The success of the movie Crazy Rich Asians has cast our tiny island into the international spotlight.
Prominent publications such as CNBC and Voice of America are now offering travel guides to our city; the former teaches one how to see Singapore’s best sights on a budget, while Voice of America suggests 5 ways for the crazy rich to spend.
As the Singapore Tourism Board acknowledges, the movie “showcases (Singapore) in a way that celebrates (our) culture, food and attractions, it is a natural opening to get the conversation going about the real Singapore and pique interest in visiting the country”.
There is no dispute that this is good for our country’s tourism industry. But what we have to be concerned about it the way Singapore is portrayed as a playground for the rich while there is no mention about Singapore’s unseen poor.
As political scientist Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore noted, the film “represents the worst of Singapore. It erases minorities, the poor and marginalized. All you get are rich, privileged ethnic Chinese”.
For one, the Borgen Project highlights the state of the poor in Singapore, saying that poverty is getting worse each year while government assistance is not enough. BBC also raised eyebrows in 2014 when it estimated that as many as 400,000 Singaporeans are living in poverty.
SMU has launched a study into this matter. Professor John Donaldson said that “Singapore’s economy developed rapidly, and the ‘Third World’ form of poverty has disappeared. Yet, many people fell into a type of ‘First World’ poverty”. He estimates that as many as 10 to 14% of the population is facing difficulties making ends meet while hunger is a real issue for many.
Yet, the Singapore government has refused to define a poverty line as they claim that the issues are too complex. However, going by international definitions, the relative poverty line is defined as “half the median household income before tax and welfare transfers”.
By this definition, Leong Sze Hian has estimated that 1 in 5 Singaporeans is living in relative poverty. According to CPF contribution statistics, there were 407,400 residents – making up 19.4% of the total workforce of 2.1 million – whose median gross income was less than $1,500 monthly.
Perhaps the government statistics themselves would paint a bigger picture. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs, the number of families on government assistance jumped by almost 45% from 20,572 in 2012 to 29,511 families in 2015.
So the takeaway is this: There is no dispute that the movie is good for Singapore’s image as a whole. But while the movie portrays Singapore in a very glamorous light, the statistics paint to a very different picture when you consider the number of people living in relative poverty in Singapore.
And this is something that the government is not doing enough in. With Prime Minister Lee choosing to focus on the costs of living in his upcoming National Day speech, it would perhaps be good if the government could make a policy start for a change.