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The S'pore Dream is getting elusive for the "new poor" in S'pore, says Ravi Philemon.

Chasing that elusive Singapore Dream

Ravi Philemon / Writer

Peter faces difficult choices. Peter, who is a diabetic with a heart condition, barely makes enough money to pay the rent on the 3-Room HDB house that he is renting from a friend of his son, pay for transportation costs and to put food on the table for his family of five.

It is a constant struggle even though Peter works as an Administrative Assistant in Singapore Press Holdings and his wife works as an Administrative Assistant in a secondary school. Together, they bring home $1800 after CPF and loan deductions. Of this, they spend $1200 as rent, $400 for transportation costs and are left with a mere $200 to buy provisions and to put food on the table.

Peter often has to scrimp to pay for the medicine he has to take for his diabetic condition. The medicine costs about $250, but he can only deduct $150 from his Medisave account and has to pay the remaining $100 in cash. Peter has 3 children – a 22-year-old son doing his national service and two daughters aged 13 and 10 still in school.

His problems started in 2005, when he fractured his leg in a motorcycle accident. His employers of ten years had to retrench him. As he was not able to service the mortgage loan that he had taken from the bank, he had to sell his 5-Room flat at a loss of $18,000. As his household income is above $1500, he is not able to rent a flat from HDB. He did not have sufficient money to pay the cash over valuation (COV) to buy another flat from the open market. He went to seek help from his Member of Parliament (MP). After an appeal from his MP, HDB referred him to EM Services, which rented him a 3-Room flat at $1300 per month. It was later reduced to $850 on appeal by his MP.

This September, EM Services rejected his application to extend his tenancy after his contract with them expired. When he reached out to some social service agencies, he was advised that they could help by arranging for his children to stay in a shelter but Peter declined this 'help' as it would mean effectively breaking up his family. It was at this point that his son's friend provided a temporary solution for his predicament.

“My son's friend allowed me to rent his house for 3 months. It was very kind of him. But what will I do after the 3 months?” asks Peter. “The government should help Singaporeans like me. But nobody wants to hear my story”, he laments.

Peter's story is but just one example of a new classification of the 'needy' in Singapore. Just like Peter, a substantial number of families in Singapore, with dual income are struggling to make ends meet. We are in the midst of a sociological change where a new class of poor is being created. Many families are in the workforce, many even with dual income; but most of it is based on short-term job contracts. These people are the emerging faces of the new poor in Singapore – a nation which was built on the belief that “if you work hard, you can make it”. But the ladder to a better life for some hardworking families seems to be getting harder to climb.

Sarah a 36 year old who works as an attendant in a home for the aged says, “The work is emotionally fulfilling. I feel like I am serving my parents who are not around anymore. But it is financially frustrating.” Her husband works as a taxi-driver and together they have a combined income of about $2300. Their HDB flat was repossessed by the banks for non-payment of loans, and now most of their income goes towards renting a 4-Room HDB flat. “I have 3 children and my husband’s parents stay with us, so we have to rent a bigger house. After paying $1800 for the rental of the house, I am left with very little for food and other necessities. And during festival seasons, it is even more pressing as my children expect us to buy new clothes and gifts like the other children,” she says, “I think I am a failure as a parent.”

The runaway prices of HDB flats have made home ownership out of reach for this “new poor”. Home prices have risen faster than wages for low-to-moderate-income families. While many jobs are still being created, the higher paying jobs are still out of reach for this “new poor” who often lack diplomas or degrees to qualify for such jobs. These people who work as administrative assistants, taxi-drivers, laboratory technicians, hawkers and teaching assistants, seem to be chasing an illusive Singapore Dream for a better life.

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About the author:

Ravi Philemon serves in a community services agency serving the homeless in Singapore. He recently returned from the United States, where he worked in a directorial position for a faith-based community outreach service, serving the homeless.

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