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Encounters With Needy Families Sparks Desmond Lee’s Passion To Help At-Risk Children

Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said there is a need for better social service integration and early childhood intervention, so at-risk children would not become “wasted opportunities” where their life trajectory gets “completely derailed”. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY


 January 4th, 2018  |  10:16 AM  |   1069 views



Helming his own ministry for the first time since he was elected to Parliament in 2011, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee revealed that it was during his time spent as a backbencher that ignited his passion for helping young children from disadvantaged backgrounds and broken families, and this is an area that he feels most strongly about as he settles into his new portfolio.


Following the 2011 General Election, Mr Lee became a Member of Parliament for Jurong Group Representation Constituency. As a backbencher, before he was appointed as Minister of State for National Development in September 2013, he met two families and the encounters remain etched in his mind.


One involved a runaway teenage daughter of a homeless couple, who was a recipient of an Edusave Merit Bursary award when she was in lower secondary. But within a year after she received the bursary, she got into bad company and started smoking and drinking.


Mr Lee, who was speaking to the media in his first interview as Social and Family Development Minister, recalled meeting the “very quiet” teenager at his Meet-the-People sessions and the bursary award ceremony. Although her parents managed to secure a one-room rental flat in Taman Jurong, the girl “completely changed”, Mr Lee said. Her parents said she mixed with the wrong people, and they hardly see her now. “Needless to say, (at) the next Edusave ceremony, I kept a look out for her but didn’t see her,” Mr Lee said.


Calling it a “wasted opportunity to intervene”, he said this was a situation where a young person “would be at risk because of factors beyond her control, entirely not her fault”. He added: “Every child that doesn’t get support – as his or her life derailed – I think it is an opportunity lost.” Social services could have prevented the teenager from having to stay with her friends, after her parents sold their flat amid financial troubles and slept in parks, void decks or playgrounds, said Mr Lee.


In the other case, an elderly man needed help to put his daughter’s two sons — fathered by different men — in pre-school. The woman was undergoing drug rehabilitation. Mr Lee recounted that the elderly man approached him after his wife had died. Timely intervention by the PAP Community Foundation and foster care services made “a lot of difference” to the two boys, Mr Lee said. “They were able to speak (and) became more confident.”


Thanks to financial grants, the boys’ monthly school fees amounted to only S$3. Their foster parents would bring them to meet their grandfather from time to time, Mr Lee said. “This case gives you an insight into how early childhood opportunities can create a world of difference for young children from lower income households.”


In September last year, Mr Lee took over the social and family development portfolio from Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who became Speaker of Parliament.


Mr Lee said there is a need for better social service integration and early childhood intervention, so at-risk children would not become “wasted opportunities” where their life trajectory gets “completely derailed”.


A father of three young children (aged 4, 6 and 8) himself, Mr Lee described his work at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) as “a lot more about emotion than pure rationality”, and it is important to navigate the “sharp edges” surrounding families in crisis.


Before his latest appointment, Mr Lee served as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Second Minister for Home Affairs. Apart from helming MSF, he is concurrently the Second Minister for National Development.


Mr Lee said his experiences enable him to bring different perspectives to his work at MSF.


Citing the links between the various ministries’ work, Mr Lee noted that housing policy is heavily driven by social policy or needs, for example. Also, helping ex-offenders is as much an area of focus for the Ministry for Home Affairs, as it is for the MSF, he said. “There are different dimensions and approaches… so there are opportunities to synergise, and agencies are talking a lot more to each other,” he added. “The next step now is to integrate implementation much more effectively.”


Asked by reporters to talk about himself, Mr Lee said it is in his nature to be “a bit more quiet”, but he enjoys working with communities where he sees “much energy and passion”. This was a tenet of his work in the Ministry of National Development, where he worked with environmental and conservation groups. This way, “you unleash the power of community spirit and you allow people to get involved… to own the problem… understand the situation… and to offer often a very refreshing perspective to allow us to derive policies”, he said.



courtesy of TODAY



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