Category: Current Affairs
Published on Thursday, 21 November 2013 00:00
Written by Andrew Loh
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday that Singapore does not need a poverty line to help the poor. PM Lee was weighing in on a topic which has been in the news recently, after a report by the Singapore Management University and the Lien Foundation in October called for the government to define a poverty line.
The report in turn followed the release of a study by the National University of Singapore's Social Work Department which said the “working poor
” in Singapore can’t make ends meet.
The study said “85 per cent” of those surveyed said the jobs available are not paying enough for them to support a family.
“Among the reasons is the fact that about 90 per cent of the one million jobs created in the last decade are from the services sector, which observers say are lowly paid to begin with.” (Channel Newsasia)
The focus on the poor or the “working poor” contrasts with that of the rich and the super-rich in Singapore. Our tiny island is home to the highest concentration of millionaires in the world, and Singapore hosts 27 of the world’s billionaires.
It is thus no surprise that Singapore has been named the “wealthiest country in the world”.
But all these accolades, and statistics are abstracts. While the data may be important, we should not get carried away by focusing too much on them - for we may indeed lose sight of the forest for the trees.
At the centre of all these debates and discussion of whether we need a poverty line, or whether we are the wealthiest, or how many rich or poor people we have, are those in real life struggling with real problems.
On 2 November, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin posted about his meeting with a Mr Ng, “a fit looking 81 year old”, during one of his rounds.
“He has no family. He was very chatty. He technically has a rental flat, in Chin Swee, with his room-mate but he has not been going home at all,” Mr Tan said. “He sells tissue paper and explained to me how people sometimes help him by giving him more.”
After further inquiries, Mr Tan concluded that Mr Ng “wasn't keen to pursue the public assistance route.”
“He enjoys the freedom he now possesses,” Mr Tan wrote. “I told him to go to Ubi CC if he ever needed help and we'd try to link up with him. Got to give it to him for his strength and will.”
Indeed, if you take a walk around Singapore, especially late in the evening, you’d see those like Mr Ng. They are indeed of strong will and pride, who enjoy the simple things in life – like sleeping out under the sky in the open. They want for little.
These are the people who had seen harder and harsher times. They are more resilient than perhaps most of us younger ones.
At the same time, one does wonder if we should not be generous and give to them what we can. I mean, while those like Mr Ng may decline help, the question I have is whether we should ask them if they need help at all, and only grant them help when they say they need the help.
Should we not just give it to them just because?
“Maybe, minister,” I posted a reply to Mr Tan’s posting, “we should give these folks assistance even if they do not want it. Oftentimes, they are too embarrassed to say yes to such offers - because dignity matters. People do have their pride, after all.
“I think maybe we don't have to ask them if they wanna [sic] apply for PA. Instead, if they qualify, just give it to them.”
In other words, we should go up to those like Mr Ng and say, “Dear uncle, here, we are giving you this amount every month because we care. You may not need it but please do accept it as our society’s appreciation for your contribution, no matter how small it may be.”
Wouldn’t that be really something to do for our poor and elderly folks?
While we admire their strength and give them encouragement to carry on, it is also just as important to let them know, in concrete terms, that we appreciate them.
Of course, appreciation through monetary terms is not the only way or the only thing we can do. There are other ways as well.
The point is that when we do come across those in need, sometimes it is best not to ask them if they need help – and just give it to them as appreciation for their contribution.
In other words, perhaps it is more about us appreciating them, than them needing our help.
It is a fine line but our society can afford a little generosity, without needing to worry about some “abusing the system”, or abusing the goodwill.
So, while academics and government officials debate the finer points of whether we need a definition for poverty, and the statistics of how many actually are poor, let us be mindful that it is in the actual giving that we help those in need.
And in this, we can be and should err on the side of generosity.
Yes, give, don’t ask.
How would Mr Ng have felt if we had done just that? I think he would have felt loved, appreciated and that he is part of us, which in fact he is.