By Dilpreet Kaur and Michael Switow
The seminar room was full house when the moderator, Kirpal Singh, Director of Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre, opened the talk-show style discussion by noting that the topic of poverty in Singapore is an issue that has not set easy with the government here, but that a mandate of the Wee Kim Wee Centre is to address issues that others might be shy or anxious to discuss.
Four panelists – civil society activist Braema Mathi, community reporter Radha Basu, grassroots social worker Nadia Bamasri and Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien – and audience participants from a range of organisations including Beyond Social Services, Mendaki, NCSS, ONE (SINGAPORE) and the catholic church explored the nature of local poverty, government schemes to address and cultural attitudes that help and hinder the provision of essential social services.
Dilpreet Kaur, of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), provides a detailed account of the discussion. (Note: this is not a complete word-for-word transcript.)
“What is poverty in Singapore?”
Braema Mathi: I’m glad we can use the word “poverty”. I want to broaden it rather than deal with the word ‘poverty’ per say. I am wearing a hat as regional president of the ICSW, a 76 year old organisation, primarily looking at communities in need. There is a disconnect between social policy and communities in need. Why? Poverty is a result of income disparities and consequently limited access to basic necessities for day-to-day living.
From our politicians, we hear “cheaper, better, faster”. What does this mean? This rhetoric of “cheaper” can be very problematic if we just keep switching vendors to increase profit margins without a thought for workers’ livelihoods, particularly if there is little governance, few regulatory tools or even a lack of proper laws.
To come back to the question, what do we mean by a person in need? In the 1960s, the person in Singapore in need was different. He didn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Today, food seems to be in abundance, yet in our midst we see people at hawker centres who pick on the leftovers from your tray and plate.
Homelessness has also been vividly described in the online media – people who are caught out without shelter and by their own silly mistakes. What has gone on from the 1960s to 2012?
What do we do then if someone got on the bandwagon of upgrading then got caught? The waiting out period is thirty months, which then forces them onto the streets or to bunk in with relatives or to fork out for rentals in the private sector. There is a disconnect here. These thirty months are a definite period, so what do we do during this time? The social policies are limited. What then is the role of society here as well? Do we let them be or do we start to look for ways to help? Do we have the right to judge and say ‘sorry, we can not help you”?
“So then Braema, is there then a remedy, a quick solution or is this is a complicated problem?”
Braema: Despite the government’s Many Helping Hands approach, we have a disconnect where meeting the needs of people are concerned. It’s not that there aren’t schemes or that we’re not doing enough. But people are still falling through. What are we going to do about this? Singapore needs to start thinking about the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPFI), which is driven by the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation and supported by ICSW. The government needs to start reviewing the trends of people falling through the net and what it can do for them in terms of establishing a concrete floor from which they can step up. Developed countries are using the SPFI, especially because of ageing societies. It is time Singapore considers this approach.
“Radha, as a Straits Times journalist, you’ve actively reported on social issues. Could you tell us about some of your personal encounters with people in need?”
Radha Basu: I want to contextualise poverty, which is a very strong word. I’ve covered malnutrition and areas where people have no access to food and shelter. I don’t think anyone dies from starvation in Singapore. But are there unmet needs? Absolutely. And personally, I feel it is growing.
There is no official poverty line but there are 200,000 local families who are living in the bottom fifth of the income scale. Their average monthly income in 2010 was $2,040, but the poorest 10 per cent – about 100,000 households – earned only $1,400 per month.
We don’t have current household expenditure figures, but in 2007-2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the average monthly household expenditure among the lowest 20% of resident households was $1,760. That’s about $500 more than their average monthly income at the time ($1,274).
There is a gap in income and basic expenditure before state cash-transfer policies like Workfare are put into place. There is also a disconnect between people not knowing which schemes are available or considering it onerous to seek help. Recently, though, MP Amy Khor announced that there will be just one form to apply for assistance at the Community Development Councils (CDCs).
Who needs the most assistance? Generally, these individuals have uncommon or multiple needs. The existence of multiple problems is what exacerbates their conditions. Consider these examples:
- * a low-income earning couple with a special needs child
- * homeless men who cannot go to CDCs for help because government schemes require an address
- * foreign brides — with Singaporean children, but estranged or widowed from their husbands — who are not eligible to rent a HDB
- * the mentally ill, who have homes but cannot get along with parents or family members.
- * unwed mothers who have been low on the government’s priority list for fear they might procreate more illegitimate children
- * and foreign workers who have been cheated or injured.
“You must have followed up with the government on these issues? What were the official answers to these hardship cases?”
Radha: There is both a lapse in communication outreach in terms of implementing the schemes by the State as well as the “shame” factor among potential applicants of such schemes. So something needs to be done.
“We are Singaporeans, but yes we have subsets of groups like Mendaki, etc that focus on one group. Nadia, you work with 4PM, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. Are we wrong to assume that the Malays are out of proportion when it comes to poverty or hardship?”
Nadia Bamasri: At 4PM, our work revolves around children, youth and their families. We do not only work with Malays; we have a 70-30% policy to help non Malays as well.
But there is a Malay problem. Statistics have shown that when it comes to education, Malay parents have lower levels of education and as a result are in the lower income bracket.
We don’t see poverty and slums because we live in these boxes called flats. But you just have to open the door and you can smell and see the poverty.
Braema talked about withholding judgement. We are not supposed to judge, but as a social worker, we are required by funders or the government to ask so many questions about income and other family characteristics before we can help these families. However, do we really know what these families/individuals need? That’s a more pertinent question. Handouts are not always the solution. There needs to be more cross cutting measures, not just within the Malay community, but across all groups.
“Radha alluded to single mothers. I was brought up in Geylang in the 1950’s. Malays then were very communal and would support each other all the way. Is this apparent today?”
Nadia: Today, we live in flats and have lots of social issues. Who’s fault is it? We never blame ourselves. If you ask people, they’ll tell you about the government, their long working hours, etc. This is different from the kampong days. People nowadays are much too worried about labels and judgement.
For example, if you are pregnant and Malay, first thing your parent will do is to send you to a home. Why? To cover it up. The pregnancy is taboo. It is very embarrassing to the families. However, there is no support at the home. The young women are allowed to go to work or school. This only entrenches poverty further, especially for these single mothers.
“Laurence, in your maiden Parliamentary address, you spoke about introducing a Social Health Index in Singapore. What is this? And how do we achieve social health?
Laurence Lien: At the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and the Community Foundation of Singapore, my job is to get the well-to-do to give. Almost all the time, the question I get is: “where are the needs in Singapore?”. I explain, then they say “What is the government doing about it?”. Then I have the burden of explaining why we must not wait for government.
There is little visibility of our social realities on the ground. As a society, we like to hide our problems and the marginalised. We need to stop hiding poverty, especially if we want people to be part of the action to address social problems.
I visited the Boston Foundation in the United States two years ago. This foundation publishes the “Boston Indicators Project” every two to three years. It wasn’t initiated by the government; they started it. They publish this wonderful report that galvanises people to think about how to address issues in society.
We need to do this in Singapore. We track the economic indicators so closely. But isn’t social health just as important? The last elections demonstrate that social issues are critical to our citizens . When it comes to economic health, the government has all the levers. But when it comes to social health, it’s scared that it doesn’t have all the levers and they don’t want to be accountable in the same way. We need to look at individuals, families, community cohesion and happiness as well. We should measure subjective well-being. This idea was poo-poo-ed by the politicians. But at the end of the day, this is what we want. What is life for if we do not seek to be happy?
The Social Health Index is to help identify the needs of the people and what the government is doing about it. For it to work, the community must be accountable as well and it must have equal ownership of the issues
We are so fixated with economic indicators, don’t we care about social health indicators?
Dr Kirpal thanked all the speakers for their answers and sharing of experiences. One hour into the discussions, it was time for the audience to pose some tough questions . . .
People are falling through the cracks. What is the real role of elected govt in resolving poverty problem?
Laurence: I see the government as putting big stones into a container. It has the power to tax and redistribute resources. They must use the levers; these are the big stones. But there will be gaps and that’s where civil society comes in. The government must have a cutoff by income, but often that criteria is insufficient. This is where civil society can come in to play a role. The government can also set a poverty line and minimum wage. I’m not convinced by the arguments against the minimum wage. We need more informed dialogue about this.
Braema: MCYS receives the smallest budget of all the ministries. This is unacceptable. When I started the Straits Times School Pocket Fund, it was because the criteria were too tight. But today 1700 is not enough for children and their families. The goal posts have shifted.
Radha: It’s too easy to bash the government. In fact, a lot of the anti-government bashing online is misinformed. Take Comcare. It’s a 1 billion dollar fund. When I asked Mdm Halimah last year, she told me that only 1 out of 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income scale uses Comcare. Why? Because, when asked, most needy families said they don’t need government assistance; they say their relatives will help them.
And take the recent discussion about cleaners wages. The first reply is that foreign workers are pushing down the wages. But three-quarters of our cleaners are local. What’s the elephant in the room? It’s cleaning contacts. The town councils enter into blatantly one-sided contracts. Cleaners earn $40 a day, but and be fired at will for no reason.
We can say the government isn’t doing enough, but will Singaporeans accept higher conservancy charges?
Braema: I need to reply to that. During the budget discussions, a minister asked ‘Singaporeans, would you like for your tax to increase?” I’m quite tired of this manner of discourse. Every time we raise a social issue, the politicians response is ‘are we willing to pay more?”. We are complicit in this way of thinking. It’s become like a contract we have with each other and we have to break it. It’s a question of shared responsibility.
Another member of the audience from a large local non-profit organisation shared these observations:
1. When this forum started, I was taken aback with being uncomfortable with the term ‘poverty’. Factually the underclass community in Singapore is present. How come the word ‘poverty’ is seen to be so strong and taboo?
2. Today we have more working class with low wages. Permanent jobs are scarcer and scarcer. Contractual work is becoming much more common instead.
3. Bluntly speaking, the ‘blaming the victim’ attitude is quite prevalent, from the apex of the hierarchy to the bureaucrats at the bottom rung. Self-help bodies, including my organisation, are so busy trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the well-being of our clients. The public at large is not used to the term poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from getting to know what poverty is all about.
Another participant comment:
Our government has consistent budget surpluses, except in 2009. After a period of time, the surpluses are locked into reserves. This comes from the society, but what’s being done with the surplus?
The conversation in singapore drifts towards schemes and an incrementalist approach. We should move towards a different type of score card. By changing the method of assessment, we can measure the unmet needs more easily, for example, how many people with income less than $5000 have had to pay $100,000 out of pocket due to catastrophic illness?
A woman from another social agency disagreed with a suggestion by Braema that Singapore needs more social workers . . .
We need to shift the discussion to ‘what can i do’ to help people in need. Otherwise the blame game will continue. We need to shift policy. How do we handle the poor? Can we resolve poverty? Who should be resolving it? As professionals, what can we do to activate the citizenry?
A member of the clergy added this reflection:
It’s not lack of money that prevents the government from helping. 25% of the budget goes to defence. My feeling is what’s lacking is the voice of the poor. The poor here are docile. We need stronger unions.
The Panelists’ Final Reflections
Laurence: We are confronting this not just as a nation, but as a globe. Income inequality is hitting the whole world. The whole capitalist model has to be reviewed. We shouldn’t be ashamed. There are poor here and we need to talk about it more openly. But they are not helpless and always receiving. We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. It’s the mindset. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.
Nadia: I think I speak for social workers and all the wonderful people who do this work, we need a lot of workers who are passionate . . . we see are a lot of people with zero income and nothing in the bank. How do you compare that with 1500 a month? These are the people we look at. I agree with Laurence, I see our beneficiaries with strengths. They are resourceful, but their basic needs are not met. How much can we really do?
1. We touched on minimum wage and contract jobs. Go to wikipedia and type in minimum wage and collective bargaining – almost all developed countries have one or the other, if not both. We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it. Contract jobs and immigration may be worldwide phenomena, but other countries have support systems that we don’t.
2. We need more discussion as well from welfare groups. When I asked them for interviews to discuss unmet social needs, they refused to talk because they saw our story as being ‘too negative’.
3. Should we be spending $850 million on baby bonuses every year, but less on welfare?
Braema: At the end of the day, we are talking about people in need. We need to treat the person coming through the door with dignity. Yes, they have a blame approach. Now they talk about teaching the person to fish, but what if you fence the pond or what if the pond has no fish? Having a conducive environment is equally important. I want to go to fish, but i can not find the pond because there are too many obstacles in my way.
Kirpal: Sometimes, it’s easier to say yes and sign protocols, but when you visit them on the ground they are not as good as Singapore. There’s a lesson by old guys like me. We always begin by saying to government, ‘it’s your job to help me’. The government might be less anxious if we see them as a partner rather than always putting them on the defensive. They’re human too. There are practical ways of moving forward, without judgement and the blame game.