How Singapore uses data to reach the underserved

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Dr Chu Chi Meng, Director, Translational Social Research Division, National Council of Social Service, Singapore.

Bethany Hamilton was a young star in the surfing world, but at age 13, lost one arm in a shark attack. She eventually returned to the sport, despite difficulties along the way. Her journey is immortalised in her quote: “I don’t need easy. I just need possible”.

For vulnerable groups in Singapore, it may not be easy, but there is hope for possible. The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) shares how it is using data to reduce the barriers faced by those in need and create a society of opportunities.

Dr Chu Chi Meng, Director, Translational Social Research Division of the NCSS highlights how his organisation recognises and responds to challenges faced by people in need.

Breaking the cycle

Could parents’ criminal records have an impact on their children’s tendency towards breaking the law? What can governments and communities do to support these children early?

NCSS is working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to investigate this. Researchers gathered administrative data on offenders and their children from across ministries to find possible links, Dr Chu shares.

Early support is critical in solving this issue, the study found. MSF has used these findings to design interventions for the children of criminal offenders to find a positive future.

For instance, it is piloting a Local Community Network, which brings together schools, social services and government agencies to coordinate earlier support to affected families, Dr Chu explains.

Furthermore, youth offenders will go through an evaluation on whether rehabilitation programmes will be more appropriate than criminal prosecution. This will help youth offenders to avoid the associated stigma and get further involved in the justice system, NCSS shared in a report.

This is the first time Singapore has done this study on such a large scale, he says. “The study design allows NCSS to analyse hard-to-reach groups such as those who may have exposure to adverse family events that are not typically captured in smaller studies.”

Raising awareness 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stressful time for all, but the NCSS wanted to find out more about the unique barriers it placed on those in need. Its studies highlighted “the broader psychosocial effects” of the pandemic, including on mental health, Dr Chu states.

NCSS allocated S$1.15 million (US$866,877) to three counselling programmes to give more emotional and psychological support for citizens. The findings have also been helpful for social service agencies and the Beyond COVID-19 Taskforce, an NCSS-led initiative to strengthen social services in the pandemic, he shares.

People can struggle to connect with and help those they don’t understand. An NCSS study found that there were gaps in knowing how to support people with disabilities in social interactions, employment and education.

NCSS then created the ‘Look Beyond My Disability, See the True Me Campaign’, which is a five-year awareness and public education programme. The goal was to prevent social stigmas from becoming barriers to the vulnerable contributing to society.

An interactive video found at bus stops features Wanyi, a young woman with Down syndrome, as she asks for a high five. If commuters respond with one, Wanyi starts to talk about her interests. It intends to break down barriers through social interaction with those with disabilities.

Documentary-style videos featuring people with disabilities also formed part of this campaign. These individual stories showcase how people with disabilities are not so different from everyone else. Some videos have received more than 200,000 views on YouTube.

NCSS also conducts regular surveys with the public to find out their attitudes towards people with disabilities and mental health conditions. These are useful “indicators” of the success of public education campaigns, he notes.

Data’s role in providing support

Those who remain unseen in society are very often the same people who are most in need.

NCSS analyses the profiles of ongoing research studies to identify these groups, so no one falls through the cracks. This helps determine the number of people who need support, their specific needs and the kinds of helpful interventions.

Data analysis also helps researchers and policymakers understand the impact of different life events. They could then identify individuals with multiple disadvantages as well as recognise the “risk” factors that impact people in need, Dr Chu explains.

Data is just one tool that the NCSS employs to better understand the quality of life of vulnerable people in Singapore. From this deep understanding, the appropriate support networks can coordinate their efforts and ensure no citizen is left behind.