officer, you can't leave the situation to calm yourself down while a client is demanding answers," she says.
And it did not stop there.
"The man was in his 50s, and started saying things like, 'How can you understand my situation? You are only in your 20s, and you haven't even seen life'.
"It's during these times that I wish they know I am trying to help them."
Tough clients like him, however, do not get Miss Lee down.
"After being on the job for five years, I've learnt to take it in my stride and move forward.
"And to keep moving forward, I remind myself of the reason why we came into the job in the first place.
"My passion has always been to be able to help people in need, and it's going to take a lot more than a series of tough situations with clients for me to lose that love."
She protects children from abusive situations
She is often so desperate to save the children she cares for, she feels like taking them home.
Miss Applie Wan, 29, says it is a sentiment she shares with her child protection officer colleagues.
"It's hard for anyone to see helpless children end up with no home.
"Sometimes, we just want to be the ones to take them in and make the situation better," says Miss Wan, who has been in the job for six years.
She works with her team to conduct investigations into child abuse and neglect.
Getting teary-eyed during the interview, Miss Wan recalls an abandoned baby who was just a few months old when he entered the system.
"He ended up with a family. But, when he became a teenager, the family that took him in were no longer able to look after him due to their circumstances," she says.
The family eventually exited the system, while the boy stayed in it.
"They were the only family he knew and he missed them a lot," Miss Wan says.
"When a family exits the system, they aren't able to maintain contact with the child.
"The loss of attachment broke him, and having to see that heartbreak was one of the hardest things I've had to do."
Miss Wan, who works with children from newborn babies to 16-year-old teenagers, says she was desperate to help the boy.
"If I could, I'd help every child in that situation, but it's just not realistic for me to take in every child in limbo, although I would love to," she says.
Her job can deliver a challenge every day.
"It is the hardest when a child who is deemed in danger has to be removed from their own home. That's when parents get hostile, and clients hurl vulgarities at you," she says.
Miss Wan even had people cursing her family members. She says the situation can be difficult at times.
"It's times like those that we turn to our management and other team members for support," she says.
But as difficult as it gets, Miss Wan says she just cannot see herself doing anything else.
"I believe very strongly in the mission of my job, and I want to continue to make a difference to their lives and their family's lives.
"We feel for the children, and I want to do is work as hard as I can and ensure that these children find permanent homes where they can have a conducive and safe childhood."
“It is the hardest when a child who is deemed in danger has to be removed from their home.”
- Child protection officer Applie Wan
She helps young offenders stay on the right path
Her title is senior forensic psychologist.
"The moment people hear the word 'forensic', they immediately link it to pathology and laboratories," Sylvia (not her real name) tells The New Paper on Sunday in a phone interview.
Her identity is concealed due to the sensitivities of her job.
"I'd have to explain to them that I focus on treating young offenders by understanding the psychology behind their behaviour," she says.
Sylvia, who has been working for MSF since 2009, says she mainly works with those aged 12 to 21 who have had run-ins with the law, including crimes of a sexual and violent nature.
Sylvia admits that she can't help but be affected sometimes.
"It is when they re-offend that gets us feeling bogged down," she says.
"I was helping a 17-year-old boy, and it looked like he and his family were doing well. He started performing better in school, and he started becoming more receptive at home."
But it was short-lived.
"He re-offended not long after and ended up serving a jail sentence.
"His mother was in shock because nobody expected that he would go down that path again.
"When she called me, I felt a little bit of her heartbreak," she says.
"What hurt even more was when she thanked me for how I'd helped him despite his re-offence."
Understanding why the young offenders behave badly is not as simple as asking them, "Why did you do it?"
Sharing another anecdote, Sylvia says: "There was an incident with another individual where he had committed an offence of a sexual nature.
"He was ashamed to speak about it, and that shame was not going to disappear overnight.
"But I knew he loved animals. So for a few months, I broke down his walls by talking about animals and (television channel) Animal Planet.
"Eventually, he opened up to me and we spoke about the offence, but it took a lot of perseverance before I could get him to open up to me."
Despite the amount of time she spends breaking down barriers, Sylvia says she does not see it as "a waste of time".
"We have to be creative about it because different people take to treatment differently.
"It is another reason why we have moved from treating just the offenders to a group treatment with the family, because by understanding their background, we can really understand their behaviour."
The new way of therapy also aims to ensure that their siblings "don't land up in the system as well".
“When his mother called me, I felt a little bit of her heartbreak. What hurt even more was when she thanked me for how I’d helped him despite his re-offence.”
- Sylvia, a senior forensic psychologist
About the blog site
The MSF Conversations blog site, which was launched in December last year, is a platform for MSF officers to share their personal stories about their work.
Of the WordPress site, an MSF spokesman told TNPS: "Contributors range from (MSF) Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social and Family Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim to many other MSF colleagues, (who pen) their thoughts about social and family related issues."
MSF hopes that readers will be able to better understand the roles of the various personnel working within the government arm.
The spokesman adds: "Through this sharing, we hope readers of the blog will gain a better understanding of the work that we do at the MSF... and participate in a conversation with us."