My foster mum loved me like my own mum
An ex-foster child shares how the Fostering Scheme changed his life for the better...
On March 27, 2008, during his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) year, Paul (not his real name) was in class when he was called to the principal's office.
When he got there, there were two people waiting for him - a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) child protection officer and a woman he did not know.
She introduced herself as Madam Mona.
They told Paul, who was 12 then, that his mother had consented to placing him into foster care earlier that day.
Paul, now 20, did not see that coming.
He told The New Paper (TNP): "Everything was just boom. I was just so shocked and not mentally prepared because nobody told me about it."
His mother had consented after spending two months in the hospital following a breast cancer relapse.
When the cancer returned, she had asked Paul if he wanted to be placed in foster care because she was unable to care for him properly.
Paul's parents had separated when he was three and he had lost touch with his father.
But Paul repeatedly asked her not to place him in foster care because he was afraid of living with strangers.
He said: "I called my mother to ask her what was happening. She said she signed the form because she thought it would be better for me. She was very worried because she had been hospitalised and I was home alone."
That day, Paul and the MSF officer left the principal's office and visited his mother in hospital as the MSF officer had to tell her they had found a foster home for him.
His mother died that night.
Paul remembers how Madam Mona, now 60, shook him awake at midnight and broke the news to him.
Said Paul: "It all happened so suddenly."
Madam Mona, a housewife, recalled how Paul dived into his work, using his mother's death as his motivation to work hard.
After school, he would study for hours until dinner time.
What got him through that difficult period was his foster family's love.
His foster father is a senior technician.
Paul said: "It was a very large family. Madam Mona had three biological children, and foster children, too."
Madam Mona's three daughters are aged 27, 25, and 22.
Her three other foster children, all boys, are aged 12, 11, and nine.
Paul said: "It was very fun because there were so many people around. There was never a moment when I was bored."
And it only took Paul a few months to start calling Madam Mona "mother".
Paul said: "She treated me just like family, the way my mum treated me. I didn't see her as a stranger, and the other foster children also called her mum, so it was very natural."
When Paul found out he had done well for his PSLE, scoring 248, Madam Mona hugged him and cried.
He said: "I was just so happy because she was so proud of me."
Like any other teenager, Paul was mischievous.
He said: "I always have a habit of not doing my homework. I'd be studying on my own independently because my mum was working and didn't have the time to check on me.
"It got to a point where my teacher was calling Madam Mona about half a year's worth of homework that I had not done."
Paul, who is now serving his national service, said he feels privileged to have had the support of his foster family.
He hopes to be an aerospace engineer and has been offered a place at the National University of Singapore to study mechanical engineering.
Paul also hopes to become a foster parent one day, to care for other children who might be in the same predicament he was.
He said: "I think growing up in foster care has made me more compassionate and caring.
"Because it made me realise there are children who are suffering, and people who have the ability to help them.
"It has also made me kinder, in the sense that I want to help other people who are in need if I have the ability to do so."
Their 2 foster children look forward to board game nights
Last year, he finally became a father.
But the good news was not delivered by his wife.
Instead, it was a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) officer on the phone.
Mr Irwin Yip, 39, who works as a trading manager in the oil industry, has been married for nine years.
He and his wife, procurement manager, Madam Joyce Toh, 37, had been trying to have children but were unsuccessful.
Mr Yip said: "We considered fostering because we felt we were financially, emotionally and psychologically ready to build a family. Fostering and having our own children can also run parallel."
Their fostering story began two years ago when Madam Toh learnt about the MSF Fostering Scheme through a community centre newsletter.
In January last year, they were certified by MSF to be foster parents.
Then began their anxious wait for their first foster child. Four months later, they got the call.
Mr Yip said: "One day, my wife received a call from the MSF asking if we were able to care for foster children. I felt as if I had just received a surprise gift."
A 12-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy were placed with them.
Mr Yip felt apprehensive, but was reassured by the training he and his wife received from MSF.
For example, to help the children get used to their new environment, the couple set up a routine for them.
Friday nights became board game nights. The family would gather and play a variety of games like Taboo, a word guessing game.
Mr Yip, a board game enthusiast, said: "We hope that these board games can help them to develop thinking skills, while also having fun."
The games are also Mr Yip's way of encouraging his foster children to get through a long week at school.
He said: "They love playing the games and look forward to it every week. So we'd sometimes say, 'Okay, if we play this game, you promise to do your homework' - things like that to motivate them."
On Saturday mornings every fortnight, the family would volunteer by distributing food to the elderly at a food distribution drive organised by Apex Club in Toa Payoh. Mr Yip has been volunteering there for six years.
He said that while they have been fortunate to have well-behaved foster children, they face the same problems most parents face, like uncompleted homework, getting complaints from teachers, and messy bedrooms.
He added: "It's very natural to feel frustrated, to get upset with them, to feel demoralised by repeated child behavioural issues, especially after a long day at work. But then I would reflect on why I became a foster parent in the first place.
"As adults and parents, it is our responsibility to provide the proper environment and guidance for our children who are our future."
MSF aiming for 500 foster parents
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the MSF Fostering Scheme.
Since it started, the number of foster families has been increasing and it hit 200 in 2010.
As of January this year, there were 355 families registered with the scheme, said the MSF.
They hope to double their fostering capacity and build a pool of about 500 foster parents to be able to care for about 600 children within the next few years.
The scheme provides care for vulnerable children who may be abandoned, neglected, or abused by their natural families or guardians.
Their parents or guardians may also be of ill-health and are unable to look after them, said Ms Jeanne Tan, a senior foster care officer with the MSF.
She said that when a child comes into care, they try to find a caregiver from the child's own family and kin before considering foster care as an option.
The scheme covers children aged 18 and below. However, it can be extended to cover children until the legal age of 21, depending on the case.
Ms Tan said that what foster care offers to children from disadvantaged backgrounds is an experience of positive family life. But foster children do have access arrangements with their biological families as this is important for their development.
Ms Tan called on more adults to volunteer as foster parents.
She said: "It is important for more people to step forward and take up roles as foster parents in Singapore because foster families provide a caring home environment to these children, and help them to grow well by offering them an opportunity to be raised in a loving family."
In his opening speech at the Committee of Supply 2016 in April, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin also asked for support to encourage more families to step forward to consider fostering.
Referring to children, especially those with special needs, who are mistreated by their families or caregivers, Mr Tan said: "Fostering is always a better option than institutional care for some of these children."
Financial support is provided by the MSF for foster families.
Every foster child is provided a monthly allowance of $936 or $1,114 (for a child with special needs).
The allowance covers the daily expenses of the child, such as food, clothing, tuition and transport expenses.
Medical fees for foster children at polyclinics and government hospitals are covered under the Medical Fee Exemption Card.
The MSF also funds each foster child for one enrichment course per year. These can be courses like swimming, music class, dancing, and arts and crafts.
To find out more about the application process, visit https://app.msf.gov.sg/Fostering/Touch-a-Life-Foster-a-Child
TOUCH A LIFE, FOSTER A CHILD
What: MSF Fostering Roadshow: "Touch a Life, Foster a Child."
When: 11am to 9pm, today to SundayWhere: Level 1 of Paya Lebar Square, a shopping mall next to Paya Lebar MRT station.
Admission is free.