This is the fourth installment of a six-part series which looks at how debate topics from the 2018 Singapore Secondary School Debate Championships (SSSDC) 2018 relate to Singapore’s society today.
The debates we engage in should not end after the final bell is rung.
After the judges have rendered their verdicts, the pens & cards are packed away and the journey home begins, our minds and thoughts should still be filled with the words we spoke and heard during the hour of spirited argumentation.
Because debaters will grow up to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow. You will be our leaders, our lawyers and our social levellers. Yours will be the voice for those who have none and yours is the will that brings change to our society.
We should thus relish every opportunity to consider how the topics that we discuss in the abstract will come to have a concrete impact on the real world that we live in.
In this regard, RedDot Academy is pleased to bring you “After the Bell,” a series of reflections on how issues within our debate motions impact our own little Red Dot of Singapore.
We are proud to introduce our next guest contributor: Rabin Kok, an experienced debater, coach and adjudicator in the Singapore debate circuit. Rabin was a member of the Singapore National Debate team in 2012 and 2013 and currently reads law at Cambridge.
Poverty makes Singaporeans uncomfortable, because it is something most Singaporeans are not used to seeing, hearing or thinking about. We are not used to it because it is physically hidden from the public eye by vagrancy laws and patrols, which aim to ensure that beggars and the homeless are not visible in public. It is hidden from the public consciousness by careful management of statistics – Singapore does not have an official poverty line. Absent statistical definition, ‘poverty’ is an amorphous, fuzzy concept. It thus becomes more difficult for the public to conceive of individual economic struggles as ‘poverty’.
Poverty is often thought of as a starving child in Africa, some isolated and faraway country, or the children of inner cities filled with drug and gang violence in the United States. These images are absent in Singapore, and this is another reason why many are only vaguely conscious of the existence of poverty here.
Does poverty exist in Singapore?
Whatever meaning we give to ‘poverty’, it is clear that many in Singapore do struggle to ‘make ends meet’. Although numerous assistance programs exist to help the less fortunate, these programs do not help many who ‘fall through the cracks’, for whom life can be particularly brutal. These cracks are not accidental but exist by design. This is because the Singaporean model of social assistance assumes that the less fortunate should turn to themselves or their families before turning to the state. In many cases, this is not possible and the poor are left without a remedy.
SOURCE: THE STRAITS TIMES SINGAPORE, 11 SEPTEMBER 2016
This is evident in government schemes to aid the homeless. Most of us have come across homeless individuals who sleep in playgrounds or public parks because they have no place to go. However, many are less visible because they choose to spend nights in coffee shops, hawker centres, internet cafés or twenty-four hour McDonald’s outlets. Often, these individuals are not truly homeless (in which case they may be eligible for assistance from the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs), but have thorny family situations that make staying with their children, spouse or parents difficult. Some, like many of the residents of East Coast Park’s ‘Tent Villages’ have received assistance from MSF in principle but are waiting for their promised rental flats to become available.
The Public Rental Scheme (‘PRS’) was established to provide the very poor and destitute (and their families) with accommodation. However, the availability of rental flats is made subject to somewhat restrictive criteria. For instance, there is an income ceiling of $1,500 per month. This means that families who earn more than this amount and have many children (and thus struggle to make ends meet) are ineligible. Rental flats are available only to families or singles who stay together, meaning that single parents and the destitute elderly are forced to stay on the streets or beg for help from family members who may not be forthcoming. Finally, restrictive citizenship requirements prohibit those with spouses who are foreign citizens from using the scheme. In one case, a man was forced to live on a lorry with his pregnant Vietnamese wife.
SOURCE: CHANNEL NEWS ASIA, MEDIACORP, 07 MAY 2017
The working elderly are another social group containing many who fall through the cracks. ‘Eddie’, who makes $20 on a good day, shares a rental flat with his brother whilst collecting cardboard boxes and selling ice-cream. The sixty-three year old must collect about 200kg of cardboard to make that amount. There are many like him – the poverty rate among the working elderly has been steadily rising. As with many working elderly, the fact that Eddie has a son makes him ineligible for social assistance. He is expected to seek help from his son first before turning to social welfare programs. This is difficult because his son, a salesman, himself struggles to make ends meet.
The state’s family-centric social assistance model results in further hardship for single parents, although the attitudes of both government and society are slowly changing. Last year, Member of Parliament (“MP”) Louis Ng presented a petition to Parliament, calling for the removal of restrictions on single parents and divorcees buying HDB flats. The petition was rejected. However, in March 2018, the Ministry of National Development announced that a 21-year-old policy preventing divorcees from buying subsidized flats immediately after their divorce will be scrapped. This was exactly what Mr. Ng had petitioned for.
The implications of this change will be far reaching. When granting a divorce, the court will often direct the couple to sell the matrimonial home and split the proceeds. Alternatively, one ex-spouse may be allowed to buy out the other’s share in the once jointly-owned home. Under the old rule, one spouse, though armed with cash from the sale, would be unable to buy a new home for 30 months. Following HDB’s rule changes, this will no longer be a problem.
What can be done about poverty?
As the motion above suggests, one way is by donation to charities which help the less fortunate. The self-help ethos running through Singapore’s social welfare programs has resulted in a very favourable and supportive environment for charities, which get plenty of state support. For instance, the Government announced in 2018 that it would match, dollar for dollar, donations to various (state-endorsed) charities. The Government will also give $3 for every $1 in donations to Community Development Councils, and will continue a scheme whereby $2.50 is discounted from individual taxes in exchange for every $1 given to charities designated Institutions of Public Character. These and similar measures perhaps lead Singaporeans to believe that there is always an avenue for individuals in difficult situations to ‘get some help to help themselves’, even if they cannot demand welfare from the state (as with the UK or Sweden).
However, over-reliance on charities to fulfill social ends may cause problems. First, where charities turn out to be corrupt or incompetent there may be more social disquiet than in systems where the state shoulders more of the load. This has happened numerous times in Singapore. In 2005, it was found that the chief executive of the National Kidney Foundation, T.T. Durai, installed gold plated taps in the organisation’s bathrooms. When he admitted this, his defamation lawsuit against the Straits Times collapsed. In 2009, the Venerable Shi Ming Yi (a Buddhist Monk) and his aide were found guilty of misappropriating funds intended for the Ren Ci group of charities. In 2018, the long running trial of the leaders of City Harvest Church for misappropriating funds came to an end, with all the church leaders being sentenced to jail terms. Each of these incidents resulted in significant public anger, much of it expressed online.
Second, charities simply lack the resources that the state has. Even with financial support from the state, charities remain privately run. They may not have enough information to identify and reach out to those who fall through the cracks.
Inequality, taxation, and moral obligation?
Just a few kilometres away from Eddie’s Serangoon flat is Old Holland Road. There, a high-end Good-Class Bungalow on sale for $29.8 million sports a frieze in the porch inspired by Mauritian art. There is also an entrance hall with an eight metre-high ceiling and painted dome, floored with limestone tiles imported from Paris. The master suite has a European cast-iron bath-tub and is furnished exclusively with French furniture.
SOURCE: SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, 12 OCTOBER 2017
It is hard to believe that such wealth can exist right beside such hardship. Singapore is not the most unequal city in the world – our Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) stood at 0.458 in 2016. In contrast, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient was 0.539 in the same year. Since the Gini coefficient measures inequality on a scale where the lowest value is zero and the highest is one, Hong Kong is way more unequal than Singapore, despite having a similar size and economic model.
Singaporeans should not be overjoyed. As Unscrambled notes, although our Gini coefficient improved in 2016, the bottom 10% of households saw income growth of 1.4% in 2016, compared with growth of 10.7% in 2016. The Gini coefficient dropped because the top few households saw even slower income growth. Thus, things are not necessarily getting better for individuals and households in need, despite improvements in state intervention and continuing state support for charities.
What options does the government have to solve the problem of the ‘rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer’? Progressive taxation, where the rich pay more in taxes than the poor, is an option, and in fact is already how individuals are taxed in Singapore.
Yet, inequality still exists and as the examples above show, is as stark as ever. In Singapore, as elsewhere, there will always be calls on the wealthy to do more and to take radical measures to solve the problem of poverty. Ultimately, the subjective moral responsibility of the wealthy to the desperately poor is something every society, and every individual, must come to terms with on their own.
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