BN Special: Who’s poor in Singapore?
By Bertha Henson
On 25 October 2013 At 10:32 AM
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by Bertha Henson
A wonderful campaign was launched in Singapore on Monday known as Singaporeans Against Poverty. It is being mentioned on radio, advertised in the newspapers, aired in cinemas, broadcast online with videos that would… make a middle class family cringe.
Given its extensive outreach, it is amazing that it isn’t a G campaign. Instead it is being led by Caritas, the social service arm of the Catholic church here. It has rounded up other affiliates, mainly Roman Catholic groups, to support the message. It is a big range, from guilds for doctors, nurses and lawyers to hospices and children’s homes.
Just what sort of message is it? It is to alert people here that there are poor in our midst, who do not complain about the price of cars and homes because they’re wondering about their next meal.
The videos, done pro bono, are sobering. They picture the everyday Singaporean family deciding, for example, if the kid should take music lessons, ballet or tuition classes. A bunch of colleagues wondering which restaurant to go for lunch. A couple at a showflat launch pondering over choice apartments and their “views”.
Statistics, including those collated by the G, are strewn liberally in its micro-site with an interesting interactive graphic.
It cites G statistics, for example, stating that an estimated 105,000 Singapore households live on an average income of $1,500 per month.
Juxtapose this against recent media reports indicating that an estimated 20 billionaires and 188,000 ‘millionaire households’ are among us. Put the number in the context of Singapore’s No. 1 ranking in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Set this in the context of Singapore being the sixth most expensive city to live in.
We all know that income inequality here is pretty big (we rank 26th inthe world). But most of us leave it at that. Perhaps, we will grumble that not enough is being done to raise low wages (blame those foreigners!). Perhaps, we wonder why all the rich people aren’t giving more (those capitalists!). Perhaps, we blame the G for the state of affairs (heartless!)
But in the next breath, we will be complaining about yet another taxi fare hike or rise in ERP rates. (Poor people don’t drive or take taxis).
The interesting thing about this campaign is that this is not a donation drive. Not an attempt at wealth transfer. It is an advocacy campaign much like the work of non-government groups to raise awareness of, say, human rights or the woes of migrant workers.
Caritas head of advocacy Laurence Lien told Breakfast Network: “Changing mindsets and creating awareness are often just as important as interventions, and indeed are often precursors to the right actions being taken. Caritas Singapore has decided to start with poverty as we felt that it is a growing issue that is not sufficiently discussed within our Singapore context.”
How true. We are taken aback by news reports of families living on the beach or in a van or old people doing menial jobs. But we’ve never quite bothered to find out about what is the amount of money needed for subsistence living in Singapore.
Could the dole be an accurate measure? From April this year, the Public Assistance scheme was enhanced. It’s a cash handout of $450 for single person households,$790 for two-person households, $990 for three people and $1,180 for fourpeople. This is to cover what’s needed for essential daily living: Food, rental, transport, utilities and communications. There are about 3,000 people on the dole here.
(By the way, as part of its campaign, some prominent dee-jays will be taking on the “Personal Poverty Challenge” later this month – they will attempt to survive on $5 a day.)
Why such a coy attitude towards poverty?
Mr Lien put it down to lack of awareness although this has got better over the years. “Many well-to-do Singaporeans are disconnected with ground realities. For some, it might also be because confronting the issue might make them uncomfortable and guilty about their own wealth,” he said.
Then there was the attitude of the G.
“For the government, I think they believe that they have already done a lot to help the poor,” he said.
“Our Prime Minister himself has said that Singapore is probably the best place in the world to be poor in. Government also has a constant fear that too robust a social safety net would turn Singapore into a welfare state. Highlighting the data, they fear, would invite criticisms that government is not doing enough.”
Well, poverty is definitely beginning to be discussed.
In fact, it looks like Caritas has a schedule. Over the weekend, experts called for a definition of poverty in Singapore, saying that it was time that the country joined other developed nations in doing so. Last month, Hong Kong defined its poverty line for the first time, setting it at half the median household income, excluding tax and welfare transfers. That put 1.3 million people -roughly a fifth of the population – below the poverty line.
The experts, who are putting together a paper to be released officially next month by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, lamented the poverty of information on poverty here. (Perhaps this is why it was reported yesterday that a national database would be set up, recording details of those who had sought help.)
Well, they are not going to get their wish for a definition of poverty. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said in a written reply to a parliamentary question the very next day that establishing a poverty line might not be helpful. Hong Kong might have one, but Canada and New Zealand don’t.
“In Singapore, we use broad definitions for the groups we seek to help, have clear criteria to identify and assess those in need, and tailored schemes to assist them,” he said.
“A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a ‘cliff effect’, where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded.”
Non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong who asked the question had another for the minister. He referred to distribution of N95 masks to 200,000 needy households and wanted to know how these households were identified as “needy”. The answer: These were households with a per-capita income of less than $900 per month.
Interesting. Is that the unofficial poverty line then?
To be sure, the G has a whole slew of projects to “level up” those at the bottom, usually with an element of self-help or co-payment. For a long time, it advocated a “helping hands” approach, suggesting that the community play a big role to help the less fortunate in its midst. Its position shifted slightly this year (to the left?), when the Prime Minister said in his National Day rally speech that the G will play a bigger social role.
Mr Lien said that addressing poverty shouldn’t just be the G’s job. It’s everybody’s concern. “This is a key stance that Caritas is taking; and we are not focusing on what the government should or should not be doing.”
It looks like many people have come on board. Mr Lien said the advertisements were created at a tiny fraction of their normal cost; and the TV commercials are being aired at all Golden Village cinemas free of charge.
“This campaign is very much a community, ground-up initiative, not one that is merely driven by a few interested professionals.”
Who says we need the G to do everything? Actually, all it needs to do is give information.
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