I’ve written before about how I think inequality and poverty is an issue in Singapore and that the poor need more unconditional help. (see here, here, here). It appears that the issue has been getting a bit more attention lately with Channel NewsAsia (CNA) putting this piece out some days back.

 

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Poverty in the spotlight

In particular, the piece highlights how the poor tend to make decisions that are less than best or what economists call, “sub-optimal”. Take the opening anecdote in the article.

Every time her four children passed by the provision shop downstairs, they would ask her to buy packet drinks for them. Every time, Mdm Mary Yeo would reply, “No, not today.”

The first time the divorcee received financial assistance from the Social Service Office, her first thought as she sat at home alone, pondering what to do with the money, was their wistful request the night before.

“I rushed down to the provision shop, and I bought quite a lot of drinks,” said the 47-year-old. “The next day, I bought (more).”

After three days, she had bought S$400 worth of drinks – 40 cartons – “because that same thing kept coming” to mind.

Now, 40 cartons of soft drinks is a ridiculously huge amount of soft drinks and the first reaction of many people would be to say something like, “See, this lady is poor because she’s stupid. No one buys that many soft drinks. Furthermore, if she lets her kids drink that much soft drinks, they are going to have other problems down the road.”

What the article did differently was to describe the process behind her thinking which changed the framing of the same issue from being “poor because she’s stupid” to “stupid because she’s poor.” In other words, they highlighted the fact that she made this stupid choice because she was so poor that she couldn’t even afford a simple treat like a soft drink for her kids.

I’m particularly impressed with the way the article presents the issue of decision-making and poverty because it’s a good contrast to the usual messages of how Singapore is a meritocratic society and provides an equal chance for anyone, regardless of background, to succeed.

 

The message we’ve been fed all these years

The message that we’ve been fed all these years is that Singapore is a place where your dreams can come true. All you have to do is study hard, work hard, and you’ll make it.

And very often, to prove their point, the nation-building Straits Times will highlight the fact that some of our high-flying people in government came from less than privileged backgrounds and succeeded despite the odds against them.

Even the education ministry, in its bid to move away from an emphasis on grades, has been profiling students who have either done well or passed the exams despite the odds against them.

Once again, the message is that you can make it if you try hard enough.

 

We need a new message

I think it’s time we need a new message. And that message is that as a society, we acknowledge that the odds are stacked against those who come from less privileged backgrounds. And since the odds are stacked against them, we need to make sure that they receive unconditional help as far as the basics are concerned.

And this is where I think the government is still behind the curve. Now, I’m not saying that our government doesn’t provide help to those in need. We have an entire ministry that oversees social and family issues as well as an army of social workers that work extremely hard to help families in need.

Unfortunately, it seems that in order to qualify for all sorts of help, there are layers and hoops to jump through. In other words, there are lots of conditions attached in order to receive the help they need.*

More importantly, having all sorts of conditions attached in order to receive help continues to send the message that poor people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves.

It’s also in the same spirit that former GIC chief economist, Yeoh Lam Keong has come out to question Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on why he exhorts the better off in society to do more to help the less well-off rather than have the government do more instead. Yeoh points out that an increase in spending of 0.8% of GDP would be enough to improve Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) and Silver Support Scheme (SSS) substantially.

 

Conclusion

I think Singapore has developed to the point where we can help the less fortunate in society more. We can step away from the old messages of “helping them more will lead to higher taxes”** or that “if you work hard enough, you will succeed”.

 

Notes:

*I understand the need for paperwork as the government needs to ensure that taxpayers monies are disbursed and used in the right manner. However, people need to recognise that additional procedures and paperwork create friction. At some point, the friction and inefficiency from the paperwork is going to outweigh any costs of the system failing. In other words, the inefficiency in the system has a higher cost than the abuse the paperwork is meant to prevent.

**Anyway, GST is projected to increase to 9% in a few years time. The rationale is that we need to increase revenues as the burden on healthcare will increase.

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