COMMENT: Defining poverty in Singapore is more than just the ‘cliff effect’

A man sells tissue packets on Orchard Road in Singapore. (Yahoo photo)
A man sells tissue packets on Orchard Road in Singapore. (Yahoo photo)

It’s no secret that Singapore is a rich country. In 2012, it was found to be the richest country in the world.

But despite the expensive clubs and the glamourous Formula 1 races, not everyone in Singapore is enjoying an ultra-rich lifestyle. Although unemployment is fairly low, studies have shown that a considerable number of people in Singapore can be considered the "working poor" – struggling to make ends meet despite having jobs.

With inequality becoming a real worry, the government is still loathe to define poverty. Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Social and Family Development, has now said that an official poverty line might be unhelpful as it poses the danger of a "cliff effect", where welfare schemes are only made available to those below the line while ignoring others in need of support.

It's a strange argument: if the government is already aware of the dangers of this "cliff effect", would it not then be able to avoid it? It would be an incompetent government indeed if it were able to blindside itself just by officially defining poverty.

The existence of a poverty line does not mean that all focus should be directed towards those who fall below it. An official poverty line shows that the poverty is an issue acknowledged by the government to exist as part of the structure of society. Once we see that poverty exists as a structural problem, more steps can be taken to address the distribution of resources and opportunities.

As it stands, poverty in Singapore is more often than not seen as an individual failing with individual solutions. People are urged to retrain and upskill and become more "productive" rather than to expect more social welfare. Social welfare is dangerous, we are warned. That way lies laziness, a mindset of entitlement and the loss of our brilliant status as an economic success.

An official poverty line would demonstrate that the problem is more than just one of individual struggles. An official acknowledgement of the poor would show that, try as they might, a strata in our society is unable to make ends meet. It would force us to take a good hard look at our policies and recognise that our eagerness to please and attract big businesses is not producing the trickle-down effect that was promised. And it is from that point that we start trying to figure out how to deal with poverty on a structural level.

On a certain level the Minister is right: defining poverty might not be helpful. It would not be helpful if it only existed for cosmetic purposes; if the acknowledgement of the poor was not followed by structural reform. But once we have this line and are able to see ourselves not only in terms of who's the richest, but also who's the poorest, it would be remiss of the government and its citizens to not seek solutions.

I can understand the government's desire to avoid a "cliff effect". But refusing to see the cliff doesn't mean that no one is falling off it. Refusing to define poverty doesn't mean that no one is poor; it just means that we don't get the full picture of what work needs to be done.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.