The fourth iteration of Youth Voices was held on 3 March 2019, on ‘Moving from Inequality to Solidarity.’ Moderating the discussion was WP Chair Sylvia Lim who welcomed the panellists to our HQ.
– Yeoh Lam Keong, an economist
– Noor Mastura, founder of Back2Basics
– Teo Tze Wei, a social sector professional
Sylvia sets the stage: Differing views on inequality in Singapore
Noting the topical nature of the issue at hand, Sylvia opined that inequality and barriers to social mobility in society would affect our social solidarity as a country.
Besides what policy makers think about inequality, Sylvia argued that it is also important to know how society, as a whole, feels about this issue. “What I found fascinating recently was that in the Straits Times Forum pages, there was a heated debate about why some children could not read when they entered Primary 1. Some of the contributors to the Forum page said that they obviously come from disadvantaged families and do not have the resources, so society needs to step in to help the children level-up. Interestingly, there was another group of writers who said, “please do not blame inequality for the fact that your child cannot read; you should have thought about it and not have had any children in the first place if you do not think you can manage. It is interesting to see what the average Singaporean thinks is the correct approach to this. Do we need to intervene, or do we let the ordinary forces take their role?”
On inequality and absolute poverty
One panellist argued that inequality has become a big word for a whole range of issues, and that it has become one of the main areas of focus for our policymakers and politicians. They said that researchers have shown very strong correlations between inequality and a range of social maladies – ranging from, at the personal level, delinquency, high crime rates, mental illness, but also, a very strong correlation between high inequality and low social mobility.
Turning to the issue of absolute poverty, the panellist explained that this is where income is so low, people are unable to meet their basic needs such as nutrition, adequate shelter, basic transport to and from work and home, and also basic medical care, on a monthly basis. According to the panellist, this environment is creating an underclass, a group of people who live with zero hope of social mobility. Framing this as a humanitarian problem and one of human suffering, the panellist argued that this is the thing we should care about, first and foremost.
It was estimated that there are between 350,000 and 475,000 Singaporeans not receiving this level of basic income.
The working poor
One panellist shared that there are three categories of people in absolute poverty. Firstly, there is the working poor, with at least one person working full-time. They form two-thirds of all the
absolute poor. The panellist reasoned that over the last 20 years, Singapore has let in excessive low- cost foreign labour which has depressed the wages of our workers. Describing this as a huge policy error we have collectively made over the last 20 years, Singapore has now realised the need to move to a different paradigm. The panellist also spoke about the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) which gives the working poor between $150 and $250 per month on average, with most of this going into their CPF. The panellist argued that WIS needs to be raised by between $500 and $600 a month, to bring the median working poor person towards $2000 a month. The panellist calculated the additional cost of this to amount to between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion, or 0.4% of our GDP.
The elderly poor
The panellist highlighted that the second group of the absolute poor are the elderly poor. These are the people you see collecting cardboard boxes on the streets. Their wages, too, have been depressed over the past 10 to 15 years due to the immigration policy. The panellist noted the Silver Support Scheme, which is basically a non-contributory pension given on a means-tested basis.
However, in order to meet basic needs, they would need another $500 to $600 per month, according to the panellist, which would cost roughly 0.2% of GDP.
The unemployed poor
The third and last category of the absolute poor raised by the panellist was the unemployed poor who number another 25,000 households. In the panellist’s opinion, what we need is a basic unemployment insurance scheme because the unemployed poor do not, in many cases, have enough savings to last them three months. The panellist gave the example of the rise of licensed moneylenders and pawn shops in recent times which cater to the working poor. The panellist acknowledged the WP’s redundancy insurance proposal.
A “chasm” in Government policy
The panellist argued that policymakers’ response to the claim that they are not doing enough to help those in absolute poverty will be to cite schemes like ComCare and various subsidies through GST vouchers and in rental schemes. However, the panellist’s calculations show that these schemes only cover about 25% to maybe one-third of the gap the poor have to cross in order to attain a living wage. Two-thirds to three-quarters of that gap is not being covered. The panellist argued that simple reforms would cover most of that gap, with the total cost amounting to about $4 billion, or less than 1% of GDP.
In a nutshell, the panellist conveyed that the core of absolute poverty can largely be eliminated but needs Government help, as this kind of budget is beyond the scope of VWOs and charities. In their opinion, the financial heavy-lifting should be done by the Government, leaving the VWOs to become more effective in doing high value-added work like skills training and counselling, whereas today they are currently bogged down with the provision of basic needs.
On the lived experiences of low-income Singaporeans
In response, one panellist described the statistics raised by the first as quite depressing. The second panellist shared insights about the mental and emotional cycles which low-income Singaporeans go through.
Low-income Singaporeans may often make decisions they assume are the best ones to make, without always recognising the long-term implications of these decisions. The panellist cited having to quit school after the ‘O’ Levels to work, as an example. In cases of divorce, the sale of a matrimonial home can leave parents and children without a roof over their heads.
Access to stable housing, in the panellist’s view, helps low-income Singaporeans mentally, physically and emotionally. The panellist explained that in Government rental housing, residents may pay
about $50 a month for rent, and may even share the small space with as many 10 people. The panellist described this environment as one where you have strangers at the staircase landing, where every night you hear people fighting, and where some people are often drunk.
The panellist concluded by reminding us that when policies are introduced, it is very important for Singaporeans in privileged positions to recognise that for young Singaporeans from low-income families, it is crucial to have someone walk with them and to remind them that the world is bigger than what they are used to seeing, beyond merely offering monetary support.
On restoring dignity for the poor: Seeking inspiration from the National Pledge
One panellist could identify with some of the frustrations faced by welfare recipients which the second panellist had cited, given the multitude of guidelines and forms they need to navigate when applying for assistance. The panellist’s central argument was that restoring the dignity of low- income Singaporeans must be a priority for the Government. In order to move from inequality to solidarity, and to find a common identity, the panellist argued that we should take reference from our National Pledge.
To promote equality amongst people “regardless of race, language or religion,” the panellist argued that we ought to find more common spaces in our public institutions, citing public housing and National Service as positive examples of these spaces. However, on the issue of education, the panellist questioned the relevance of the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), which may act to limit the exposure of students to those from different backgrounds.
On the need to “build a democratic society” which is inclusive and where people’s voices have the chance to be heard, the panellist highlighted that the control of narratives in the mainstream media continues to rest with the government. The panellist also posited that “justice and equality” are contingent upon fair and equal access to opportunities, which was possible in the past due to meritocracy, but has been eroded. On aspiring for “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”, the panellist felt that while the Government tends to frame happiness in terms of money and KPIs, lasting happiness entails self-respect, contentment and hope through social mobility.
Views from the floor
After a short question-and-answer session, the audience broke out into groups to discuss the topic of the day. The various groups highlighted a number of issues including:
(a) the disadvantages faced by the poor in meritocratic competition;
(b) the need to measure relative poverty in addition to absolute poverty;
(c) problems posed by a high concentration of good schools in wealthier neighborhoods; and
(d) how Government expenditure does not priorities the needs of the less well-off enough.
At the conclusion of the afternoon’s session, Sylvia thanked all the participants and panellists for their time. She invited the panellists to sum up their takeaways.
One panellist was inspired by the young people in the audience who were curious to know what they could do as individuals to address this national issue. Another reiterated that the question of how dignity for the poor can be achieved remains a relevant one. The final panellist to sum up their thoughts shared that the real stories about inequality are important as they inform our understanding of it. Their takeaway was that inequality may be a problem just for 10% to 20% of our population, but it affects everyone. The rest of the people need to stand up and demand political accountability.