SINGAPORE — In his Parliamentary speech on Monday in reply to the Speech of the President last Monday (10 Apr), Associate Professor Jamus Lim, the Workers’ Party MP for Sengkang GRC, spoke about the issue of poverty in Singapore and the need for a more effective and compassionate approach to helping those in need.
One of the key points that Assoc Prof Lim made was the lack of an official poverty line in Singapore. He argued that without an official poverty line, it was difficult to identify and target those in need of assistance.
He noted that the current thresholds used by various agencies were confusing and inconsistent, which led to many deserving individuals falling through the cracks.
Assoc Prof Lim proposed that an official poverty line should be established based on components that go beyond basic needs like housing, food, and clothing.
“It is, in my view, an insult to suggest to a family that the supplemental tuition that their struggling kids need to stay afloat in our overcrowded classrooms isn’t sufficiently “basic.” Or that spending on deodorant in our hot and humid climate, particularly before an interview or big date, is truly “discretionary.”
He suggested that the poverty line should be established by a committee that includes representatives from civil society and academia, and that all thresholds for government assistance should be tied to this line or higher.
In addition to the need for an official poverty line, Assoc Prof Lim also addressed issues with the current ComCare system.
He argued that the system was intrusive, onerous, and demeaning to those seeking assistance. While he agreed with the principle of being responsible with public monies, he felt that the system should not become overzealous in the opposite direction.
“It is tempting to design a public welfare system that attempts to sieve out the those we deem “unworthy” of support: so-called welfare kings or queens. Such individuals exist—we may even have some regulars in our meet-the-people sessions—but they are few and far between,” said Assoc Prof Lim.
He added, “Most of my residents possess a lot of self-respect, and feel uncomfortable seeking help from the state, even when they are going through a tough situation not of their own making. A system that is stingy about financial assistance to the 8 or 9 folks that just want a little bit of support in a particularly trying time—just to deny the 1 or 2 abusers—strikes me as excessive, especially since all that effort translates into only a modest payout.”
Assoc Prof Lim proposed several changes to the ComCare system to make it more compassionate and effective.
He suggested that support should be granted for a longer period of time than the current three to six months, as it often takes longer for someone’s circumstances to change dramatically.
He also argued that the system should be less burdensome and intrusive by obtaining many documents directly from public and semi-public agencies, such as rental or utilities.
Additionally, he suggested deploying conditional cash transfers (CCTs) in exchange for desired behavior, such as supplementary educational expenses or preventative healthcare spending, to reduce the need for burdensome pre-approval scrutiny.
Another anti-poverty program that Assoc Prof Lim discussed was the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS).
He argued that the WIS was insufficient in providing additional support to low-income earners. He noted that the amounts offered by the WIS were paltry, with the majority going straight to CPF and not being accessible for meeting daily needs.
“Even with the most recent revision, top-ups amount to $350 a month at best, and can be as little as half that. While any additional help is undoubtedly welcome, I’ve had many residents share that the support hardly makes a dent in high-cost Singapore.”
Assoc Prof Lim also argued that the income threshold for the WIS was too low – $30,000 a year, disqualifying those who needed it most, and that the system was blind to the differential needs of parents with children.