All the talk about social spending and subsidies but no word on poverty

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By Augustine Low

PM Lee Hsien Loong recently expressed concern about rising income inequality and in his Chinese New Year message he stressed the need to look after the elderly. Heng Swee Keat in his budget speech touched on tax hikes, social spending and subsidies for families and the elderly.

But as usual there has been no mention whatsoever of poverty. It’s a word and a reality the government avoids like the plague.

The last time a Minister talked about poverty was back in 2013 when Chan Chun Sing, then overseeing the Social and Family Development Ministry, dismissed the idea of Singapore establishing an official poverty line. He was compelled to discuss it because Hong Kong, which together with Singapore has one of the highest levels of inequality in the developed world, had just  defined its official poverty line for the first time.

What is a poverty line? It is also known as the poverty threshold, the smallest amount of money a person or a family needs to live on without deprivation. People who are below this line are classified as poor. The line is drawn to decide who needs extra help with necessities like food, shelter and medical care.

Last October, the World Bank recommended that the poverty line for high-income countries be pegged at US$21.70 (daily for individuals). This is possibly a good yardstick for Singapore.

But till now we have no official poverty line because Singapore has stubbornly bucked the trend among developed countries, refusing to set one. The government has said it is better to have a flexible approach in helping the needy through a combination of schemes and not be tied down to a poverty line because people may still fall through the cracks.

In Hong Kong, about one-fifth of the population fall below the poverty line. Singapore might not be far off. Research has shown that up to 20% of resident households here have to get by with less than $1,500 a month.

Last year, there were statistics showing that the top 20% own 73% of Singapore’s wealth and the bottom 20% own just 1% of the overall wealth.

Figures from the Manpower Ministry released in 2016 points to 23% of persons above 65 in the formal workforce earning less than $1,00 a month.

It is therefore not hard to imagine, from available statistics, that similar to Hong Kong, up to 20% of the Singapore population could be defined as poor if we have an official poverty line.

The unconvinced need only look at the hordes of seniors who work into their silver years, as food court cleaners, servers, security guards, tissue sellers and scrap and cardboard collectors. With Singapore’s various help schemes and safety nets – such as Pioneer Generation Package, Silver Support Scheme and Workfare – it is remarkable why the elderly have to slog so hard for so long for so little.

Even China has not shied away from addressing poverty head-on. Last October, President Xi Jinping vowed to eradicate rural poverty by 2020. Currently a whopping 43 million people live below the poverty line set by the Chinese government. Critics say the eradication of poverty by 2020 may not be achievable. But President Xi nevertheless has the courage to stake his legacy on a bold promise and an ambitious plan.

There are poor people everywhere in the world and the situation in Singapore is not as dire as most countries. Singapore’s GDP per capita is about seven times that of China and yet our government would rather not talk about poverty, let alone set an official poverty line.

Seen against the backdrop of the Finance Minister announcing a record budget surplus of $9.6 billion, it becomes even more inexplicable why the government shies away from acknowledging that poverty exists, and from setting a poverty line and a target to eradicate poverty in Singapore.