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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

3rd Place Winner - Senior Category

By Chua Yi Lin, Yale-NUS College

In media and in policy, the mere mention of issues like poverty invites fierce contestation from everyone: from academics and parliamentarians to our neighbourhood coffee shop uncles and aunties, people are clearly invested in dissecting this unequal and imperfect reality. I thus invite you to consider these questions:

“Why does inequality merit our attention?”

“What do we define as poverty in Singapore?”

“How can we help the poor?”

The above questions are no doubt important—and even pragmatic—to ask in our personal and structural attempts to eradicate the persistence of poverty in Singapore. However, these seemingly empirical and actionable questions are ‘familiar’ inquiry—most feel far more comfortable dealing with them. More individuals, if not all, squirm uncomfortably when unabashedly intrusive lines of inquiry surface, in which examples include:

“Why are you poor?”

“What do we perceive about the agency and deficiencies of people we call poor?”

“What perceptions of the poor do we unfailingly reinforce to the detriment of all?”

These questions are not only provocative—they matter in so far that perception is reality. Our explanations for why poverty exist, alongside our impressions of underprivileged communities, do not simply stay in the abstract space we call our minds; thoughts and feelings can transcend the cerebral to become truths and lived experiences that we think in, speak in, and live in.

We hence should not buy into the idea that we are wholly indifferent to poverty, or that Singapore evades discussion and action on poverty; conversely, the reality is that everyone operates on principles of what poverty is and how best to address it. Consider the narrative of Singapore’s unique vulnerability in our earlier nation-building days. From the looming possibility of foreign impositions to the ‘communist’ threat, meeting our material needs was framed as existential. [1] The subsequent goal of reducing widespread and absolute poverty has greatly influenced Singapore’s economic measures and social assistance programmes: Our welfare policies emphasis self-sufficiency, nudging individuals to first rely on productive employment and their family’s savings, before turning to aid in the form of schemes like a wage supplement programme. [2] Improving the work on this front is ongoing. But given this context, what are the underlying assumptions we hold on how the poor should be served?

Sticky perceptions

Professor Donaldson, in his study of unmet needs in Singapore, incisively surfaced our hidden prejudice of those underprivileged: “it’s implied that the poor are lazy, not hardworking, don’t have dreams and aspirations or don’t value education”. [3] Essentially, we heuristically link the cause of poverty to the outlook and incompetence of vulnerable communities.

Inherent in this generalisation is not cruelty—one who has this view but genuinely cares for the lower-income may well start a well-intentioned initiative encouraging one’s beneficiaries to apply ‘positive thinking’ in their lives and hence lift themselves from poverty. Rather, when we attribute this social ill to them possessing the ‘wrong mindset’, we assume that poverty is a largely self-inflicted condition. The bulk of the responsibility to combat impoverishment is suggested to be a personal one instead of a systemic problem.

Yet, this individualistic view of poverty may bring more harm than good, especially when poverty is in no way a condition that those struggling actively choose to be in. And often, unequal starting lines and unjust circumstances play larger roles in determining the limited resources they can access. When poverty is attributed to a personal lack of willpower or the absence of an ability to seize better opportunities, two of many consequences emerge: poverty is cyclically stigmatised, and systemic factors are not properly addressed.

The stigma of poverty

Faced with the negative connotations of character and competencies that follow the ‘poor’ label, one can either avoid identifying with their poverty or withdraw into internalised inferiority. The first scenario is worrying: Those who may not be the worst of their counterparts, but are struggling and working hard, may be alienated from the popular conception of a poor person either being ‘lazy’ or at ‘rock bottom’. Unable to see themselves within this narrow mould of poverty, a false dichotomy of being undeserving or deserving, alongside the tediousness and intrusiveness of means-testing, may deter those underserved from seeking much needed assistance. Meanwhile, the second scenario is insidious: The effects of poverty being stigmatised is manifold. For example, there is strong correlation between childhood poverty and low self-esteem, which grows into other undesirable downstream impacts like underachievement, [4] only amplified by internalised negative beliefs about poverty and other factors like parental involvement and the social capital of children from lower-income backgrounds. Tragically, if we seek inclusivity, then individual-centric judgements of the disadvantaged result in the opposite: “Just by being poor, marginalised citizens are often demotivated and hesitate to engage in meaningful relationships with community members, which can undermine social cohesion and social inclusion.” [5]

An unaccommodating system

When efforts to tackle poverty solely look at promoting individual responsibility, we miss the bigger picture of the structural shifts and shocks that further entrench poverty for certain groups of people. The types of poverty are diverse. In my opinion, most poverty in Singapore is characterised not by the complete deprivation of necessities, but the abundance of precarity.

Lien Centre for Social Innovation’s handbook on poverty precisely identifies the intersectionality of poverty: Gender and race are just some of the dimensions that exacerbate inequality, in which the precarious situations that people are placed in are sites where systemic disadvantages collide and worsen poverty. [6] It also goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened the precarious situations of those disadvantaged: the phenomenon of gig workers experiencing destabilising instability in income is one such instance where the protection of these vulnerable workers requires more structural and thoughtful reforms than ‘you should work harder!”. [7]

Granted, not everyone perceives poverty to be the fault of those most impacted by it. However, how much of our current approach to poverty is implicitly rooted in these preconceived notions of poverty? Our perceptions demand closer scrutiny and reform. [1000 words]


[1] Loh, Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore”. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1998), pp. 1-21.

[2] Naidu, Vignesh Louis. “Rethinking the Delivery of Welfare Programmes in Singapore”. Case from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (2014).

[3] Sim, Shuzhen. “Shining a light on Singapore’s invisible poor”. Research@SMU Issue 44 (2017).

[4] Doi, Satomi, Takeo Fujiwara, Aya Isumi and Manami Ochi. “Pathway of the Association Between Child Poverty and Low Self-Esteem: Results From a Population-Based Study of Adolescents in Japan”. Frontiers in Psychology (2019).

[5] Talib, Naimah. “The poor know they’re poor: the roles of shame and stigma in the everyday lives of people in poverty”. New Mandela (2019).

[6] Smith, Catherine J., John A. Donaldson, Sanushka Mudaliar, Mumtaz Md Kadir, Lam Keong Yeoh. “A handbook on inequality, poverty and unmet social needs in Singapore”. Social Insight Research Series 1-86, Lien Centre for Social Innovation: Research (2015).

[7] Teo, You Yenn. “Beyond the pandemic: inequality as lens”. Academia SG (2020).


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