Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Patronizing the poor in Singapore.

"I live in a luxury condo but you poor folks should be thankful that you can collect cardboard for a living and rent a one-room flat from the government."
This post has taken a long time to write. I guess it’s because there are already so many posts online discussing the plight of the poor in Singapore. This week, the difficult socio-economic situation of families in Singapore has again been cast in the spotlight, thanks to the BBC’s report on Singapore’s ascendance from number 18 a decade ago to number 1 position in the EIU survey on costs of living.  If you have not downloaded the full report, you can do so here. It’s FOC and only requires a registration of your email address.

The findings of the survey have predictably led to a flurry of activity online with socio-political websites like The Online Citizen posting it on their Facebook page, leading to the usual comments by Singaporeans complaining about the high costs of living in Singapore. Also expectedly, the pro-PAP Facebook groups such as Fabrications About the PAP have posted a slew of status updates to rebut the report and point out that the hardship that the poor in Singapore go through is nothing like the lives of the impoverished in other cities such as Hong Kong or even Denmark.

Now I think it’s fair to say that while there are online comments that have shown sympathy for the poor, there are also a lot of whiny comments — complaints, blaming of the government for their own purposes, and clamors for ever-more assistance from the welfare-averse Singaporean government without considering its impact on the economy. It’s always been my belief that there are a lot of people in Singapore who think that they are poor when they are not. For those who genuinely wish to highlight the sorry life that the impoverished in Singapore lead, I hope that they can focus on the people they are trying to help. Do their best to illuminate their poor living conditions, health expenses and other forms of suffering. These facts will persuade the government and NGOs to do more for the poor. The low-income families will benefit little from anti-government rants. I am not a big fan of the government but I do think that we have to give them credit where it is due.

It is truly unfortunate, however, that while the government has taken steps to alleviate the burden of healthcare costs for the elderly and has acknowledged that healthcare costs are the foremost concern of the old folks, at the same time, there are a number of presumably Singaporean people who continue to have patronizing attitudes towards those in need of money. I use the word “patronizing” because it seems like an apt description for a situation where a person living in astonishing prosperity is trying to teach the low-income to appreciate that they still have a roof over their heads and a few hundred dollars a month to spend. I will henceforth quote some choice examples of real comments that I have seen online.

First sample is from an uncle who lives at a luxury condo that shall remained unnamed. It is my husband’s dream condominium with a panoramic view of the Marina at Keppel Bay, Mount Faber and Sentosa.

To give some background, this elderly man was trying to explain why the government’s CPF restrictions are beneficial. These restrictions include stipulating that the CPF must have a minimum sum of $148,000 in the Retirement Account (RA) and $40,500 in the Medisave before one can withdraw money from it. For those who do not meet the requirements, they will not be able to withdraw their CPF savings. Instead, when they turn 63, the remaining sum of money in their RA will be deposited into their bank accounts over 20 years in monthly payouts. For example, if they have $100,000 in their RA, they will be able to receive $416 a month for the next 20 years after they turn 63. That means they’ll only use up their CPF savings (excluding Medisave which can’t be withdrawn) when they turn 83 years old.

What happens if the $416 a month is not enough to meet their daily and healthcare needs? I guess it is widely assumed that our senior citizens must have other sources of cash apart from their CPF. Anyway, here’s what uncle said about the CPF restrictions:

“…LKY foresaw ... that thru our own foolishness we will lose our money if we suddenly have all of it in one go. I have seen this happen to friends who got theirs before me… I am not so unduly concerned about old age becos I have, like LKY suggested, kept upgrading myself thru the years and kept myself healthy and continued to make myself useful to society by and large by volunteerism.”

Well, good for you, uncle. Unfortunately, not every old person in Singapore can dine at high-class restaurants and go on leisurely walks around a yacht club. 

While there is some justification to the view that the elderly may overspend or get cheated if they are allowed to withdraw the full amount from their CPF accounts, perhaps there is another way of resolving the problem that will not infringe on their basic rights to have their money back. For example, the government could provide a variety of options for the old folks. Those whose savings are below $100K, for example, may opt to withdraw their money within 10 years instead of 20. Having money in the CPF – no matter how paltry the sum is - prevents the old folks from applying for government Public Assistance. This is just what the government wants. But if the old folks are only getting $100-$200 a month from their CPF payout, is it enough for them to put food on the table and pay their bills? Reports in the local newspapers have repeatedly emphasized that the topmost concerns of old folks are healthcare and housing. If the CPF Retirement and Medisave schemes are unable to take care of these basic concerns, they are inadequate.

The second sample is from another uncle. He was discussing the wonderful documentary put together by the students of Temasek Poly called “Out in the Cold”. But he did not think it was so wonderful. Here’s his take on the homeless:

“Most homeless in Singapore are either created by oneself or by the red tape of the Gahmen. Very few are real cases, most are either lazy people waiting for handouts or those who does not bother to take responsibilities of own their life.”

No doubt we all have a hand in every problem that we face and we can also be the masters of our fate. But I have noticed how in Singapore, and it probably is so for the rest of the world’s poor as well, there is a very strong moralistic tone used in judging low-income families. There is often the insinuation that the poor are poor because they indulged in vices, they were idle, they were lazy, they played too much when they were young and did not study hard, etc. Based on the background of the people posting these comments, I question if they had ever been in contact with any low-income people in their lives. 

There are many reasons for poverty. For example, caregivers are one group of people who are often held back from improving their economic status because of their family obligations. My father is one such person. Instead of saving up the earnings from his job, he used the money to provide for his sibling’s children when his sibling was not able to work. Other circumstances that lead to poverty are abandonment by family members, death of the family breadwinner and divorces. It takes a really hardhearted person to judge poor people as “lazy” and people who do not “take responsibilities”. In fact, I reckon that many people are poor precisely because they are very responsible. It would be easy for them to abandon their family members – give up the children for adoption, leave their illness-stricken old folks to fend for themselves, divorce their bad gambling or drug addict spouses – but they chose to stick by their family for better or for worse. That’s a lot more responsible than many of us.

Another similar sample.

“If one has spent some time volunteering and helping the poorer families, one will realise that for many cases, the predicament that they have fallen into is often self inflicted. This is why the helper often have to be harsh to spur some changes in the individuals. This is why pity is often in short supply. Many times the helper will find that the problem stems from the psychology of the family members. Children of poor families who still insist on being served and parents who continues to make all sorts of excuses for their sloven existence. The joke among the helpers is that bystanders always have pity while helpers do the actual work.”

Firstly, it’s not funny, dude. This person then goes on to explain how an elderly he knew only got into the plight that he was in because he beat his children and spent all his money on his mistress. While the abusive elderly dad’s behaviour may be reprehensible, he is still human and I think it is not up to the volunteers to judge him for his sins. Of course, we may be shocked by his behaviour, but that should not stop us from feeling pity or compassion for him. For example, an abusive father could have been abused himself when he was young. We wouldn’t know.

Finally, here’s a sample comment from a discussion about the BBC interview, which shows an unemployed young Malay lady talking about how she’s coping with six kids.

“this lady got a problem. young and capable refuse to work? expect hand out and with 600 hand out complain cannot survive? in the 1st place why hav so many children!!! its a hole she dug herself. 1st she need to get a job and park the kids in child care which have subsidy.”

Well, it is not stated in the article that she is deliberately not seeking work. Her status in the interview is, in fact, “unemployed” and not “housewife”. Perhaps she has tried but could not find a job? Also, the cheapest childcare around costs around $300 per child. She has six children. In order to make placing the kids in childcare worthwhile, she will need to find a job that pays a lot more than her childcare costs - $1800+ per month. How possible is that if she does not have a degree? Staying home may turn out to be a better option if the childcare fees are too much for her.

To conclude this rather long post (thanks for bearing with me), I have taken some screencaps which seem to support what I had suspected long ago – the voices online who are wildly defensive of current government policies seem to come from a particular segment of the population who have done well for themselves. Perhaps they have forgotten how to empathise, as evident from the harsh tone they used when speaking about the poor.

There’s nothing wrong with doing well in life through your own hard work – my husband and I have managed to purchase a five-room flat while some of our relatives live in condominiums or bigger homes despite their humble beginnings. One of my grandfathers was a self-made man who lost his father at a very young age, yet managed to create a good life for his family by being entrepreneurial. Despite their success, I've never heard any of my rich relatives speak about the poor the way these online apologists of the government do. It is an incredibly insulting experience to be someone from a low-income family reading all the patronizing and condescending comments coming from people who are seeking to defend the government's policies.

The context for these screencaps is a rant by a Singaporean about the electrical bills. The individuals below are all avid apologists for the government's current policies, which, in my view, are anti-welfare.

Good for you.

Well done on upgrading to an "ang mo chu" (landed property), but please continue to show compassion
for your fellow Singaporeans.
Given their background, perhaps it is not a surprise that these people were also the ones who spoke up harshly against additional government assistance to the poor. They were also the ones who strongly defended the CPF restrictions, despite being fully aware of the fact that the restrictions could mean that some old folks will struggle with their bills and they may never get to make full use of their CPF savings in their lifetime, if they do not live beyond their 80s.

I think if we can change such prevalent biased attitudes towards the poor and needy, we will be able to get the government to effect change in the policies that could help many families out of their impoverished beginnings. Although my cousins and I have done well considering our humble family circumstances, the path to success is now more complicated and competitive than before. If we do not provide enough social safeguards, we will not be able to assure the young people in Singapore of a good future regardless of their family background. Furthermore, we will not be able to offer any comfort to the old people in their twilight years despite their contributions to our nation. Is that the Singapore that the PAP wants to see? Perhaps more importantly, is that a Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew would be proud of?

P.S: To the high-flying individuals on Fabrications About the PAP, the comments in this blog post are shared in the good spirit of engendering more thoughts on the topic. If you are very uncomfortable that I have shared your posts, feel free to contact me and I will remove them.

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