Compassion Deficit: Singapore Ruling Elite’s Attitude towards the Poor
Hong Kong has a hugely popular reality television show that invites the city’s yuppies and tycoons to experience the life of the underclass. For a few days, affluent participants of “The Battle of the Poor Rich” (窮富翁大作戰) had a taste of the daily struggles of the homeless, the sweeper, the garbage collector, the eatery helper, and the single mother etc. trying to stay afloat in one of Asia’s most expensive cities.
(Cantonese with Chinese subtitles).
In one episode, a power broker spent barely a few hours collecting garbage before he asked the show’s producer to give him a less tedious job. Another young businessman who gamely took up the challenge of sleeping on the streets and earning his keep, shed tears of frustration when he lost his job as a eatery helper after working half a day. He said this after a sobering night as a homeless:
The life of the homeless is like a pencil that only gets shorter and not sharper as you try to sharpen it (“露宿生涯如一支愈刨愈短的鉛筆，而不是愈刨愈尖”).
These words also hold true for the plight of the poor in general. Expending tremendous effort and working doubly hard may not be enough to lift one out of poverty.
As recent research shows, it is not simply because coping with poverty is strenuous for the body. Poverty is also taxing on the brain, in that it “imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.”
The new finding subverts the belief that the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty and that they can lift themselves out of it through their own effort.
In other words, the study attests to the importance of social support for the poor.
Hong Kong Sets Poverty Line
The first step in helping the poor is to acknowledge the existence of poverty in a society and define it.
In late September, Hong Kong announced an official poverty line for the very first time. Adopting the definition used by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, families with less than half of the city’s median household income (before tax and welfare transfers) are now deemed poor.
By this yardstick, close to 20 percent of the Hong Kong population lived below the poverty line last year.
Notwithstanding the limitations of this measurement, an official poverty line is a good start to better identify those in need and channel resources to them.
It is also useful in assessing the effectiveness of existing policies in alleviating poverty. For instance, Hong Kong’s current minimum wage of HK$30 an hour may be benchmarked against the poverty line to gauge how it could be further adjusted to help the working poor.
No Poverty in Singapore?
Contrast Hong Kong with Singapore, which, till today, has neither a minimum wage nor an official poverty line.
Our own Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his 2013 NDR speech, suggested that there are virtually no poor people in Singapore (“… even poor people are not poor by any international standard”).
Many of us beg to differ. Not long ago, an NUS forum titled “Building an inclusive society: understanding and empowering the poor in Singapore” highlighted the plight of our working poor, who do not earn enough to make ends meet.
Forum speakers and experts defined the “working poor” as a working person whose income per household member is less than half of the national median per capita household income of Singapore.
This means you are a working poor if your household income per person is less than S$1,063.50. There are currently more than 300,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents who earn less than S$1,500 a month (excluding employer CPF contributions) despite holding full-time jobs.
Shame the Poor?
The results of a non-random survey of 383 Singaporeans show that 85% of respondents believe that available jobs do not pay enough for aid-recipients to support a family. About 60% of respondents think our government is not spending enough to help the poor, and 45% are willing to pay more taxes to contribute towards social spending to help the disadvantaged.
A survey with a more representative sample is required to know exactly how Singaporeans feel about poverty and the poor. Nonetheless, based on the aforementioned survey, we can compare the sentiments of a segment of Singaporeans across various income levels and ethnic groups to the attitude of our ruling elite towards the poor.
In September’s Channel News Asia TV forum, PM Lee urged Singaporeans to exert strong social pressure on “free-riders” who may default on the premiums for MediShield Life, which will be made universal.
The Straits Times report went even further and wrote that we must “shame those guilty of free-riding” (emphasis mine).
Even before the national insurance scheme is extended to all, our PM is already assuming that those who may default on their payment do so with the intent of taking advantage of the rest who pay.
What about those who are genuinely poor and cannot afford to pay their premiums?
And what happened to the “compassionate meritocracy” that Ministers were trumpeting not so long ago??
Since our Statistics Department estimated that a four-person household only needs an average of S$1,250 for their total monthly basic expenditure, perhaps our dear Ministers and policy-makers should also take part in a TV reality show and demonstrate to all Singaporeans how they can survive on a shoestring budget working in jobs that pay S$5 or less per hour.
This may help address their compassion deficit.