The unofficial history of the poor in Singapore? (Part 1)

By Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the article “Initiative to aid HDB residents settle arrears” (My Paper, Apr 15).

Someone asked me recently how to we define poverty in Singapore? How many poor people are there?
Of course I don’t have the answers. Some people have talked about invariably, the statistics like per capita income, household income, number of people who apply for assistance from Comcare, etc.
After thinking about this for a while, it dawned upon me that perhaps a good measure may be how many people can’t pay for their Service and Conservancy Charges (S & CC). I guess when a family can’t even pay $30 to 60 dollars a month for more than 3 months, they may be really broke and cash-strapped, as they would be subject to constant demands for payment, late penalties, threats of legal action, charged in court, fined, jailed, and having the threat that their flat may be sold as empowered by the Town Council’s Act, etc.
So, here’s some very interesting information which I managed to dig up on the history of S & CC arrears in the 1990s, which may in a way be like a proxy to the “unofficial” history of the poor in Singapore.


Name & shame S & CC arrears?
7 October 1989
Straits Times

“Dr Hong Hai, the council’s chairman and an MP in the Bedok GRC, suggested listing the names of late-payers on residents’ committees’ notice boards and in the council’s newsletter.

It is appalling to learn in yesterday’s Straits Times that up to 20 per cent of the residents have not paid their conservancy and service charges.

What is most appalling of all is that the delinquent payers are identified a s “educated and well-off residents living in executive flats and four and five-room units”.

But when the reason “may be that they know the law too well and know that we don’t have the by-laws to penalise them”, then it is another story altogether.

However, what they can and should do is to hurry up with their by-laws which will enable them to impose a penalty, preferably on an escalating scale.

Of course, such draconian by-laws will affect genuine hardship cases even more than they will the well-off and educated.”

– Comment: Fast forward to today – are most of those in arrears still the rich and educated like in 1989?

Threats and harsh measures would show that Singapore was still an “immature” society?

7,400 in Ang Mo Kio owe town councils fees worth $500,000
11 December 1989
Straits Times

“RESIDENTS in the Ang Mo Kio area have joined the “half million dollar club” – about 7,400 households there owed their town councils almost half a million dollars inconservancy and service fees, an MP disclosed on Saturday.

Besides the town councils in the Ang Mo Kio area, those in Bedok, Tiong Bahru, Redhill and Bukit Batok also face this late-payment problem.

The other three town councils which had money owing to them were Redhill Tow n Council ($130,600), Bukit Batok (about $230,000) and Tiong Bahru (about $200,000).

Speaking at the Ang Mo Kio South Town Council office, Mr Heng said that if threats and harsh measures were needed to solve the problem, it would show that Singapore was still an “immature” society.”

– Comment: Fast forward to today – Singapore has really “matured” as those in arrears are served legal letters, charged in court, fined or jailed!

Beginning of the end?

Town Councils may get more power – Dr Tay
19 February 1990
Straits Times
“Depending on costs, the service and conservancy charges, which have not been revised for the past eight years, which is a long time, may have to be reviewed.”
– Comment: Fast forward to today – It may be akin to the “beginning of the end”, as the 8-year “no increase” becomes more frequent and in larger amounts till today!


Only 998 apply for help in 1 quarter?
More needy families asking for aid
12 February 1999
Straits Times

“MORE needy families have been applying for financial help in the last three months of 1998, said Community Development Minister Abdullah Tarmugi in Parliament yesterday.

Compared to the first three months of the same year, there was a 57 per cent increase in the number of families applying for the various schemes run by his ministry and other organisations – from 637 applications between January and March in 1998 to 998 in the last quarter of the year.”

Only 68 families out of 144 referred cases given financial aid to pay their bills?
Town councils can get help for those in arrears with their bills
21 March 1991
Straits Times
“TOWN councils whose residents cannot pay their conservancy bills can refer them to the Singapore Council of Social Service to see if they can get help under the newly-established rent and utilities assistance scheme, said Dr Seet Ai Mee yesterday.She added, however, that many might not qualify as they were not genuine hardship cases.
So far, 68 families out of 144 referred cases had been given financial aid to pay their bills. Eight families declined help as they preferred to get it on their own or from relatives while 32 were rejected as they had the means to pay. The rest were being processed.”
– Comment: Fast forward to today – ComCare receives 70,000 applications for financial assistance in 1 year against less than 4,000 in 1999.

Start to have penalties for arrears?

Six more town councils impose fines for late service charges
15 May 1991
Straits Times

“DIFFICULTIES with unpaid conservancy bills have forced another six town councils to impose penalty fees on late-payers.They are Bishan Serangoon, Sembawang, Toa Payoh, Marine Parade, Hougang and Bukit Batok.Last year, Ang Mo Kio South, Ang Mo Kio West and Cheng San imposed similar penalties.

Penalties in Bukit Batok, which will begin in July, are: $1 for one- and two-room flats, $5 for three- and four-room flats, $10 for bigger flats and stalls, and $15 for kiosks and shops.

However, the minister said there were very few genuine hardship cases. Most late payers could afford to pay but waited until they were chased before doing so.”
– Comment: Fast forward to today – the penalty is now typically 2 per cent per month (as high as credit card interest)!