Poverty as Taboo in Singapore

Poverty as Taboo in Singapore

By Singapore Armchair Critic

Earlier I wrote a blogpost on poverty and income inequality in Singapore, which rankled some pro-establishment netizens (read their comments). What struck me most was not their eagerness to stick up for the government – which was nothing extraordinary – but their defensiveness towards poverty.

By their reaction, these netizens seemed to have taken my straight talk on poverty as a personal affront. First they tried to deny that poverty exists in Singapore; then in the face of evidence they began to point fingers at the poor, blaming them for their plight.

Why and how did poverty become a taboo in our society, which, just a few decades ago in the 1970s, had a 55% “lower-working class” population teetering on the brink of indigence (Lim Yun Xin, “Voicing Poverty,” p. 19)? How did the poor become stigmatized over a mere few decades?

Poverty in Affluence

Taboo is “the prohibition or avoidance in any society of behavior believed to be harmful to its members in that it would cause them anxiety, embarrassment, or shame.” In Singapore’s “success story” perpetuated by the PAP and its mouthpiece, there is no place for poverty and its manifestations, be it begging or sleeping on the streets.

In fact, beggars may be penalized with a fine up to $3,000 or imprisonment up to 2 years under the Destitute Persons Act, which defines begging as conduct “calculated to induce the giving of alms, whether or not there is any pretence of singing, playing, performing, offering anything for sale or otherwise” (emphasis mine).

The Act also empowers the police to admit the homeless to a welfare home – more than 800 had been “assisted” by the MCYS from 2009 to 2011. Besides rounding up the destitute so that they are kept out of sight, our government has also been terribly ingenious in deterring people from sleeping in public areas (you wish such ingenuity had been at work when the SMRT rail came apart).

The physical cleansing is accompanied by newspeak. In a 2007 report, The Straits Times euphemistically called the poor and/or homeless “sleepers” and declared that “sleeping in the city is becoming popular” as if it was a favorite pastime. At a 2012 forum dealing with poverty, a ST reporter said:

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 (emphasis mine).

By her logic, poverty = death from starvation. Note also that the journalist promptly conjured up the phrase “unmet needs” to substitute for what she deemed a “strong word.” I have also come across more than one netizens who dispute the existence of poverty in Singapore by defining it as the condition of “living on USD2 a day.”

Perhaps it is by this extreme standard that Kishore Mahbubani declared in 2001 that “There are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore. Poverty has been eradicated…”

Certainly if one has to subsist on USD$2 per day or be dying from starvation to be considered “poor,” then there is no poverty in Singapore. But of course only the unthinking or the sycophant would subscribe to such a definition in the context of Singapore.

Instead of using such an absolute definition, poverty in affluent societies such as Singapore should be better understood as a relative concept. Thus the poor may be defined as “those whose incomes are so far removed from the rest of society that they cannot attain the standard of living that is considered normal and acceptable by most other citizens” (“Voicing Poverty,” p. 20).

It has been estimated that a family of four would need around SGD1,700 to cover basic costs of living in Singapore (the qualifying household income for various MCYS assistance schemes is also set at $1,700). Based on my previous calculation, there are between 73,196 to 115,792 resident households in Singapore that are “relatively poor.”

The Blame Game

According to the MCYS figures, there are 36,940 social assistance cases in 2012. Consider the number of cases receiving social assistance against my estimation of the number of poor households in Singapore. How may we explain the gap between the two?

The lack of awareness about the social assistance schemes available may be one contributing factor. Another may be the stigma attached to welfare and welfare recipients.

Let me digress a little and talk a bit about the situation in Hong Kong, where as high as 40% of the poor or 700,000 persons had fallen through the social safety net. In Hong Kong, welfare recipients are often perceived as undeserving, irresponsible and unproductive. This negative image has been perpetuated by none other than the Social Welfare Department itself and the media.

Similar stigmatization took place in Singapore. In 2000, Lee Kuan Yew wrote:

There will always be the irresponsible or the incapable, some 5 percent of our population. They will run through any asset, whether a house or shares. We try hard to make them as independent as possible and not end up in welfare homes. More important, we try to rescue their children from repeating the feckless ways of their parents. We have arranged help but in such a way that only those who have no other choice will seek it (From Third World to First, emphasis mine).

A member of a self-help organization also testified to the prevalence of the “blaming the victim” attitude in Singapore. Blaming the poor for their plight conveniently sidesteps the structural factors t
hat may have given rise to poverty in a society. It also allows the non-poor to distance oneself from the plight of the poor, releasing the former from the responsibility of helping the latter.

Negative stereotyping also deters the poor from taking up social assistance. A telephone interview conducted in Hong Kong revealed that 60% of respondents would not apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) unless they were left with no other options. In an extreme case, a single mother refused to apply for CSSA, worked 19 hours a day till she dropped dead of exhaustion. Another unemployed man caught stealing bread declared that “Hong Kong people should be self-reliant, not live on the CSSA.”

In Singapore, we do not know the extent to which the poor may be reluctant to turn to social assistance. However, we do know of an 80-year-old granny who worked herself to death.

As a society, and an affluent one, we have to ask ourselves how did such an unfortunate incident happen and how can we prevent it from happening again. It begins with the self-awareness of how we perceive the poor and the bias we may hold.

It is very heartening to see citizen initiatives to help the poor like this social media movement “Chope Food for the Needy.” But for a more comprehensive approach to poverty, we have to start thinking about establishing an official poverty line. For if we do not know the extent of poverty, how do we gauge if poverty alleviation measures have been effective?

Our government also has to rethink the whole concept of welfare. Opponents to expanding welfare coverage in Singapore often decry the financial unsustainability of western welfare states. However, they fail to recognize that there is a huge middle ground between welfare provision in Singapore and that in mature welfare states. In other words, there is still room for our government to increase social spending without sacrificing fiscal prudence.