By Teo Jer Rei, NUS
The Background Noise of Poverty underlying Singapore’s Resounding Success
As defined by the United Nations , poverty is more than just a lack of income, it also arises from inequalities in education, social circles and various external factors. Without a poverty line, Singapore uses broad definitions to identify needy groups , and constantly reviews its policies to ensure that help is rendered to needy groups. Owing to the country’s economic progress from “Third world to first” over the past century , many have benefitted in terms of enjoying higher material standards of living. However, the issue of poverty still remains as a constant background noise underlying Singapore’s soundtrack of resounding success– not always heard, but always felt. Particularly, there has been a growing number of young Singaporeans who are in need and rely on government handouts  according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
It is heartening that the government has reviewed and ramped up financial assistance schemes during the pandemic, such as the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF)  for employees put on no-pay leave. In the longer term, educational reforms have been progressively enacted to give students from different pathways access to more opportunities for self-development, and attain better job prospects. However, more can and should be done, and in this essay, I would explore some suggestions that we as youths can do, in addition to governmental and organisational efforts to address poverty.
Just like how an audio technician cannot effectively filter a song’s background noise without knowing how it sounds like and where it originates from, we as a community should first listen actively to the voices of disadvantaged groups and understand the issues they are facing before attempting to address them. Economic policies like financial assistance schemes definitely contribute to poverty reduction, but in order to achieve a long-term solution, we need to do more find out about more deep-seated root causes that contribute to the entrenchment of poverty.
If poverty was simply an issue of financial assistance and equal opportunities, it probably would not have been such an entrenched problem we see today. Delving deeper, one would realise that aid recipients sometimes require more than just financial assistance. For instance, some may have unfavourable family circumstances, which schemes and policies do not always account for. As covered by Channel NewsAsia, those living in poverty sometimes experience dilemmas, with an example being the conundrum of accepting a job offer which will increase one’s salary, but will also increase the rent they have to pay under the public rental scheme . Under the uncertainty of whether the rental increase will outweigh the increase in income, these dilemmas nudge those living in poverty to make counterproductive decisions like turning down the job offer, which further entrenches them in a poverty cycle. Being preoccupied a scarcity mindset and a focus on immediate problems may also result in the needy making suboptimal choices that do not consider long-term interests . Poverty is complex in nature, and we need to do more to listen to the voices of disadvantaged groups, so that even if they are not picked up by the relevant authorities, we as a society can voice out these concerns on their behalf.
Putting a face on poverty
While most Singaporeans are aware of poverty in Singapore, not many are able to “put a face” on it, and poverty remains a felt but rarely visible phenomenon. Already, efforts to raise awareness are evident in the reporting by media channels, and notably, the publication of the best-selling book This Is What Inequality Looks Life by Professor Teo Yeo Yenn , which highlight some of the realities of poverty in Singapore. Social enterprises are also helping to raise awareness about poverty, with organisations like Etch Empathy conducting poverty simulation exercises for schools and companies, to provide a better understanding of the experiences of those living in poverty .
Youths can play a part by reaching out to their networks and contextualizing the realities of poverty. This goes beyond providing statistical information, and more can be done to capture the stories of the people behind the topic labelled as “poverty”. Harnessing the power of social media, the sharing of their encounters with poverty, which can be anonymized to ensure privacy, adds to a collective of stories that contextualize poverty for the public.
Social Entrepreneurship and Peer Empowerment
Policies like the Wage Support Scheme have provided sustainable solutions for lower-income workers to upskill and earn higher wages. Youths can also contribute to better economic empowerment of disadvantaged groups through social entrepreneurship. Drawing inspiration from the International Youth Foundation , youths can create opportunities for their fellow counterparts through social enterprises, which provide an avenue for disadvantaged youths to gain meaningful employment and uncover hidden strengths that could assist them in improving their circumstances.
Besides entrepreneurship, volunteering is also an impactful way individuals can contribute towards alleviating poverty. Peer mentoring serves as a means for countering inequalities that may arise with poverty. As students from wealthier backgrounds often have a head-start given their access to more academic resources, this predisposes children from needy backgrounds to low self-esteem or even helplessness, especially in Singapore’s competitive education system which rewards precocity . Mentoring provides students not only with a source of academic support, but also positive role models which they can look up to, especially since some of them lack these figures in their own families due to circumstances like parental incarceration. A mentor thus also serves as a form of psychological resource for them.
Doing more, doing better
Moving forward, there are many avenues through which we as individuals can contribute towards alleviating poverty. These suggestions revolve around raising greater awareness and action within our community, and it is hoped that we can all continue look out for one another, and prevent people from getting left behind, so that everyone can collectively enjoy the resounding soundtrack of Singapore’s success.
Chan. R. (2016, January 19). Why setting a poverty line may not be helpful: Minister Chan Chun Sing. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/why-setting-a-poverty-line-may-not-be-helpful-minister-chan-chun-sing
Etch Empathy (n.d). Cultivating Empathy. https://www.etch.sg/socialexperiences
Ethos books (n.d). This Is What Inequality Looks Like. https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/this-is-what-inequality-looks-like
Gov.sg (2020). Financial aid to support Singaporeans affected by COVID-19. https://www.gov.sg/article/financial-support-to-help-singaporeans-affected-by-covid-19
Institute for State Effectiveness. (2014). Singapore: From Third World to First. https://effectivestates.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Singapore-From-Third-World-to-First.pdf
International Youth Federation. (2016, August 12). Young People Tell Us How They Are Fighting Poverty & Driving Sustainability. https://iyfglobal.org/blog/young-people-tell-us-how-they-are-fighting-poverty-driving-sustainability
Ng, C. (2021, February 2). Commentary: Three stories on why tackling poverty requires active listening. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/tackling-poverty-requires-active-listening-minimum-standards-820921
Paulo, D. A. (2021, August 23). How poverty tends to trap people into making poor decisions. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/cnainsider/poverty-tends-trap-people-poor-decisions-singapore-class-divide-922481
Tai, J. & Toh, Y.C. (2017, April 23). Growing number of young Singaporeans in need, relying on Government handouts. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/young-and-in-need?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&xtor=CS1-10&fbclid=IwAR36iRDjVEXmVyX5Cdf3JiZy7CZDoewCQ8-GLb6HMKCp7Ni0rtXQ8MItbYA#link_time=1492909194
United Nations. (n.d.). Ending Poverty. https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/ending-poverty#:%7E:text=Poverty%20entails%20more%20than%20the,of%20participation%20in%20decision%2Dmaking.
Yenn, T. Y. (2021, October 2). Commentary: Why investing in early childhood education cannot be the primary solution to inequality. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/early-education-tackling-inequality-teo-you-yenn-822301