Tag Archives: Inequalities & Income

Feast of Giving

By Jayashree Selvalatchmanan

“Ending poverty is first about bringing the issue to light. A lot of people don’t want to see or admit that there is poverty. When we come and look at this group of elderly, we see that there is a need, maybe within a different definition of poverty, but they are deprived. They are deprived of love, they are deprived of care. Living in their one-rooms, it is all these activities (like those at the Feast of Giving) that help. If they are happier, it is less of a burden on their plight if they have a lack of monetary resources. The elderly just want to be loved”– Joy Mahbubani, Managing Director of J’s Restaurant.

16 Feb 2015 (1)Photo credits: Happy People Helping People Foundation, Dob Firdaus

End-of-year celebrations signify different things to different people. For the perpetually busy, it may be a long intended union with family and friends. For those seeking success and purposeful change, it may be a time required to clear out the mind and set fresh goals, more inspiring and download ambitious than the ones from the year before. Others may simply relish giving back to society; wanting to touch and change the lives of those around them- with a dash of love.

On the 28th of December 2014, in a first-time collaboration between ONE (SINGAPORE), J’s Restaurant and Happy People Helping People, a festive event titled “Feast of Giving” was organised to honour the elderly and give back a little something to those who have spent years toiling for the future of their families and the society. The 3-hour event, buttressed by passionate volunteers, played host to 180 special guests – the elderly, aged 60 and above, residents of the one-room rental blocks, 22, 23 & 24 located at 22 Chai Chee Road – in an eventful evening of fun and games.

The event was scheduled a stone’s throw away from the rental premises at a delightful multi-purpose hall, nested cosily between old residential blocks. As the clock strikes four, organisers and volunteers promptly take their places around the modest vicinity and duly mingled with guests as they start to arrive. A warm bking sense of responsibility slowly permeates the air. Volunteers showed the guests to their seats; the actively passionate few hasten around with an urgent sincerity to inject the immediately sociable with doses of cordiality. Instantaneous relations formed–moments before, a stranger, but in a splitting connection, one became another’s father, daughter, or uncle. It seemed that everyone, stranger or not, was bonded under one synchronised notion– to delight the elderly: to make them laugh and sing; to be givers and receivers of love; and to bestow upon them humble gifts.

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Writer and motivational speaker, Zaibun leads the event to an invigorating start. With a quick sprinkle of positivity, she guides her audience up on their feet and demonstrated a series of quirky laughing exercises.

“It’s time to laugh”, she says, pointing to her watch, “Roar with laughter!” The crowd erupts into a newslan massive cheer like there was some kind of rock star on stage; rounds of hollering laughter swiftly ensued. Zaibun’s zesty talk and performance lasts for a little more than thirty minutes before she bid her guests farewell. A final song was played. Many of the elderly were beaming from ear-to-ear; others sat down to rest, tired from all that laughing and prancing around– it was indeed a contagious sight!

The rest of the evening was further lined up with a series of intriguing performances and games. There was a visit and magic performance by Santa, song and dance by kids from Ameba Schoolhouse and a highly interactive session of Bingo. It was announced that the winners of Bingo would be presented with an opportunity to visit River Safari on the 25th of January, accompanied, of course, by volunteers. To that, there were some disgruntled groans from the crowd (because of the travelling required) but most seemed conspicuously thrilled!

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“The event was really enjoyable. I am very happy today,” said Mariyam B, aged 75, both volunteer at the Kembangan-Chai Chee seniors activity centre and resident of Block 24. Other senior guests at the occasion expressed similar emotions – many shared their contentment and delight, others displayed enormous amounts of gratitude and claimed to have had some of their heartiest laughs. Madam Zainab, also in her 70s, said she was absolutely enthralled by the performances and even instructed that future events turn away from typical themes.

“Plan differently next time!” she urged with a cheerful giggle.

Dinner that evening was graciously provided by J’s restaurant. Joy Mahbubani, managing director of the enterprise seemed more like one of our dedicated volunteers – dancing, singing and interacting with the guests. The menu for the event included, saffron rice, roasted chicken, sweet and sour fish, vegetables and bread & butter pudding.

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After all the fun and laughter, the event drew to a close. However, a prime question remains undiscussed. What is the bigger picture?

Feast of Giving is a step towards curbing poverty. The event raises awareness, while sharing love and abundance.

I truly hope that we have set things in motion so this cycle of giving and receiving will be passed on.

Have an astounding new year!

Photos courtesy of Dob Firdaus

Related Articles

  • Feast of Giving – a year-end celebration on 20 December 2014 for the elderly living in the Chai Chee area
  • Photos of the Feast of Giving

Selling Cardboard for a Living: A Morning at Collection Point

A peek into the work of Singapore’s elderly cardboard box collectors by Joy Liu

Even before the heat settles in, the corner stalls of Toa Payoh Industrial Park — tucked between the highway overhead and residential apartments across the street — are filled with the whirling and beeping of vehicles and forklifts moving back and forth. The lined rows of long buildings are sectioned into storefronts, denoted by open garages spilling metal rods or parked trucks onto the narrow streets.

One of these is a collection point. There is no storefront label, just a sweat-soaked man behind a large scale balanced by a dangling metal disk. It is his job to weigh everything.

26 Dec 2014Photo credit: The Kapturist

Most of what he weighs are cardboard boxes — brown, of various sizes, some collapsed, most still labeled with names of the products they once carried. The man buys them for 10 to 12 cents per kg. He scribbles a few numbers on a notepad as a receipt, digs out a few bills (or more often, a few coins) from two tin containers, and hands them to his seller.

Mr. Ong* has forgotten to collect his money. His bow-legged gait limits his effort to unload the boxes and few metal rods that he is selling in halting, jolted movements. He has already turned away before he is followed and given the $4.10 that he is owed. He looks at the money and points to his chest questioningly. Then, a toothless smile spreads across his face as he takes it in comprehension.

He is in his eighties. He wears a cap, shorts, and printed button-down shirt. As he returns up the road pushing his now empty cart except for cloth bags dangling from the handle, he talks about chiding his unmarried daughter with a smile.

ONE (SINGAPORE), in collaboration with J’s Restaurant and Happy People Helping People Foundation is organising a Feast of Giving, an end-year celebration for some 200 low-income elderly and cardboard collectors on Sunday 28 December.

There are no statistics for the number of cardboard collectors in Singapore, however one merchant who buys their stock says he sees 20 different elderly vendors every day. “They come here multiple times a day,” the man at the collection point says, nodding after Mr. Ong. He says most of the sellers are men and women in their sixties to eighties, who spend a majority of their day collecting, transporting and selling boxes.

Ms. Jaen* estimates that she is one of “sometimes twenty, no more than thirty,” in Toa Payoh. At sixty-five, she has a diminutive but stocky stature enlarged by an oversized faded T-shirt and maroon sweat pants. She has been collecting boxes in Singapore for over a decade, not being able to find any other work.  While she has no family, she answers a ringing phone in a bulky fanny pack tied around her waist with exclamations that carry halfway across the street.  “My friend,” she explains in a softer voice, after pulling out her upper dentures, picking off a speck, and replacing them in her mouth with attentive precision.

Unlike Mr. Ong, Ms. Jaen’s cart does not have metal scraps, which fetch over a dollar per kg.  She has only boxes collected from stores in the area. While the stores give her their unneeded boxes, it is not always generosity that she faces.  Ms. Jaen says people have also stolen boxes from her cart when she wasn’t looking.

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Photo credit: Daniel Seidel

Her visit to the collection point around noon with a mostly full cart of some collapsed and stacked boxes earns her $2.30. This is a morning’s work.

She stops to chat with another woman coming to sell boxes. When she isn’t in conversation, she stands silently. Her brown eyes, ringed with grey around the pupils, trains onto a fixed spot. She waits. Behind her, the boxes she just sold are tossed into a rusting cage. When the cage is full, a forklift hoists and empties it into two large freight crates jutting onto the road. They are going to be shipped off, re-purposed, made useful again.

On her third sell of the day, Ms. Jaen earns four coins for a stack of boxes that reaches her shoulder. They total to a dollar. She shakes her head as she jangles the coins in her hands. A moment later, she lets out a questioning gasp when she discovers she’s only holding three coins. The next second, she stoops in front of the scale, face centimeters from the ground, retrieving the lost coin and tucking it into her fanny pack.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.

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Run, So Others Can

By ShuQi Liu

4 Nov 2014 (1)

Walking towards the starting point of the Colour Run on Sentosa Island – a 5km race in which everyone starts out in white, but finishes plastered with colour – I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of more than 5000 youngsters sporting brightly coloured running shoes, tutus, headbands and knee-length socks.

I was here though – not just for a fun day out – but also to be The Chain Reaction Project’s running buddy of someone from Runninghour, a co-operative that promotes the integration of people with special needs through sports. Runninghour seeks sporty volunteers to team up with people who are intellectually, physically or visually challenged so that their members can more confidently participate in mainstream sporting events.

That morning, Zhang Tingjun – the co-founder of The Chain Reaction Project – WhatsApp-ed me and suggested that we make an eighties fashion statement. Great, I thought, that’s a good excuse to put on my electric blue leggings! Little did I know that they would come in useful later in the day.


A week before the Colour Run, I woke up bright and early for Runninghour’s training session. Like most Singaporeans, I grew up in a mainstream environment surrounded by people with ‘normal’ intellect and health. While this seemed ordinary, it’s really just a bubble. Sadly, I had never interacted with anyone who just needs a little more special attention . . . until this morning, when I would be a running buddy for the first time.

Although it was 7.30am on Saturday, a large group of Runninghour members and volunteers had already gathered at the carpark for warm-up exercises. When we first got going, I jogged along like a fish out of water, wondering how I could fit into the group’s dynamics. Then one of Runninghour’s members – a young woman who is a cleaner at Clarke Quay – ran towards me. When she caught up with me, she was huffing and puffing, crying “I can’t run anymore! I can’t run anymore!”

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Here was my chance to really be part of the group, to step up as a Running Buddy.

“Swing your arms more,” I coached. “Lift your knees higher. Keep it up!”

She did as I advised and we chatted as we jogged. With a few words of encouragement, the barriers between us were broken.

Unlike previous adventures with The Chain Reaction Project – climbing a mountain or biking with my dad through Manila’s slums to raise awareness about human trafficking and urban poverty – being a Colour Run buddy was low risk and easy to do. All you need is a dose of empathy and patience to bond with someone with special needs. Isn’t this what social inclusion is all about?

Race Time

Back at Sentosa on the day of the Colour Run, I was paired up with Helen, a teenager with a ponytail and funky Barbie-pink running shoes before flag off. Despite a limp in her leg, Helen was upbeat and excited about the race. I was pretty pumped too.

“Just to let you know, I am partially blind but I can see your bright blue legs!” Helen chirped.

My unique fashion sense became her reference point for the rest of the day.

For the next 5km, we had a wonderful time bonding over splashes of colours and stories about our lives. Helen told me how she was born with a leg impairment, then years later, a high fever caused her to partially lose her sight. Nevertheless, she enjoys weekly canoeing sessions with her school mates at Hwa Chong Institution and studying biology. Her physical disabilities never dampened her positive spirit, and certainly have not slowed down her intellectual pursuits.

It is not the destination but the journey that counts, and I am glad to be part of the journey as Singapore progresses towards an inclusive society ONE by ONE . . . by ONE.

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If you would like to get involved in a social cause through sport, Runninghour will be organising its first nation-wide race themed “Run So Others Can” on 22 March 2015. The co-operative hopes to attract over 5,000 participants, involving visually, intellectually and physically challenged runners as well as the general public, in a display of self-reliance and empowerment to do good and to do well. For more information, please visit http://www.runninghour2015.com/.

This article was edited by Michael Switow. Photos courtesy of The Chain Reaction Project.

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EU Nations urged to implement Robin Hood tax

By Melissa Chong

ONE (SINGAPORE) has joined hands with more than 350 civil society organisations from around the world, urging the heads of 11 European countries to implement a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT).

This comes after the European Commission announced plans to severely scale back the FTT, amid opposition on the economic damage it could cause.

5 Aug 2013

But civil society groups continue to argue that a Global tax of just 0.05% on financial transactions could raise up to US$650 billion a year, channeling much-needed funds to fight global poverty and climate change.

They urge that the tax could also dis-incentivize risky speculation and short-term trading, which poses high risks to economic stability. A Europe-wide FTT could set the precedent for reforming the financial sector, which has so far been exempted from the contributing to the common good.

The 355 signatories to the letter include Oxfam International, Greenpeace, WWF International and the World AIDS Campaign. A copy of the letter was sent to Algirdas Šemeta, the European Commissioner in charge of tax policy, who said she was impressed with the level of international support for the FTT. The special advisor of French President, Francois Hollande, has also agreed to pass the letter on to Hollande.

Seven months ago, Germany and France led nine other countries – Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, Estonia, Greece, Slovakia and Slovenia – to press ahead with the levy, having failed to persuade all 27 EU members to sign up.

The financial lobby continues to attack the levy, raising alarm bells about the economic damage it could cause to industry, jobs and finances. Britain remains fiercely in opposition, believing the levy would drive business from London to New York instead. Sir Mervyn King, Bank of England Governor, said he “could not find anyone within the central banking community who thinks it is a good idea.”

Amid the criticisms, the European Commission announced in July 2013 that it is prepared to consider a redesign of the original proposal. It may now be rolled out six months later than the intended start date of January 2014. The levy could also be reduced by up to 90%, raising just a fraction of the amount hoped.

As the debate in Europe continues, it is likely that anti-poverty campaigners will continue to lobby relentlessly for the Robin Hood Tax to be implemented in full. David Hillman, a spokesman for the Robin Hood Tax campaign, said: “There remains a firm intention to agree to a strong FTT that will be popular with the public and raise tens of billions from the banking industry.”

This article was edited by Michael Switow


Building on the Momentum of the MDGs

By Michel Anglade

13 Mar 2013 (1)

Since the adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000, we have seen improvements to the lives of millions globally. About 600 million more people have been lifted out of poverty, 56 million more children are going to school and millions of households have access to clean water.

Indeed, these successes prove that political will and commitment to set goals can bring about real change. And as the 2015 deadline for these UN MDGs loom, the international community must start critically reviewing these goals and discuss what the next commitment period will bring.

That is why Save the Children, along with ONE (Singapore) and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, held a panel discussion on February 15th, 2013 to discuss the opportunities and challenges in the Post-2015 MDG agenda. During this discussion, Save the Children presented its report ‘Ending Poverty in Our Generation’, which lays out our proposal for the post-2015 agenda. Beyond these suggestions, however, it is my belief that we should first lay down the key principles to which these goals should be written.

Firstly, are all children given a fair chance to survive and thrive? Despite huge reduction in absolute poverty numbers, inequality has been on the rise. Save the Children’s ‘Born Equal’ report, published last September, showed that the overall gap between rich and poor children, globally, has grown by 35% since 1990 – nearly double the gap between adults – meaning that in some countries more than twice the number of poor children die before the age of five than rich children. Progress needs to reach the poorest 20% before we can safely say that all children have been given a fair chance to survive and thrive.

Secondly, Post-2015 goals cannot be seen as separate targets for separate sectors because they are inextricably linked; instead, they need to be seen as parts of a whole. A hungry child is less likely to go to school and achieve good learning outcomes; he is more likely to fall ill; and as he are also more likely to be poor, he will have less access to health services, clean water, nutritious food for physical and mental development and the result is a vicious cycle of poverty for generations to come.

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During the panel discussion, Michael Switow pointed out – and quite rightly so – that perhaps indicators are not enough for development. A child that has US$1.26 (US$0.01 more than the agreed target) could be considered ‘lifted out of extreme poverty’, but 10% inflation means that they would just be as food insecure as they were before. Instead, a rights-based approach could be necessary to ensure that women and children have access to what they need in order to survive and thrive. This is very much in line with Save the Children’s vision of a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation. Every child must have access to schools, clinics, social protection, nutritious food and a voice.

Accountability should be at the core of the framework. In order to hold world leaders to their promises, we need a robust accountability mechanisms rooted in regular collection of disaggregated data in order to track progress, all of which require investment and resources from the state.

Lastly, environmental sustainability of development is crucial as human health, survival and activities are dependent on our earth’s natural resources. Increased environmental exploitation is often viewed as a necessary process in development as people require more fuel, food and other material goods like electronics. And little has been done to improve the sustainability of our world. Of the 20 countries most at risk from climate related disasters by 2015, 19 have large numbers of absolute poor. As such, development projects should at the core of it, be built around environmental sustainability and low-carbon development.

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development may not be limited to the environment. Investment in women, for instance, will go a long way in sustaining development. As Georgette Tan said: “Women need to be empowered: They need an education to start, they need access to a bank account, access to finances and credit. They need to be given access to technology and they need to understand that they have a role to play…It’s about giving them the leg up, not just about the hand out.” Indeed, the case for investing in women has been made many times over; 90% of women’s income is reinvested in her families as opposed to about 40% of men’s income. Women invest in their communities, which helps create many more opportunities for other women and children in those communities.

Millions have benefitted as a result of the Millennium Development Goals. Let us capitalise on this momentum so that 6.9 million children no longer die each year from preventable causes, 300,000 mothers do not die needlessly, and millions of hungry have access to the nutritious foods they deserve.

Save the Children’s report, ‘Ending Poverty in Our Generation’, can be downloaded here.

Michel Anglade is the Campaigns and Advocacy Director at Save the Children Asia

Impressions from the ONE Food Drive

By Melissa Chong

Cars stream in during an 8-hour food drive, greeted by ONE (SINGAPORE) volunteers and Class 95FM DJs Vernetta Lopez, Jean Danker, Glenn Ong and Marilyn Lee. The DJs are visibly touched by the overwhelming generosity of donors opening their hearts as well as their wallets.

The event – The ONE Food Drive – is organised by ONE (SINGAPORE) with the support of Class 95FM to collect food for the hungry.

Wait – hunger in Singapore?

23 Jan 2013 (1)

“It’s amazing, I didn’t realise our car boot could fit so much stuff!” chuckle a group of ladies while unloading thirteen sacks of rice into the warehouse. They vouch that they are loyal Class 95FM listeners who heard the radio announcement and emptied the shelves of a NTUC supermarket to help out.

Joseph Sim, a father of two young children, also hit the stores the same day after hearing the radio announcement. He arrives with bags of assorted groceries worth $480.

“I wanted to teach my children from a young age that we should donate when we can”, he tells us.

Jointly organized by ONE (SINGAPORE) and Class 95FM, a publicity campaign including social media has been launched to encourage the donation of non-perishable food items to the those in need.

“We traded a few ideas and decided – let’s start with something really basic which people can grasp, something which everyone can get involved in. So we said ok, let’s tackle hunger”, explains Michael Switow, co-founder of ONE (SINGAPORE).

And yes, hunger does exist in prosperous Singapore. While there are no official statistics, a commmunity survey by Food for All in 2009 noted that some 12,000 Singaporean households rely on supplementary food rations provided by Family Service Centres, Residential Committees (RCs) and charities.

Food items collected in the drive are being given to two beneficiary group: The Food Bank Singapore and Willing Hearts.

“ONE (SINGAPORE) would like to bring attention to groups which don’t receive as much attention”, Michael adds.

Bulk items collected in the food drive are donated to Willing Hearts – a local soup kitchen that cooks 3,000 meals for various distributions points across the island, every day of the year. To run operations at such a massive scale, they depend heavily on the goodwill of donors and say the food collected through this drive will go a long way.

“It’s about one-months supply of food. From here, the food will go to our kitchen. We’ll serve meals to old folks, the sick, single parents and jobless. Many live in one-room, two-room flats. It’s a wide range of people”, says Charles Liew, Treasurer of Willing Hearts.

Assorted bags of food collected in the drive are donated to The Food Bank Singapore, which partners with a broad range of charities and volunteer welfare groups to distribute food to families and individuals in need. Although operations started in April 2012, this organisation is already a media sensation, receiving recognition in the 2012 National Day speech.

23 Jan 2013 (3)

According to The Food Bank Singapore, corporate donors often want to donate food in bulk but beneficiaries rarely have sufficient storage space.

“Because of our linkage with FoodXervices, we can settle the logistics of sending the food to beneficiaries. For example, recently a company donated 250 cartons of French fries. Where is the charity going to store it? That’s when we come into the picture,” explains Michael Teo, a co-ordinator at The Food Bank Singapore.

A convoy of 25 to 30 cars arrives from Schneider Electric, a multinational electric engineering company, pledging more than $10,000 worth of food. Not long after, a truckload arrives from Nestle with cartons of Nestle products including Milo, Nestum cereal and Maggi noodles.

The food collected is helping thousands of individuals from the unemployed to the elderly and making a clear stance that no one in Singapore should go hungry.

This article was edited by Emma Gatehouse. Photos by Joy Wong.

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And yes, hunger does exist in prosperous Singapore. While there are no official statistics, a commmunity survey by Food for All in 2009 noted that some 12,000 Singaporean households rely on supplementary food rations provided by Family Service Centres, Residential Committees (RCs) and charities.

Food items collected in the drive are being given to two beneficiary group: The Food Bank Singapore and Willing Hearts.

“ONE (SINGAPORE) would like to bring attention to groups which don’t receive as much attention”, Michael adds.

Bulk items collected in the food drive are donated to Willing Hearts – a local soup kitchen that cooks 3,000 meals for various distributions points across the island, every day of the year. To run operations at such a massive scale, they depend heavily on the goodwill of donors and say the food collected through this drive will go a long way.

“It’s about one-months supply of food. From here, the food will go to our kitchen. We’ll serve meals to old folks, the sick, single parents and jobless. Many live in one-room, two-room flats. It’s a wide range of people”, says Charles Liew, Treasurer of Willing Hearts.

Assorted bags of food collected in the drive are donated to The Food Bank Singapore, which partners with a broad range of charities and volunteer welfare groups to distribute food to families and individuals in need. Although operations started in April 2012, this organisation is already a media sensation, receiving recognition in the 2012 National Day speech.

23 Jan 2013 (3)

According to The Food Bank Singapore, corporate donors often want to donate food in bulk but beneficiaries rarely have sufficient storage space.

“Because of our linkage with FoodXervices, we can settle the logistics of sending the food to beneficiaries. For example, recently a company donated 250 cartons of French fries. Where is the charity going to store it? That’s when we come into the picture,” explains Michael Teo, a co-ordinator at The Food Bank Singapore.

A convoy of 25 to 30 cars arrives from Schneider Electric, a multinational electric engineering company, pledging more than $10,000 worth of food. Not long after, a truckload arrives from Nestle with cartons of Nestle products including Milo, Nestum cereal and Maggi noodles.

The food collected is helping thousands of individuals from the unemployed to the elderly and making a clear stance that no one in Singapore should go hungry.

This article was edited by Emma Gatehouse. Photos by Joy Wong.

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Building a New Social Compact

By Nicole Seah

Inequality hurts not just the poor, but ALL segments of society. Research in the field of social science has shown that social indicators such as life expectancy, rates of imprisonment, social mobility show poorer performance across the board when there is greater inequality.

Inequality has many practical implications, the most important one being dissatisfaction and discontentment across different classes.

Economic progress accounts for more than just pure output or growth. Other indicators of well-being include consumption, health and longevity, leisure time and income distribution.

Even though our per capita GDP was 83% of the US, the well-being of Singaporeans was disproportionately a mere 44% in comparison.

With regards to the issue of inequality, we cannot continue to look outward to other countries and assume that there is less for us to do because we are in a much better off situation on the whole.

Singapore is well-poised to take on the challenges of the global economy with the strong growth policies that have been put in place.  I believe that now is the time for us to look inward and draw our focus back to the core of good governance . . . and the core of good governance is the ability of a state to take care of its people.

So a National Conversation is good. It is important. But if we do dig deep into what makes this country tick, what makes people stay or go, then we will only be left with just that – Conversation. Singapore is in a good position to transform its social policies.

Policy biases

For too long there have been several arguments AGAINST giving more to the poor. We do not want to create a welfare state, we do not have the finances to sustain a greater amount of assistance. Our policies have benefitted the population at large, there will always be poor people in society no matter what you do, so the fact that our numbers are less than other countries means that we are in a good position.

There are so many of these arguments.

And this is where I think, the Singapore government needs to re-engineer the way it thinks about the poor.

Think of them, not just in terms of statistics, but as people. People who could be our neighbours. The uncle next door who might have to take up 3 jobs to provide for his family. The karang guni lady, who makes a pittance sourcing for my broken fan and making her rounds every morning and night.

I know these people, because I live right next to them where I stay in Tampines. And that is why it always breaks my heart, when I meet people who have had a much more privileged upbringing, who have all the creature comforts that they could possibly ask for, say that the government has done enough and that there will always be poor people in this society.

It is easier said than done, when these people will never understand what it feels like to live below media wage. They will never understand what it feels like to get paid by the hour, or to spend their last dollar note in their wallet and not know where the next one is going to come from.

And that is why it is time for us to build a new social compact.

Sceptics may argue that we will not be able to get the money, it is not fiscally feasible.  To that I say, if the government sees value in closing up this inequality gap, if they start to place emphasis on doing so, it will be important enough to have a budget. We could have used the same argument against F1, the Youth Olympics or the Integrated Resorts. But the government felt that the benefits would be important to Singaporeans, and so, money was put aside for these projects.

In that same vein, as we reconsider what it takes to close up the income gap, I’d like to remind all of us that we need to be mindful in the way we render assistance to the poor. Drawing back to the old cliché of teaching a person how to fish versus giving him a fish, we need to relook at our social infrastructure rather than merely increasing assistance or doling out more money, which is important and it is good, but it is not sustainable in the longer term. We need to start looking at things with a new approach and perhaps make unorthodox suggestions to orthodox policies.

One area we can consider is that Singapore needs to create more hands and feet for the people who are down and out, and aren’t able to get up on their own two feet. This can extend to employment agencies, childcare centres, the social work sector. Make the pay packages more attractive. Acknowledge social work as a legit profession. Streamline the job scope so that existing social workers do not wade through a mountain of bureaucracy which may further aggravate an emotionally demanding job. Jobs creation of this nature needs to stem from a willingness to change the system. We can’t just rely on creating ad campaigns without changing what is unattractive about the job. It’s not going to solve the problem of expanding the social work talent pool in the long run.

With that, I’d like to end off on one point about our social spending, and a couple of other possible solutions in brief . . .

Singapore spends 16% of its GDP on social programmes. Other developed economies average out at 25%-30%. While we do not need to go as high as 40%, compared to some other developed countries such as Sweden or France, I believe that alot more can and should be done to push for more social spending in Singapore.

With that in line, the increment in social spending can then be considered for some of the following areas:

(1) Worker retraining and income support – Allow the poorer in society to search for better opportunities

(2) Healthcare – Universal Healthcare insurance models in places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have seen out of pocket expenses for locals fall significantly. Singapore currently has the highest risk of extremely high personal spending in healthcare compared to other developed Asian economies, which really gave rise to the heartland idea of “Better to die than to fall sick in Singapore.” Currently, the system limits claiming for chronic long term care, which is actually the area that tends to affect low to medium income families the hardest.

(3) More subsidised infrastructure – Void deck or government-owned spaces can be converted into eldercare centres or childcare centres. With subsidies in rent, cost savings can be passed on to Singaporeans who might not be able to afford private facilities.

This article is based on the opening remarks given by Nicole Seah at a panel discussion on “Reducing the Income Gap: Finding Practical Solutions” organised on 12 September 2012 by ONE (SINGAPORE) and the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

18 ways to reduce the income gap

1 Oct 2012

By Leong Sze Hian

With the gap between rich and poor widening, financial advisor and commentator Leong Sze Hian argues that new government policies are needed in several key sectors. But that Singaporeans need to change their mindset as well.

“We need to tweak our labour policies, then automatically wages will rise,” Sze Hian told a packed room at SMU in a panel discussion about income inequality organised by ONE (SINGAPORE) and the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

But the outspoken advocate of poor and disenfranchised families also notes that the government can not do everything.

“We cannot put all the blame on the government. Look at the issue of cleaners. Two years ago, their pay was S$800, now (the amount is) less. Why? Because every time the workers’ levy goes up, (companies) cut workers pay and we accept it. As Singaporeans, we need to be more compassionate.”

In this article, Sze Hian focuses on four key areas where new policies – or in some cases, a return to previous rules – could reduce the income gap, increase purchasing power and ensure that catastrophic illnesses do not also bankrupt families.

Wages and CPF

  1. Peg the interest rate paid on CPF accounts to the GIC’s historical rate of return (minus a one-percentage administrative fee).

Singaporean’s retirement funds are essentially invested by the government in securities chosen by the Government Investment Corporation. While there has been some controversy about how this works, it appears that the Government sells bonds to the CPF Board and then provides the funds raised to GIC.

Currently, ordinary CPF accounts pay 2.5%. There’s a slightly more complicated formula for calculating the return on Special, Medical and Retirement Accounts (SMRA), but they tend to pay 5% on the first S$60,000 and 4% on subsequent funds.

But the GIC has a historical rate of return over the past twenty years of about 6 percent in US dollar terms. So instead of paying Singaporeans a 2.5% rate of return on their CPF accounts, it would be more equitable to pay about 5 percent (providing GIC with a profit for administering the funds).

By the way, Malaysia’s Employees Provident Fund (EPF) paid a dividend of 5.8 and 5.65 percent in 2010 and 2009, respectively, and has historically paid a return of between 4.25 to 8.5 per cent.

  1. Change the rules for self-employed Workfare accounts.

Self-employed individuals currently do not receive any cash payments from Workfare. Instead, Workfare transfers to the self-employed are paid into their CPF Medisave accounts. This discourages older lower-income self-employed Singaporeans from contributing to CPF to qualify for Workfare.

  1. Require employers to pay CPF for foreign employees too.

Current policy exempts employers from having to pay a 16 percent contribution to CPF for foreign employees. This policy puts Singaporeans at a disadvantage as employers save 16 per cent of salary costs when they employ foreigners.


  1. Pay Medishield premiums

Instead of making periodic CPF Medisave top-ups to older Singaporeans, use the funds to pay for their Medishield premiums instead. Otherwise, such top-ups can easily be consumed by rising medical costs.

  1. Provide coverage for all infants

Currently, CPF Medishield does not cover new-born children with congenital illnesses.

  1. Increase public spending

Singapore’s spending on healthcare is one of the lowest in the world. The government currently spends about 1.6 percent of GDP on healthcare. We need to invest more in the health of our citizens.

  1. Stop Privatising Healthcare

Private sector spending on healthcare, as a percentage of total healthcare spending, has risen from 25 percent not long ago to 60 percent now. We need to reverse this trend. Private healthcare costs patients more.

  1. Subsidise out-patient treatments for those in need

Out-patient treatments at polyclinics can be expensive and a large burden on low-income families and individuals. The government Medifund programme should pay for these treatments. Instead, the government has transferred S$86 million of Medifund surpluses to the Protected Reserves over the past decade or so.

  1. Better coverage for workplace injuries – Part 1

An injury at work can be all that it takes to push a family into poverty. The Workmen’s Injury Act was amended a few years ago to reduce employers’ and insurers’ liability for medical expenses arising from workplace accidents to S$25,000. But according to the Ministry of Health, medical fees from five percent of industrial accidents exceed this cap, placing an unfair – and potentially debilitating – financial burden on employees.

  1. Better coverage for workplace injuries – Part 2

Require public hospitals to extend the same subsidies to all patients, whether they are in hospital due to an industrial accident or other matter. Currently, ‘subsidised wards’ are actually not subsidised at all if you are hospitalised due to a workplace injury. This means that patients are paying five times as much to stay in a Class C ward.

  1. Fight higher costs by changing the way hospitals are reimbursed.

Hospital fees have doubled over the past four years. A major reason for this is that the government reimburses public hospitals based on the MOH’s average treatment type subsidy computation. Yet hospitals are still free to charge higher prices and pass the difference on to patients. Instead, the government should reimburse hospitals for the actual subsidy shown in medical bills.

  1. Better means-testing

Review means testing for patients who request for down-grading to lower-class hospital wards. The last time a reply on this was given in Parliament, it was revealed that only one percent of those who applied for downgrading from a higher class ward were successful.


Information is a key for effective governance and developing solutions. There are a number of facts though that are not currently public knowledge. For example . . .

  1. If someone can not afford medical treatment, what is the likelihood that s/he will receive government support?

MOH discloses the number of successful applications, but not the total number or number rejected. What is the percentage of Medifund applicants that are accepted because they can not pay their medical bills?

  1. Make public the criteria for approving Medifund applications.
  1. Disclose the “Standard Drug List”.

Patients should be able to know in advance which drugs are subsidised and which are not.

  1. How many people discharged from hospital are unable to pay their medical bills?

We know that 21 percent of Singaporeans who seek assistance from Credit Counselling Singapore are requesting help because of medical fees. But we do not know how many patients are left with financial problems due to medical expenses.


  1. Remove the income ceiling of S$2,000 for two-room flats.

This limit is based on a simplistic assumption that every household earning more than $2,000 can afford a three-room flat, regardless of family size or financial circumstances.

  1. Do not increase rents for households earning more than S$800.

Families earning between S$800 and S$1,500 may already be finding it heard to make ends meet. The state does not need to add to their burden by increasing their rent. It’s time to reverse this relatively recent policy change.


By Iman Fahim Hameed

9 Aug 2012 (1)

Volunteers driving beneficiaries to shop for groceries

For many, the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan is a time to recognise the hardships faced by those less fortunate than ourselves and to engage in volunteer service to help out.

It is this spirit of sadaqah that has driven the Malay Youth Literary Association- better known as 4PM, an abbreviation of its Malay-language name, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu – to organise Ramadhan-on-Wheels (ROW) to distribute assistance to low-income families and treat them to a day out.

This year — on Saturday 11 August 2012, during the last week before Hari Raya – more than 1000 volunteers and 270 low-income families will come together at ITE East in Simei and visit a local grocery store to stock up on provisions for this annual celebration.

Since 2001, more than 1700 families have benefited from the programme.

V.I.P. for a day

“It’s not just about giving (the beneficiaries) a voucher, but treating them to a day out,” says 4PM case manager Evina Suban.  “They are like a V.I.P. for a day.”

9 Aug 2012 (2)

Volunteers assist with the shopping

This is the second year that Richard, an 82 year old beneficiary, will receive shopping vouchers from 4PM.  He appreciates the time that volunteers take to drive him to and from the market, particularly since his wife must often stay at home due to ill health.

In addition to food vouchers, ROW provides assistance in other ways as well. Each year is different.  In the past, 4PM has distributed computers and baju kurungs, new clothes for the Hari Raya celebrations.  This year, ROW volunteers have helped clean beneficiary homes and provide them with a fresh coat of paint.

Evolution of ROW

In its early days, 4PM volunteers used to row sampans to Singapore’s outlying islands to assist those in need during Ramadan.

But that was back before Singapore became independent — 4PM was founded in 1948 — at a time when most people here still lived in kampongs.

ROW, which is now in its 12th year, is rooted though in those early ideals.  At first, volunteers delivered groceries to the beneficiaries.  However, over the years the ROW committee realized they could do more.

“We used to give in the form of groceries,” says Evina.  “But we realised different people have varying needs (depending on their age and health status).”  In 2009, ROW replaced the groceries with vouchers.

While 4PM’s roots are in the Malay community, it assists families across Singapore, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  Currently about 30-40% of 4PM’s beneficiaries are non-Malay.

Simple gestures

9 Aug 2012 (3)

Each year, volunteers say they gain as much from the outing as the beneficiaries.

Take the example of Nadya Hasheem, a third year volunteer who was initially a committee member.  During a home make-over, she was touched by the experience of an elderly couple who lost their home due to their children’s spending.  The couple never blamed their children.

“It made me realize the lengths of sacrifice parents will go for their children and how they can still love with no bitterness, and only goodwill,” says Nadya.  “I am honoured to serve them.”

And when she heard that this was the first time someone has offered to help the aunty, Nadya says she learned an even more important lesson: “appreciate even a small simple gesture, for all we had done was clean and paint the house for them.”

Volunteering for ROW “is a humbling experience and working with a diverse team of volunteers is very rewarding,” adds 2012 ROW chairman Syed Faisal, who looks forward to making all the participants feel like a VIP-for-a-day.

Join the Fun

You can still join the celebrations – and break the daily fast with the Muslim participants – at ITE East on Saturday 11 August.  In the morning, volunteers pick up the beneficiaries and bring them to ITE East, the festival venue.  At 2pm, the guest of honour, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan, will present the beneficiaries with the vouchers.  Around 4pm, volunteers will drive the families to the Giant supermarket in Tampines to go shopping. And then finally there will be an iftar break-fast back at ITE after sunset.  While at ITE East, please visit the ONE (SINGAPORE) booth.

If you would like to join the post-fast meal, please call Noraini at 9653-8921 to RSVP.

At the event, visitors can also make donations to 4PM.

Corporations or groups of individuals who are interested in supporting 4PM’s student assistance and mentoring programmes, please contact ONE (SINGAPORE) to ask about our Corporate Adoption Programme.

This article was edited by Rica Facundo and Michael Switow.

The Economics of Living: Discussing Poverty in Singapore

By Dilpreet Kaur and Michael Switow

The seminar room was full house when the moderator, Kirpal Singh, Director of Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre, opened the talk-show style discussion by noting that the topic of poverty in Singapore is an issue that has not set easy with the government here, but that a mandate of the Wee Kim Wee Centre is to address issues that others might be shy or anxious to discuss.

Four panelists – civil society activist Braema Mathi, community reporter Radha Basu, grassroots social worker Nadia Bamasri and Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien – and audience participants from a range of organisations including Beyond Social Services, Mendaki, NCSS, ONE (SINGAPORE) and the catholic church explored the nature of local poverty, government schemes to address and cultural attitudes that help and hinder the provision of essential social services.

Dilpreet Kaur, of the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), provides a detailed account of the discussion. (Note: this is not a complete word-for-word transcript.)

“What is poverty in Singapore?”

12 Apr 2012 (1)

“Do we have the right to judge
and say ‘sorry we can not help you’?”

Braema Mathi: I’m glad we can use the word “poverty”. I want to broaden it rather than deal with the word ‘poverty’ per say. I am wearing a hat as regional president of the ICSW, a 76 year old organisation, primarily looking at communities in need.  There is a disconnect between social policy and communities in need. Why?  Poverty is a result of income disparities and consequently limited access to basic necessities for day-to-day living.

From our politicians, we hear “cheaper, better, faster”. What does this mean? This rhetoric of “cheaper” can be very problematic if we just keep switching vendors to increase profit margins without a thought for workers’ livelihoods, particularly if there is little governance, few regulatory tools or even a lack of proper laws.

To come back to the question, what do we mean by a person in need? In the 1960s, the person in Singapore in need was different. He didn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Today, food seems to be in abundance, yet in our midst we see people at hawker centres who pick on the leftovers from your tray and plate.

Homelessness has also been vividly described in the online media – people who are caught out without shelter and by their own silly mistakes. What has gone on from the 1960s to 2012?

What do we do then if someone got on the bandwagon of upgrading then got caught? The waiting out period is thirty months, which then forces them onto the streets or to bunk in with relatives or to fork out for rentals in the private sector. There is a disconnect here. These thirty months are a definite period, so what do we do during this time? The social policies are limited. What then is the role of society here as well? Do we let them be or do we start to look for ways to help? Do we have the right to judge and say ‘sorry, we can not help you”?

“So then Braema, is there then a remedy, a quick solution or is this is a complicated problem?”

Braema: Despite the government’s Many Helping Hands approach, we have a disconnect where meeting the needs of people are concerned. It’s not that there aren’t schemes or that we’re not doing enough. But people are still falling through. What are we going to do about this? Singapore needs to start thinking about the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPFI), which is driven by the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation and supported by ICSW. The government needs to start reviewing the trends of people falling through the net and what it can do for them in terms of establishing a concrete floor from which they can step up. Developed countries are using the SPFI, especially because of ageing societies. It is time Singapore considers this approach.

“Radha, as a Straits Times journalist, you’ve actively reported on social issues. Could you tell us about some of your personal encounters with people in need?”

Radha Basu: 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. And personally, I feel it is growing.

12 Apr 2012 (2)

“We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it.”

There is no official poverty line but there are 200,000 local families who are living in the bottom fifth of the income scale.  Their average monthly income in 2010 was $2,040, but the poorest 10 per cent – about 100,000 households – earned only $1,400 per month.

We don’t have current household expenditure figures, but in 2007-2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the average monthly household expenditure among the lowest 20% of resident households was $1,760.   That’s about $500 more than their average monthly income at the time ($1,274).

There is a gap in income and basic expenditure before state cash-transfer policies like Workfare are put into place. There is also a disconnect between people not knowing which schemes are available or considering it onerous to seek help. Recently, though, MP Amy Khor announced that there will be just one form to apply for assistance at the Community Development Councils (CDCs).

Who needs the most assistance? Generally, these individuals have uncommon or multiple needs. The existence of multiple problems is what exacerbates their conditions. Consider these examples:

  • * a low-income earning couple with a special needs child
  • * homeless men who cannot go to CDCs for help because government schemes require an address
  • * foreign brides — with Singaporean children, but estranged or widowed from their husbands — who are not eligible to rent a HDB
  • * the mentally ill, who have homes but cannot get along with parents or family members.
  • * unwed mothers who have been low on the government’s priority list for fear they might procreate more illegitimate children
  • * and foreign workers who have been cheated or injured.

“You must have followed up with the government on these issues? What were the official answers to these hardship cases?”

Radha: There is both a lapse in communication outreach in terms of implementing the schemes by the State as well as the “shame” factor among potential applicants of such schemes. So something needs to be done.

“We are Singaporeans, but yes we have subsets of groups like Mendaki, etc that focus on one group. Nadia, you work with 4PM, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. Are we wrong to assume that the Malays are out of proportion when it comes to poverty or hardship?”

Nadia Bamasri: At 4PM, our work revolves around children, youth and their families. We do not only work with Malays; we have a 70-30% policy to help non Malays as well.

12 Apr 2012 (3)

Nadia Bamasri at “Ramadan on Wheels,” an annual project to assist low-income families.

But there is a Malay problem. Statistics have shown that when it comes to education, Malay parents have lower levels of education and as a result are in the lower income bracket.

We don’t see poverty and slums because we live in these boxes called flats. But you just have to open the door and you can smell and see the poverty.

Braema talked about withholding judgement. We are not supposed to judge, but as a social worker, we are required by funders or the government to ask so many questions about income and other family characteristics before we can help these families. However, do we really know what these families/individuals need? That’s a more pertinent question. Handouts are not always the solution. There needs to be more cross cutting measures, not just within the Malay community, but across all groups.

“Radha alluded to single mothers. I was brought up in Geylang in the 1950’s. Malays then were very communal and would support each other all the way. Is this apparent today?”

Nadia: Today, we live in flats and have lots of social issues. Who’s fault is it? We never blame ourselves. If you ask people, they’ll tell you about the government, their long working hours, etc. This is different from the kampong days. People nowadays are much too worried about labels and judgement.

For example, if you are pregnant and Malay, first thing your parent will do is to send you to a home. Why? To cover it up. The pregnancy is taboo. It is very embarrassing to the families. However, there is no support at the home. The young women are allowed to go to work or school. This only entrenches poverty further, especially for these single mothers.

“Laurence, in your maiden Parliamentary address, you spoke about introducing a Social Health Index in Singapore. What is this? And how do we achieve social health?

Laurence Lien: At the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and the Community Foundation of Singapore, my job is to get the well-to-do to give. Almost all the time, the question I get is: “where are the needs in Singapore?”. I explain, then they say “What is the government doing about it?”. Then I have the burden of explaining why we must not wait for government.

There is little visibility of our social realities on the ground. As a society, we like to hide our problems and the marginalised. We need to stop hiding poverty, especially if we want people to be part of the action to address social problems.

12 Apr 2012 (4)

“We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.”

I visited the Boston Foundation in the United States two years ago. This foundation publishes the “Boston Indicators Project” every two to three years. It wasn’t initiated by the government; they started it. They publish this wonderful report that galvanises people to think about how to address issues in society.

We need to do this in Singapore. We track the economic indicators so closely. But isn’t social health just as important?  The last elections demonstrate that social issues are critical to our citizens . When it comes to economic health, the government has all the levers. But when it comes to social health, it’s scared that it doesn’t have all the levers and they don’t want to be accountable in the same way. We need to look at individuals, families, community cohesion and happiness as well. We should measure subjective well-being.  This idea was poo-poo-ed by the politicians. But at the end of the day, this is what we want. What is life for if we do not seek to be happy?

The Social Health Index is to help identify the needs of the people and what the government is doing about it. For it to work, the community must be accountable as well and it must have equal ownership of the issues

We are so fixated with economic indicators, don’t we care about social health indicators?


Dr Kirpal thanked all the speakers for their answers and sharing of experiences. One hour into the discussions, it was time for the audience to pose some tough questions . . .

People are falling through the cracks. What is the real role of elected govt in resolving poverty problem?

Laurence: I see the government as putting big stones into a container. It has the power to tax and redistribute resources. They must use the levers; these are the big stones. But there will be gaps and that’s where civil society comes in. The government must have a cutoff by income, but often that criteria is insufficient. This is where civil society can come in to play a role. The government can also set a poverty line and minimum wage. I’m not convinced by the arguments against the minimum wage. We need more informed dialogue about this.

Braema: MCYS receives the smallest budget of all the ministries. This is unacceptable. When I started the Straits Times School Pocket Fund, it was because the criteria were too tight. But today 1700 is not enough for children and their families. The goal posts have shifted.

Radha: It’s too easy to bash the government. In fact, a lot of the anti-government bashing online is misinformed. Take Comcare. It’s a 1 billion dollar fund. When I asked Mdm Halimah last year, she told me that only 1 out of 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income scale uses Comcare. Why? Because, when asked, most needy families said they don’t need government assistance; they say their relatives will help them.

And take the recent discussion about cleaners wages. The first reply is that foreign workers are pushing down the wages. But three-quarters of our cleaners are local. What’s the elephant in the room? It’s cleaning contacts. The town councils enter into blatantly one-sided contracts. Cleaners earn $40 a day, but and be fired at will for no reason.

We can say the government isn’t doing enough, but will Singaporeans accept higher conservancy charges?

Braema: I need to reply to that. During the budget discussions, a minister asked ‘Singaporeans, would you like for your tax to increase?” I’m quite tired of this manner of discourse. Every time we raise a social issue, the politicians response is ‘are we willing to pay more?”. We are complicit in this way of thinking. It’s become like a contract we have with each other and we have to break it. It’s a question of shared responsibility.

Another member of the audience from a large local non-profit organisation shared these observations:

  1. When this forum started, I was taken aback with being uncomfortable with the term ‘poverty’. Factually the underclass community in Singapore is present. How come the word ‘poverty’ is seen to be so strong and taboo?
  2. Today we have more working class with low wages. Permanent jobs are scarcer and scarcer. Contractual work is becoming much more common instead.
  3. Bluntly speaking, the ‘blaming the victim’ attitude is quite prevalent, from the apex of the hierarchy to the bureaucrats at the bottom rung. Self-help bodies, including my organisation, are so busy trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the well-being of our clients. The public at large is not used to the term poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from getting to know what poverty is all about.

Another participant comment:

Our government has consistent budget surpluses, except in 2009. After a period of time, the surpluses are locked into reserves. This comes from the society, but what’s being done with the surplus?

The conversation in singapore drifts towards schemes and an incrementalist approach. We should move towards a different type of score card. By changing the method of assessment, we can measure the unmet needs more easily, for example, how many people with income less than $5000 have had to pay $100,000 out of pocket due to catastrophic illness?

A woman from another social agency disagreed with a suggestion by Braema that Singapore needs more social workers . . .

We need to shift the discussion to ‘what can i do’ to help people in need. Otherwise the blame game will continue. We need to shift policy. How do we handle the poor? Can we resolve poverty? Who should be resolving it? As professionals, what can we do to activate the citizenry?

A member of the clergy added this reflection:

It’s not lack of money that prevents the government from helping. 25% of the budget goes to defence. My feeling is what’s lacking is the voice of the poor. The poor here are docile. We need stronger unions.

The Panelists’ Final Reflections

Laurence: We are confronting this not just as a nation, but as a globe. Income inequality is hitting the whole world. The whole capitalist model has to be reviewed. We shouldn’t be ashamed. There are poor here and we need to talk about it more openly. But they are not helpless and always receiving. We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. It’s the mindset. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume.

Nadia: I think I speak for social workers and all the wonderful people who do this work, we need a lot of workers who are passionate . . . we see are a lot of people with zero income and nothing in the bank. How do you compare that with 1500 a month? These are the people we look at. I agree with Laurence, I see our beneficiaries with strengths. They are resourceful, but their basic needs are not met. How much can we really do?


  1. We touched on minimum wage and contract jobs. Go to wikipedia and type in minimum wage and collective bargaining – almost all developed countries have one or the other, if not both. We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it. Contract jobs and immigration may be worldwide phenomena, but other countries have support systems that we don’t.
  2. We need more discussion as well from welfare groups. When I asked them for interviews to discuss unmet social needs, they refused to talk because they saw our story as being ‘too negative’.
  3. Should we be spending $850 million on baby bonuses every year, but less on welfare?

Braema: At the end of the day, we are talking about people in need. We need to treat the person coming through the door with dignity. Yes, they have a blame approach. Now they talk about teaching the person to fish, but what if you fence the pond or what if the pond has no fish? Having a conducive environment is equally important. I want to go to fish, but i can not find the pond because there are too many obstacles in my way.

Kirpal: Sometimes, it’s easier to say yes and sign protocols, but when you visit them on the ground they are not as good as Singapore. There’s a lesson by old guys like me. We always begin by saying to government, ‘it’s your job to help me’. The government might be less anxious if we see them as a partner rather than always putting them on the defensive. They’re human too. There are practical ways of moving forward, without judgement and the blame game.

resized to width 750 15/4/2012 13:43:43

Joe Wan, Michele Yap, Braema Mathi, Laurence Lien, Radha Basu, Nadia Bamasri, Hani Mohamed, Thulasi Mahadevan, Michael Switow