Don’t need poverty line: “Kueh lapis” – so many needy students not helped?

By Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the article “PM: We don’t need poverty line to help the poor” (Sunday Times, Nov 17).

Don’t need poverty line?

It states that “Singapore is past the point where a poverty line is useful, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday, as its groups of needy now take shifting and multi-faceted form.

“Kueh lapis” approach to social assistance?

Hence, the Government’s “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, he said, summoning a metaphor that Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing used to describe the multi-layered help it provides to those in need.”

“Very sad” education statistics?

To illustrate the failings of our “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, I would like to highlight some statistics on education.

I have chosen the education statistics to hone in my contention, because in a sense, the problems of inadequate financial assistance in education for needy children  are arguably not as visible in our daily lives. In contrast, for example, for healthcare – we can see people who can’t pay for healthcare; for homelessness – we can see the homeless, the homeless shelters; for poverty – we can see old people selling tissue papers, picking up empty drink cans, cardboard boxes; etc.

1) Independent schools?

Why is it that the percentage of students on subsidies in the independent schools was only about 7.8 per cent of the estimated total student population in the independent schools (2,700 divided by 34,769).

35% of households meet the subsidy criteria?

According to the Department of Statistics, the average monthly household income from work in 2012 was $6,183 at the 31st to 40th percentage.

Since the subsidy qualification criteria is up to household income of $6,000, does it mean that the percentage in the resident households population that may qualify for the subsidy is around the 35th percentile – that is about 35 per cent of all resident households.

Even adjust for foreigners, can’t be so low?

Even if we make an adjustment for foreign and PR students, how can the percentage that qualified for the subsidies be so low – at 7.8 per cent?

Even with the increased subsidy of 90 per cent for families earning less than $4,000, it may be quite a stretch financially to pay the reduced monthly fees of up to $55 monthly plus other school going pocket expenses for say a family of 4 with a gross monthly income of just $2,000 (net $1,600 after the up to 20 per cent employee CPF contribution).

2) Less than half of needy Polytechnic students get help?

The Singapore Polytechnic was reported in the media as being only able to help fewer than half the applicants who require financial assistance every year.

“Many cannot benefit from the other financial schemes because their academic grades do not meet the requirements.”

No student denied education because can’t afford?

The Minister of Education said during the Committee of Supply debate on education in Parliament in 2011,

“Let me assure this house that enabling social mobility will continue to be a hallmark of our education system. MOE believes that education can and should uplift individuals and families. I agree with MPs too that in doing so, we cannot aim for equality of outcomes, because students are inherently different. What we must ensure is that opportunities abound for all students and that no student is denied a high quality education because he or she cannot afford it.”

Bursaries?

According to the Polytechnic’s web site:

“There is a wide range of bursaries and grants available for students to apply for to defray their living expenses.

Financial matters

You can enjoy a high quality tertiary education without having to worry about school fees.”

Why less than half helped?

In view of the above, why is it that “The school is only able to help fewer than half the applicants who require financial assistance every year”?

$113 a month?

Also, is the bursary amount of $1,350 or about $113 a month, which I understand is the most common bursary amount, enough for a needy student? Has the quantum of bursaries increased over the years to account for inflation?

Other polytechnics too?

As the news report pertains to only the Singapore Polytechnic, do the other polytechnics have this similar  issue?

Foreign students’ scholarships?

I estimate that we spend more than $160 million a year to fund foreign students on scholarships in our public tertiary institutions (“Foreign scholars: Missing statistics?“, Feb 22, 2012).

If we can spend so much on foreign students, why are we apparently so stingy in helping Singaporean needy students in the polytechnics?

3) Medical students?

According to the article “Cost of medical education, financial assistance and medical school demographics in Singapore” by Ng C L, Tambyah P A, Wong C Y (2009) – “21.9 percent (of medical students) came from families with a monthly income of less than S$3,000, with another 26.2 percent from families with monthly incomes of S$3,000–S$5,000″ but only “14.6 percent received scholarships or bursaries”.

Why is it that the percentage who received  scholarships or bursaries was so low, relative to the percentage of lower-income families?

“Men and women of good sense” will access who to help?

In connection with the above three education statistics, the remarks “Each of these groups needs a different sort and scale of help, and often, “men and women of good sense” are required to assess what assistance is desirable and necessary in each case” – is somewhat ironic because these “men and women of good sense” who “are required to assess what assistance is desirable and necessary in each case” – has failed so many of our needy students, as indicated in the three education statistics cited above.

“Poverty line” will hinder efforts to help the needy – illogical?

“This cannot be accomplished by a rigid poverty line, he said, which might be polarising and leave some outside the definition of poor.

There are many people doing social work of various kinds in Singapore, he added, a diversity of effort that could actually be hindered by the establishment of an all-encompassing poverty line.”

– no one is suggesting or saying that the poverty line would be an absolute benchmark to deny assistance to those below it.

Rather, it would serve as a good indicator of how well we are doing in uplifting needy Singaporeans out of poverty?

“Our minds are focused on the problem” – understatement of the century?

With regard to “Mr Lee also dismissed suggestions that a poverty line would help “focus minds” on the issue of the poor in Singapore.

“What is important to us is not about whether we can find a definition with which we can focus minds on the problem, because our minds are focused on the problem,” he said”

Never spend a single cent on healthcare, CPF and HDB?

– how can we say “our minds are focused on the problem”? – when we have the lowest welfare and social spending among developed and developing countries, and also continue to – from a cashflow perspective – not spend  single cent on healthcare, CPF and HDB?