Are Singapore's poor better off?

Wan Zaleha at the Sunlove Marsiling Neighbourhood Link Centre on 2 February, 2012 Wan Zaleha volunteers at a centre for needy people; she herself lives in low-income public housing

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Wan Zaleha smiles as the smell of freshly-brewed coffee permeates the air at a non-profit centre caring for low-income and needy people in Singapore.

For the last six years, from Mondays to Saturdays, the 72-year-old has served as a volunteer, making tea and coffee for residents living in one-room apartments in the neighbourhood.

She lives in one of the one-room apartments - which average 30 sq.m and cost S$23 ($19, £12) to S$205 ($165, £104) a month to rent from the government depending on household income.

She is not employed and receives groceries worth S$70 from individual donors every month.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos recently that although it was ''no fun'' being poor in Singapore, people were still ''less badly off'' than the poor in other countries, including the US.

The government ensures that ''everybody starts with some chips'' and not at zero, he added, through education, health care and public housing.

He has also promised more help for low-income households in this year's budget, to be delivered at a parliament sitting on Friday.

Public housing in Singapore

  • The Housing and Development Board (HDB) is Singapore's public housing authority
  • About 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing
  • About 90% of them own their apartments
  • Various financial schemes are available to help those eligible buy a HDB apartment
  • Low-income families are eligible to rent 1-room and 2-room apartments from the HDB
  • The average size of a 1-room apartment is 30 sq.m; a 2-room apartment is 40 to 45 sq.m
  • Monthly rental for a 1-room apartment range from S$23 to S$205, and from S$44 to S$275 for a 2-room apartment, depending on household income and other conditions

The thought of poor people in Singapore may seem a disconnect with its reputation as an Asian financial hub, shoppers' haunt and food haven.

And there is truth to what the PM said, social workers, volunteers and professionals told the BBC, albeit with a hint of discomfort.

If one compares the poor in Singapore to those in countries such as India and China, or even the homeless in the US, it is indeed true that the situation here is not as dire, they said.

''But there are still many people in Singapore who need help,'' said Huang Jing Jing, an active community service volunteer for 30 years. ''Some of them are really struggling. You have to see it for yourself to know.''

''Certainly, poverty is not in your face here,'' said Mr Laurence Lien, chief executive officer of the non-profit National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre and a newly-appointed Nominated Member of Parliament. ''But yes, it is happening here.''

His friend, a teacher at a primary school in a low-income neighbourhood, told him that on the first day of school half the class of six and seven-year-olds showed up without textbooks because their parents could not afford them.

Healthy income?

In Singapore, however, there is no national poverty line.

In response to a question raised in parliament in November 2011, the Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) said that the help that the ministry provides ''typically cover the bottom 20th percentile of households, with the flexibility to go beyond if the family's circumstances merit consideration''.

Ng Siew Teen and her daughters at home in Singapore on 2 February, 2012 Ng Siew Teen and her daughters in their one-room apartment

Based on a study published by the Department of Statistics in 2011, the average monthly household income, where at least one member was employed, for the bottom 10th percentile was S$1,581. That of those in the 11th to 20th percentile was S$3,135.

The poorest 1.4 billion people in the world lived on $1.25 or less a day in 2005, according to World Bank estimates published in 2008.

A US Census Bureau report said the lowest quintile of the population had an annual household income of less than $20,000 in 2010. That is comparable to Singapore's numbers.

The US measures poverty using thresholds in dollar value - if a family's income is less than its threshold, then everyone in that family would be considered ''in poverty''.

Based on data at least, the poor in Singapore does come across as being better off than those in other countries. However, the realities on the ground paint a different picture.

Public and social assistance

On paper, Ng Siew Teen has a household income of more than S$2,000. But she said her husband, who works as a driver, had only taken home a month's salary in the last three months. They have two daughters, ages five and four, and are also supporting his 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Singapore's Economy

  • Population: 4.8 million (UN, 2010)
  • GNI per capita: US $41,430 (World Bank, 2010)
  • Unemployment rate: 2% average in 2011 for Singapore citizens and residents (Ministry of Manpower, 2012)
  • Median income (from work): S$3070 at June 2011 for Singapore citizens (Ministry of Manpower, 2012)

Ms Ng suffers from a hereditary skin condition and was only able to undergo surgery recently when a donor paid her medical bill. Her husband lost his previous job after he was hospitalised for an operation in October 2011.

In her one-room apartment she fished out unpaid bills, including one for more than S$400 owed in school fees.

''I just want a simple life. But who doesn't want to have money in their pocket?'' she said. ''We didn't even have money to celebrate Chinese New Year.''

Families such as Ms Ng's can apply for aid from a series of public assistance schemes administered by the MCYS. These include subsidies for education as well as financial help for the elderly or disabled who are unable to work.

The ComCare Fund, established in 2005, has helped more than 190,000 through the various schemes. The fund recorded a balance of S$811m in March 2011 and received an additional S$500m in May.

Social assistance is also available, in the form of social services for vulnerable and needy individuals and families. Low-income workers can also tap on wage supplement schemes and job training programmes.

''Singapore has an extensive social safety net,'' said a ministry spokesman. ''Singaporeans enjoy subsidised housing, healthcare and education.''

The challenge, though, lies in getting the help to those who need it the most.

They are often unaware of the aid they can get, or unsure of the process to apply for help, said Zulaiha Bakar, co-ordinator at the non-profit Sunlove Marsiling centre that looks after the needs of about 500 low-income and needy people.

Her job also involves assisting them with phone calls and paperwork. ''Some people may not want to be seen receiving help so they don't come to us,'' she added.

'Still a struggle'

Apart from the ministry, there are a host of non-profit, civil and religious organisations, as well as charitable individuals offering services and donations.

Skyline of Singapore's business district taken on 1 December, 2011 Help is available for Singapore's needy, but it remains a struggle to be poor here

But one group that can fall through the cracks, though, are the low-wage-earners who are not eligible for public assistance.

The Singapore government has always maintained its message of ''self-reliance'' and stressed that it cannot adopt a welfare-state system.

Unemployment is low, at 2% and a record 14-year low last year, according to data released last month by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). But a public housing survey in 2008 showed that a third of one-room apartment residents have no earned income.

The MOM data shows that income for the lowest quintile have increased 11% over the last five years, after taking inflation into account.

But it is still critical to address wage issues, said Mr Lien, as Singapore is ''not a cheap place to live in''.

''You can have a home; you can have shelter,'' he said. ''But it's still a struggle.''

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