These days, the deepening class divide in Singapore has caused much more damage than differences in religion or race. It has led to discrimination, mistreatment of others, feelings of not belonging and higher rates of depression. Family service centre director Cindy Ng-Tay says more child support for low-income families, Housing and Development Board rentals, and better business efforts can provide support for those on the lower-income end of the spectrum and bridge the gap.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, Methodist Welfare Services Covenant Family Service Centre (Hougang) director Cindy Ng-Tay, a social worker for decades, said that children from low-income households should receive early financial support from the government and that their access to resources should not be based on their parents’ marital or work status.
Ng-Tay’s work experience at the centre involves helping families who are struggling to break out of “intergenerational poverty”.
“Poverty has a way of creating chronic stress in the body system, and with years and years of chronic stress, it is an uphill task sometimes to help families to stabilise and to be able to utilise some of the resources that are available,” said Ng-Tay.
She clarified that access to resources is different from having the ability to use them.
In order to effectively bridge the income gap, Ng-Tay believes that early education and early support for children from poor families and not tying the access of resources “to their parents’ marital status, or socioeconomic status, or even work status” is vital.
She said that it is “unfair” for children’s lives to be dependent on the motivation of their parents:
“If they are dependent on their parents, then … it would be quite unfair for the children’s life outcomes to be dependent on whether their parents would be motivated or not.”
It is easy, Ng-Tay said, for people to think that people are poor because they are “lazy [and] unmotivated” or that it is a structural issue and therefore “the poor have no responsibility”.
“Either side really paints a very poor picture of poverty,” said Mrs Ng-Tay. “The right picture is somewhere in between – that we recognise structural factors that maintain poverty, (and) we also understand that the poor have the potential to be inspired and aspire towards better lives.”
Businesses can and should do their part to help bridge the gap.
One such example is Bettr Barista, founded in 2011 by Pamela Chng, a company that provides marginalized women with employable skills.
“A lot of them come from broken families or just families who don’t have the resources and time to invest in their livelihood and their education. You see them falling back further and further in school,” said Chng.
Businesses cannot change a person’s home life, but, according to Chng, they “can do a lot to, say, rethink how we’re working”.
“If we can change one person’s life, and they go around and change their children’s lives, their family’s lives and then their community’s lives, then you can start to amplify the impact.”
The Housing and Development Board have also gotten on board with efforts to make the class divide smaller by “encouraging social mixing” through the construction of the first three integrated Build-To-Order blocks, comprising rental and sold flats, in Woodlands, Bukit Batok and Sengkang.
Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong doubts the effectivity of the effort, bringing up “potential frictions on the ground” because of “needs, priorities and values” being too different.
“That’ll be the challenge … Contact alone may not necessarily produce the desired outcome. It’s important to ensure that the conditions of the contact are acceptable to everybody.
“In other words, you have to ensure that interaction is genuine, intimate and, most importantly, there’s no status difference in the interaction. Nobody feels intimidated (or) that they’re being slighted because they’re engaging with someone of a different level.”
And if that is the case, class divisions in Singapore can only be a mounting worry.