Sunday, March 23, 2014

Singapore’s Poverty Line: kuih lapis and kuih talam on the same platter? (28th November 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings
28th November 2013

         Singapore’s Poverty Line: kuih lapis and kuih talam on the same platter?

             Recently, the SMU’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation has called upon the Singapore government to officially define poverty. It states that most Singaporeans are unaware of the country’s scale of poverty due to lack of information. The call was met with a response from the Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing who explained that a kuih lapis approach (an approach with multiple lines of assistance to help Singaporeans across the spectrum) to deal with poverty in Singapore would be more appropriate. His response led to a debate as to whether a kuih lapis or kuih talam (a single poverty line) approach would be better to measure poverty.

            The concerns of the government are that a single poverty line drawn will give a “very false picture of the situation in a country” and that any solution must go far beyond the numbers as “each individual and family has complex problems that numbers cannot decipher.”

A line not defined by monetary means

            I do agree that poverty line cannot be defined based on a single “magic number” alone, many of the families who are experiencing financial difficulties often have other inherent problems that lead to their current financial situation. Others may not seem to be poor, based on the income they earn, but because of health conditions or family circumstances, they may actually find it hard to cope and require government assistance. Thus I do agree with the government that it should not be a fixed number where it becomes a cliff edger that cuts off deserving individuals of assistance. The Lien Centre also acknowledges this fact and called for ways to define it in non-monetary means such as capability and social exclusion.

Unofficial line

              Even though Singapore has no official stance on a poverty line drawn, I do believe that the government do already have their own formula to decide if an individual deserves aid. This can be seen from the government’s published guideline for Comcare legibility - monthly household income of $1,700 and below or a per capita income of up to $550. With each application for financial assistance they receive, they evaluate the application based on its set of criteria which I believe takes into account factors such as – income, medical expenses, family support structure, number of dependant members on income amongst many others. The government thus decides whether the individual is indeed in need of financial assistance on a case by case basis. Of course, the aid does not stop at monetary aid; government agencies then come on board to assist the individual and the family to solve the root cause of their problems and hopefully make them self-reliant in the long run. This I believe is the right way forward and is something the government is doing right.

To have both?

               However, I don’t think the kuih lapis and kuih talam approach are two mutually exclusive approaches. Both approaches have its advantages so why not have both? 
As mentioned earlier, the government probably have their internal formula for evaluating, thus the government can publish how they go about establishing who falls below the line. Thus you can imagine this poverty line to be unique, different from the standard poverty line calculated based on the median income of a nation. Or alternatively, the poverty line could be one based on the Average Household Expenditure on Basic Needs (AHEBN) which was S$1,250 per month for a four-person household in 2011. A poverty line calculated in reference to household expenditure could be more accurate and reflect the actual inflation of products and cost of living.


               Even if the government officially gives a guide to defining poverty in Singapore, it can still stick to their current method of evaluating cases on a case by case basis. But this guide can bring about positive change. Firstly, by allowing Singaporeans to know the number of Singaporeans who are living under the line, they may be more motivated to stand up and volunteer their time to make a difference. Not that they will only start doing so when there are statistics presented to them, but these statistics may well be a wakeup call for them to start doing something. Secondly, the line will greatly aid independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to decide who to aid given their limited resources. This will ensure that deserving cases gets the attention it deserves from these NGOs. Lastly, this line can become a yardstick for us to measure how effective policies targeted at these families and individuals are. The effectiveness of policies will become quantitative in nature and will greatly track our progress of up-lifting and improving the lives of these individuals.

              The concerns of the government are valid and they should stick with their current method of aiding low income families and individuals as it is the right-way forward. However, making public their evaluating formula will do more good for harm as it encourages ownership on the part of Singaporeans to do their part and also aid NGOs in their resource distribution. Thus I believe the platter is bigger than it seems and we can definitely serve both the kuih lapis and kuih talam on the same platter.


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