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It’s been some time since I wrote about inequality and how the poor in Singapore have fewer options. Since then, there’s been a slew of commentary and in-depth articles on this topic (for example, see here for a piece from the ST).

I’m not sure why there’s been so attention on this topic lately but I’m glad that this topic is in the limelight. In fact, the Straits Times (ST) article that I shared above mentions three cases and how in each of those cases, the poor have terrible options that could either (a) hinder social mobility or (b) mean that they’re always living life on the edge and one unfortunate incident could push them over.

What Many Singaporeans (Still) Think About The Poor

For me, the gem is in the comments and discussions on the reddit page discussing the article and there are some people who still don’t get it that the poor face terrible odds when it comes to making it out of poverty.

The commentators who say that being poor is a result of terrible choices and that the poor should know better are typical of the government’s thinking that welfare is a dirty word and will lead to a crutch mentality*.

To be fair, the government has softened its stance in recent years (probably as a result of GE 2011) but structurally, welfare tends to be on a case-by-case basis as the government has this thing about appearing prudent.**

You can tell that the government still thinks welfare across the board is a dirty word because they like to mention that certain ministers came from humble backgrounds and despite that, they’ve succeeded. In recent years, the same goes for students who have done relatively well, or passed, national exams despite odds like less-than-average family backgrounds or illnesses.

Using Isolated Stories As Shing Examples of Self-Reliance Doesn’t Help

The problem with using isolated examples is that it gives a distorted view of how big a handicap being poor is. I’m not a privy to such data but I sure hope someone that’s doing the research is looking into it. We need the data and if the data shows that majority of poor people lead less healthy and/or have less chance at social mobility for them or their children, then we can call the bluff on the government’s use of isolated examples. Otherwise, the government can call the bluff on the activists, academics and critics calling for more help for the disadvantaged.

For me, I was quite convinced because I heard the economic argument by Nick Hanauer (see here for a later version of his talk). Think of it. How much stuff can rich people buy? Rich people may have wealth and incomes that are thousands of times that of poor people but they certainly don’t buy thousands of stuff more than a poor person. You don’t see a rich person with a thousand times more T-shirts than a poor person, do you? And Mr Hanauer was talking about the middle class. So what more the poor?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers and I think most people in Singapore don’t either. What I’m aware of is the issues are not as simple as “self-reliance” or “to try harder” and I think many people need a paradigm shift from that idea. I’m glad that the mainstream media and the academics finally have time in the sun on this topic.


Let me know what you think in the comments below.


* The irony is that these same people are probably the sort that expects the government to do something for every single situation. MRT breakdown? LTA’s not doing their job. Floods? PUB’s not doing their job. Kid failing in school? Teacher’s not doing their job. And as for the crutch mentality, guess what? We’re already heavily dependent on the government to provide housing.

** The irony of this is that our Ministry of Defence gets the lion’s share of the budget each year and no one questions the prudence of military spending because there’s always the boogeyman that someone is out to get us if we appear weak. I guess MINDEF can thank Mahathir for making a comeback. This argument holds more water now that there’s a different government up north.