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the hidden slums B R I N G I N G A B O U T A N A LT E R AT I O N I N AT T I T U D E O F S I N G A P O R E A N T O WA R D S P O V E R T Y



08 - 17 B e t t e r u n d e r s ta n d i n g of poverty

19 - 33 poverty in singapore

34 - 57 jalan kukoh





A BETTER U N D E R S TA N D I N G : o f b e i n g i n A N e x t r e m e ly p o o r s i t u a t i o n . Description by


In addition to a lack of money, poverty is about not being able to participate in activities; not being able to send children on a day trip with their schoolmates or to a birthday party; not being able to pay for medications for an illness. These are all costs of being poor. Those people who are barely able to pay for food and shelter simply can’t consider these other expenses. When people are excluded within a society, when they are not well educated and when they have a higher incidence of illness, there are negative consequences for society. We all pay the price for poverty. The increased cost on the health system, the justice system and other systems that provide supports to those living in poverty has an impact on our economy. While much progress has been made in measuring and analyzing poverty, the World Bank Organization is doing more work to identify indicators for the other dimensions of poverty. This work includes identifying social indicators to track education, health, access to services, vulnerability, and social exclusion. There is no one cause of poverty, and the results of it are different in every case. Poverty varies considerably depending on the situation. Feeling poor in Canada is different from living in poverty in Russia or Zimbabwe. The differences between rich and poor within the borders of a country can also be great. Despite the many definitions, one thing is certain; poverty is a complex societal issue. No matter how poverty is defined, it can be agreed that it is an issue that requires everyone’s attention. It is important that all members of our society work together to provide the opportunities for all our members to reach their full potential. It helps all of us to help one another .


“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, and has been described in many ways. Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action -- for the poor and the wealthy alike -- a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.”

Poverty The state of being in a extremely poor situation. “Thousands of families are living in poverty” Jo Goodwin Parker


The following selection was published in America’s Other Children: Public Schools Outside Suburbs, by George Henderson in 1971 by the University of Oklahoma Press. The author has requested that no biographical information about her be distributed. The essay is a personal account, addressed directly to the reader, about living in poverty.

You ask me what is poverty? Listen to me. Here I am, dirty, smelly, and with no “proper” underwear on and with the stench of my rotting teeth near you. I will tell you. Listen to me. Listen without pity. I cannot use your pity. Listen with understanding. Put yourself in my dirty, worn out, ill-fitting shoes, and hear me. Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt- and illnessstained mattress. The sheets have long since been used for diapers. Poverty is living in a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of urine, sour milk, and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of long-cooked onions. Onions are cheap. If you have smelled this smell, you did not know how it came. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the mattresses where years of “accidents” have happened. It is the smell of the milk which has gone sour because the refrigerator long has not worked, and it costs money to get it fixed. It is the smell of rotting garbage. I could bury it, but where is the shovel? Shovels cost money. Poverty is being tired. I have always been tired. They told me at the hospital when the last baby came that I had chronic anemia caused from poor diet, a bad case of worms, and that I needed a corrective operation. I listened politely - the poor are always polite. The poor always listen. They don’t say that there is no money for iron pills, or better food, or worm medicine. The idea of an operation is frightening and costs so much that, if I had dared, I would have laughed. Who takes care of my children? Recovery from an operation takes a long time. I have three children. When I left them with “Granny” the last time I had a job, I came home to find the baby covered with fly specks, and a diaper that had not been changed since I left. When the dried diaper came off, bits of my baby’s flesh came with it. My other child was playing with a sharp bit of broken glass, and my oldest was playing alone at the edge of a lake. I made twenty-two dollars a week, and a good nursery school costs twenty dollars a week for three children. I quit my job. Poverty is dirt. You can say in your clean clothes coming from your clean house, “Anybody can be clean.” Let me explain about housekeeping with no money. For breakfast I give my children grits with no oleo or cornbread without eggs and oleo. This does not use up many dishes. What

dishes there are, I wash in cold water and with no soap. Even the cheapest soap has to be saved for the baby’s diapers. Look at my hands, so cracked and red. Once I saved for two months to buy a jar of Vaseline for my hands and the baby’s diaper rash. When I had saved enough, I went to buy it and the price had gone up two cents. The baby and I suffered on. I have to decide every day if I can bear to put my cracked sore hands into the cold water and strong soap. But you ask, why not hot water? Fuel costs money. If you have a wood fire it costs money. If you burn electricity, it costs money. Hot water is a luxury. I do not have luxuries. I know you will be surprised when I tell you how young I am. I look so much older. My back has been

bent over the wash tubs every day for so long, I cannot remember when I ever did anything else. Every night I wash every stitch my school age child has on and just hope her clothes will be dry by morning. Poverty is staying up all night on’ cold nights to watch the fire knowing one spark on the newspaper covering the walls means your sleeping child dies in flames. In summer poverty is watching gnats and flies devour your baby’s tears when he cries. The screens are torn and you pay so little rent you know they will never be fixed. Poverty means insects in your food, in your nose, in your eyes, and crawling over you when you sleep. Poverty is hoping it never rains because diapers won’t dry when it rains and soon you are using newspapers. Poverty is seeing your children forever with runny noses. Paper handkerchiefs cost money and all your rags you need for other things. Even more costly are antihistamines. Poverty is cooking without food and cleaning without soap. Poverty is asking for help. Have you ever had to ask for help, knowing 6 your children will suffer unless you get it? Think about asking for a loan from a relative, if this is the only way you can imagine asking for help. I will tell you how it feels. You find out where the office is that you are supposed to visit. You circle that block four or five times. Thinking of your children, you go in. Everyone is very busy. Finally, someone comes out and you tell her that you need help. That never is the person you need to see. You go see another person, and after spilling the whole shame of your poverty all over the desk between you, you find that this isn’t the right office after all-you must repeat the whole process, and it never is any easier at the next place. You have asked for help, and after all it has a cost. You are again told to wait. You are told why, but you don’t really hear because of the red cloud of shame and the rising cloud of despair. Poverty is remembering. It is remembering quitting school in junior high because “nice” children had been so cruel about my clothes and my smell. The attendance officer came. My mother told him I was pregnant. I wasn’t, but she thought that I could get a job and help out. I had jobs off and on, but never long enough to learn anything. Mostly I remember being married. I was so young then. I am still young. For a time, we had all the things you have. There was a little house in another town, with hot water and everything. Then my husband lost his job. There was unemployment insurance

something, after the last baby I destroyed my marriage. It had been a good one, but could you keep on bringing children in this dirt? Did you ever think how much it costs for any kind of birth control? I knew my husband was leaving the day he left, but there were no goodbye between us. I hope he has been able to climb out of this mess somewhere. He never could hope with us to drag him down. That’s when I asked for help. When I got it, you know how much it was? It was, and is, seventy-eight dollars a month for the four of us; that is all I ever can get. Now you know why there is no soap, no needles and thread, no hot water, no aspirin, no worm medicine, no hand cream, no shampoo. None of these things forever and ever and ever. So that you can see clearly, I pay twenty dollars a month rent, and most of the rest goes for food. For grits and cornmeal, and rice and milk and beans. I try my best to use only the minimum electricity. If I use more, there is that much less for food.

Poverty is looking into a black future. Your children won’t play with my boys. They will turn to other boys who steal to get what they want. I can already see them behind the bars of their prison instead of behind the bars of my poverty. Or they will turn to the freedom of alcohol or drugs, and find themselves enslaved. And my daughter? At best, there is for her a life like mine. But you say to me, there are schools. Yes, there are schools. My children have no extra books, no magazines, no extra pencils, or crayons, or paper and most important of all, they do not have health. They have worms, they have infections, they have pink-eye all summer. They do not sleep well on the floor, or with me in my one bed. They do not suffer from hunger, my seventy-eight dollars keeps us alive, but they do suffer from malnutrition. Oh yes, I do remember what I was taught about health in school. It doesn’t do much good. In some places there is a surplus commodities program. Not here. The country said it cost too much. There is a school lunch program. But I have two children who will already be damaged by the time they get to school. But, you say to me, there are health clinics. Yes, there are health clinics and they are in the towns. I live out here eight miles from town. I can walk that far (even if it is sixteen miles both ways), but can my little children? My neighbor will take me when he goes; but he expects to get


for a while and what few jobs I could get. Soon, all our nice things were repossessed and we moved back here. I was pregnant then. This house didn’t look so bad when we first moved in. Every week it gets worse. Nothing is ever fixed. We now had no money. There were a few odd jobs for my husband, but everything went for food then, as it does now. I don’t know how we lived through three years and three babies, but we did. I’ll tell you


paid, one way or another. I bet you know my neighbor. He is that large man who spends his time at the gas station, the barbershop, and the corner store complaining about the government spending money on the immoral mothers of illegitimate children. Poverty is an acid that drips on pride until all pride is worn away. Poverty is a chisel that chips on honor until honor is worn away. Some of you say that you would do something in my situation, and maybe you would, for the first week or the first month, but for year after year after year? Even the poor can dream. A dream of a time when there is money. Money for the right kinds of food, for worm medicine, for iron pills, for toothbrushes, for hand cream, for a hammer and nails and a bit of screening, for a shovel, for a bit of paint, for some sheeting, for needles and thread. Money to pay in money for a trip to town. And, oh, money for hot water and money for soap. A dream of when asking for help does not eat away the last bit of pride. When the office you visit is as nice as the offices of other governmental agencies, when there are enough workers to help you quickly, when workers do not quit in defeat and despair. When you have to tell your story to only one person, and that person can send you for other help and you don’t have to prove your poverty over and over and over again.


I have come out of my despair to tell you this. Remember I did not come from another place or another time. Others like me are all around you. Look at us with an angry heart, anger that will help

14 What is Poverty? “People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. As a result of inadequate income and other resources people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society.”

economic resources such as wealth, employment and infrastructure, and of social resources like health services, education, transport and housing, means that not all people have the same opportunities. There are also other factors that make people more likely to be poor. One single factor might not be significant on its own, but when these factors are combined they increase the risk of poverty. Factors contributing to poverty include:

This is the Irish Government’s definition of poverty in its National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-20161. What it means is that people are living in poverty if they do not have enough money to do the things that most people in Ireland take for granted. Poverty can mean not having the money to buy enough food for your family, not being able to afford to heat your home in winter or having to buy second-hand clothes because you can’t afford new ones.

Work: being unemployed or in a low-paid job makes people more likely to be poor.

Poverty is more than not having the money for material things. It can also mean that you don’t have the money for social activities like going to the cinema or having a meal out with friends or to have a holiday. This can lead to people feeling cut off from the rest of society because they don’t have the money to participate. Ca uses of Pove rt y There are a number of structural factors that contribute to the existence of poverty. The uneven distribution of

Age: many older people and children whose parents are poor are at greater risk of poverty than the general population. Health: people with long-term illnesses or who are disabled are at greater risk of poverty. Education: people who left school early or without qualifications are more likely to experience poverty. Family: one-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent families or single people. Location: living in a disadvantaged community or in an area with few employment opportunities increases the risk of poverty.

The Effects of Poverty

Money and Debt: many people who work in low-paid or insecure employment earn a wage that is not adequate to cover the basic costs of living for themselves and their families. Others are dependent on social welfare payments, whether because they are elderly, unemployed, a carer, a lone parent, or have a disability or long-term illness. When people find themselves unable to make ends meet on a low income, they often get into debt. For many people in poverty, access to mainstream financial services can be difficult, so they are more likely to borrow from moneylenders who charge a far higher rate of interest than banks or credit unions. Education: growing up in poverty can affect people’s future: children who grow up in poor families are more likely to leave school early and without qualifications, and to end up unemployed or in low-paid jobs - which means that they are more likely to be poor as adults. Health: people who live in poverty are at greater risk of poor mental and physical health: they get sick more often and die younger than people who are better-off. Factors such as an inadequate diet, a higher rate of chronic illness, a lower level of participation in sport and

leisure activities, and a generally lower quality of life all contribute to lower levels of health and well-being among people who experience poverty. Housing: people in poverty are more likely to be dependent on the State to meet their housing needs, whether through subsidised private-rented accommodation or social housing. They are also at greater risk of living in sub-standard accommodation and of becoming homeless. Social Exclusion: poverty can prevent people from participating as equals in society, from feeling part of their community and from developing their skills and talents. This process is often called social exclusion. For children growing up in poor families, poverty can mean not having the things their friends have, not being able to go on school trips, or having to get a part-time job to support the family. This can often lead to problems like bullying because poverty makes it harder to fit in.


Poverty has a negative effect on people’s quality of life, on the opportunities open to them, and on their ability to participate fully in society. It can be difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty, as poor children are more likely to become poor adults. Poverty impacts on every aspect of a person’s life:

Why am i interested in the topic of poverty?

The criterion of support, as considerably as the tone of life in Singapore has also increased since. Referable to the quick growth of the country, The less-educated Singaporean finds it hard to live in Singapore. Due to the fact that education qualification is the keyto getting a job in Singapore. As the country grows, Singaporean has grown too, they interpret the fact that if you don’t receive an education qualification in Singapore, it’s difficult for them to make it in this fast paced society. The younger generations in Singapore grow up in a nice and clean environment unlike our father. The younger generations are well pampered by their parent and they are simply revealed to the exquisite and prestigious side of Singapore.

Over the past decades, Singapore has become one of the most developed country in the world.

in values, they can convey a vision and not merely a flick of the realities we confront. And we can set the bases for social transformation by simultaneously undermining beliefs and retaining some continuity, so that masses are not immobilized by the alterations taking place around them.

So, this has induced most of the kids of our generation not knowing the fact that poverty do exist in Singapore. I will desire to bring social consciousness of poverty to light and raised the awareness of poverty to general Singaporean. As the topics of impoverishment is a growing topic among Singaporean, in order to come up to this topic of Poverty in Singapore, I will need to engage fellow Singaporeans; not only in their mind but in their emotions, values, which are drivers of a real change. The importances of telling a narrative of poverty in Singapore lie within the context of a story you can integrate information, which not merely constitute the issues richer, but it can also simplify a complex subject. Even though contagion is a suspense thriller about Poverty In Singapore.


As the saying goes, “ It brings a whole village to grow up a child.” And then in order to help Singaporean lives in poverty, it will require a whole country to facilitate these people by interpreting the values fellow Singaporean lives in poverty. When narratives are deeply grounded

P OV ERT Y Choosing and Estimating a Poverty Line

N I Broaden it rather than deal with the poverty How do Singapore’s poor families get by? The faces of poverty in Singapore



Choosing and Estimating a Poverty Line

Once an aggregate income, consumption or non-monetary measure is defined at the household or individual level, the next step is to define one or more poverty lines. Poverty lines are cut-off points separating the poor from the non-poor. They can be monetary (e.g. a certain level of consumption) or non-monetary (e.g. a certain level of literacy). The use of multiple lines can help in distinguishing different levels of poverty. There are two main ways of setting poverty lines—in a relative or absolute way: Relative poverty lines: These are defined in relation to the overall distribution of income or consumption in a country; for example, the poverty line could be set at 50 percent of the country’s mean income or consumption. - Absolute poverty lines: These are anchored in some absolute standard of what households should be able to count on in order to meet their basic needs. For monetary measures, these absolute poverty lines are often based on estimates of the cost of basic food needs (i.e., the cost a nutritional basket considered minimal for the healthy survival of a typical family), to which a provision is added for non-food needs. For developing countries, considering the fact that large shares of the population survive with the bare minimum or less, it is often more relevant to rely on an absolute rather than a relative poverty line. Different methods have been used in the literature to define absolute poverty lines - The food-energy intake method defines the poverty line by finding the consumption expenditures or income level at which a person’s typical food energy intake is just sufficient to meet a predetermined food energy requirement. If applied to different regions within the same country, the underlying food consumption pattern of the population group just consuming the necessary nutrient amounts will vary. This method can thus yield differentials in poverty lines in excess of the cost-of-living differential facing the poor.

- The Cost of Basic Needs method values an explicit bundle of foods typically consumed by the poor at local prices first. To this, a specific allowance for nonfood goods, consistent with spending by the poor, is added. However defined, poverty lines will always have a high arbitrary element; for example, the calorie threshold underlying both methods might be assumed to vary with age. Alternative poverty lines are also sometimes used. They can be set on the basis of subjective or self reported measures of poverty. Alternatively, one can combine absolute and relative poverty lines. This technique allows to take inequality and the relative position of households into account while recognizing the importance of an absolute minimum below which livelihood is not possible. Ultimately, the choice of a poverty line is arbitrary. In order to ensure wide understanding and wide acceptance of a poverty line, it is therefore important to ensure that the poverty line chosen does resonate with social norms (with the common understanding of what represents a minimum). For example, in some countries, it might make sense to use the minimum wage or the value of some existing benefit which is widely known and recognized as representing a minimum. Using qualitative data could also be useful to decide what goods would go in the basket of basic needs (when constructing an absolute poverty line). For comparisons over time, the stability and consistency of the poverty line need to be ensured.



Dialogue about poverty


The Economics of Living : Discussing Poverty in Singapore

Braema Mathi: I’m glad we can use the word “poverty”. I want to broaden it rather than deal with the word ‘poverty’ per say. I am wearing a hat as regional president of the ICSW, a 76 year old organisation, primarily looking at communities in need. There is a disconnect between social policy and communities in need. Why? Poverty is a result of income disparities and consequently limited access to basic necessities for day-to-day living. From our politicians, we hear “cheaper, better, faster”. What does this mean? This rhetoric of “cheaper” can be very problematic if we just keep switching vendors to increase profit margins without a thought for workers’ livelihoods, particularly if there is little governance, few regulatory tools or even a lack of proper laws. To come back to the question, what do we mean by a person in need? In the 1960s, the person in Singapore in need was different. He didn’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Today, food seems to be in abundance, yet in our midst we see people at hawker centres who pick on the leftovers from your tray and plate. Homelessness has also been vividly described in the online media – people who are caught out without shelter and by their own silly mistakes. What has gone on from the 1960s to 2012? What do we do then if someone got on the bandwagon of upgrading then got caught? The waiting out period is thirty months, which then forces them onto the streets or to bunk in with relatives or to fork out for rentals in the private sector. There is a disconnect here. These thirty months are a definite period, so what do we do during this time? The social policies are limited. What then is the role of society here as well? Do we let them be or do we start to look for ways to help? Do we have the right to judge and say ‘sorry, we can not help you”? So then Braema, is there then a remedy, a quick solution or is this is a complicated problem?” Braema: Despite the government’s Many Helping Hands approach, we have a disconnect where meeting the needs of people are concerned. It’s not that there aren’t schemes or that we’re not doing enough. But people are still falling through. What are we going to do about this? Singapore needs to start thinking about the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPFI), which is driven by the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation

and supported by ICSW. The government needs to start reviewing the trends of people falling through the net and what it can do for them in terms of establishing a concrete floor from which they can step up. Developed countries are using the SPFI, especially because of ageing societies. It is time Singapore considers this approach. Radha, as a Straits Times journalist, you’ve actively reported on social issues. Could you tell us about some of your personal encounters with people in need?”

Radha Basu: I want to contextualise poverty, which is a

very strong word. I’ve covered malnutrition and areas where people have no access to food and shelter. I don’t think anyone dies from starvation in Singapore. But are there unmet needs? Absolutely. And personally, I feel it is growing. There is no official poverty line but there are 200,000 local families who are living in the bottom fifth of the income scale. Their average monthly income in 2010 was $2,040, but the poorest 10 per cent – about 100,000 households – earned only $1,400 per month. We don’t have current household expenditure figures, but in 2007-2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the average monthly household expenditure among the lowest 20% of resident households was $1,760. That’s about $500 more than their average monthly income at the time ($1,274). There is a gap in income and basic expenditure before state cash-transfer policies like Workfare are put into place. There is also a disconnect between people not knowing which schemes are available or considering it onerous to seek help. Recently, though, MP Amy Khor announced that there will be just one form to apply for assistance at the Community Development Councils (CDCs). Who needs the most assistance? Generally, these individuals have uncommon or multiple needs. The existence of multiple problems is what exacerbates their conditions. Consider these examples: * A low-income earning couple with a special needs child * Homeless men who cannot go to CDCs for help because government schemes require an address * Foreign brides — with Singaporean children, but estranged or widowed from their husbands — who are not eligible to rent a HDB * The mentally ill, who have homes but cannot get along with parents or family members. * Unwed mothers who have been low on the government’s priority list for fear they might procreate more illegitimate children * Foreign workers who have been cheated or injured. “You must have followed up with the government on these issues? What were the official answers to these hardship cases?”

“We are Singaporeans, but yes we have subsets of groups like Mendaki, etc that focus on one group. Nadia, you work with 4PM, Persatuan Persuratan Pemuda Pemudi Melayu. Are we wrong to assume that the Malays are out of proportion when it comes to poverty or hardship?” Nadia Bamasri: At 4PM, our work revolves around

children, youth and their families. We do not only work with Malays; we have a 70-30% policy to help non Malays as well. But there is a Malay problem. Statistics have shown that when it comes to education, Malay parents have lower levels of education and as a result are in the lower income bracket. We don’t see poverty and slums because we live in these boxes called flats. But you just have to open the door and you can smell and see the poverty. Braema talked about withholding judgement. We are not supposed to judge, but as a social worker, we are required by funders or the government to ask so many questions about income and other family characteristics before we can help these families. However, do we really know what these families/individuals need? That’s a more pertinent question. Handouts are not always the solution. There needs to be more cross cutting measures, not just within the Malay community, but across all groups. “Radha alluded to single mothers. I was brought up in Geylang in the 1950’s. Malays then were very communal and would support each other all the way. Is this apparent today?” Nadia: Today, we live in flats and have lots of social issues. Who’s fault is it? We never blame ourselves. If you ask people, they’ll tell you about the government, their long working hours, etc. This is different from the kampong days. People nowadays are much too worried about labels and judgement. For example, if you are pregnant and Malay, first thing your parent will do is to send you to a home. Why? To cover it up. The pregnancy is taboo. It is very embarrassing to the families. However, there is no support at the home. The young women are allowed to go to work or school. This only entrenches poverty further, especially for these single mothers.

Centre (NVPC) and the Community Foundation of Singapore, my job is to get the well-to-do to give. Almost all the time, the question I get is: “where are the needs in Singapore?”. I explain, then they say “What is the government doing about it?”. Then I have the burden of explaining why we must not wait for government. There is little visibility of our social realities on the ground. As a society, we like to hide our problems and the marginalised. We need to stop hiding poverty, especially if we want people to be part of the action to address social problems. I visited the Boston Foundation in the United States

two years ago. This foundation publishes the “Boston Indicators Project” every two to three years. It wasn’t initiated by the government; they started it. They publish this wonderful report that galvanises people to think about how to address issues in society. We need to do this in Singapore. We track the economic indicators so closely. But isn’t social health just as important? The last elections demonstrate that social issues are critical to our citizens . When it comes to economic health, the government has all the levers. But when it comes to social health, it’s scared that it doesn’t have all the levers and they don’t want to be accountable in the same way. We need to look at individuals, families, community cohesion and happiness as well. We should measure subjective well-being. This idea was poo-poo-ed by the politicians. But at the end of the day, this is what we want. What is life for if we do not seek to be happy? The Social Health Index is to help identify the needs of the people and what the government is doing about it. For it to work, the community must be accountable as well and it must have equal ownership of the issues We are so fixated with economic indicators, don’t we care about social health indicators? ~//~ Dr Kirpal thanked all the speakers for their answers and sharing of experiences. One hour into the discussions, it was time for the audience to pose some tough questions ... People are falling through the cracks. What is the real role of elected govt in resolving poverty problem?

“Laurence, in your maiden Parliamentary address, you spoke about introducing a Social Health Index in Singapore. What is this? And how do we achieve social health?

Laurence: I see the government as putting big stones into a container. It has the power to tax and redistribute resources. They must use the levers; these are the big stones. But there will be gaps and that’s where civil society comes in. The government must have a cutoff by income, but often that criteria is insufficient. This is where civil society can come in to play a role. The government can also set a poverty line and minimum wage. I’m not convinced by the arguments against the minimum wage. We need more informed dialogue about this.

Laurence Lien: At the National Volunteer and Philanthropy

Braema: MCYS receives the smallest budget of all the


Radha: There is both a lapse in communication outreach in terms of implementing the schemes by the State as well as the “shame” factor among potential applicants of such schemes. So something needs to be done.

ministries. This is unacceptable. When I started the Straits Times School Pocket Fund, it was because the criteria were too tight. But today 1700 is not enough for children and their families. The goal posts have shifted.


Radha: It’s too easy to bash the government. In fact, a lot of the anti-government bashing online is misinformed. Take Comcare. It’s a 1 billion dollar fund. When I asked Mdm Halimah last year, she told me that only 1 out of 10 families in the bottom fifth of the income scale uses Comcare. Why? Because, when asked, most needy families said they don’t need government assistance; they say their relatives will help them.

And take the recent discussion about cleaners wages. The first reply is that foreign workers are pushing down the wages. But three-quarters of our cleaners are local. What’s the elephant in the room? It’s cleaning contacts. The town councils enter into blatantly one-sided contracts. Cleaners earn $40 a day, but and be fired at will for no reason.

We can say the government isn’t doing enough, but will Singaporeans accept higher conservancy charges? Braema: I need to reply to that. During the budget discussions, a minister asked ‘Singaporeans, would you like for your tax to increase?” I’m quite tired of this manner of discourse. Every time we raise a social issue, the politicians response is ‘are we willing to pay more?”. We are complicit in this way of thinking. It’s become like a contract we have with each other and we have to break it. It’s a question of shared responsibility. Another member of the audience from a large local non-profit organisation shared these observations: 1. When this forum started, I was taken aback with being uncomfortable with the term ‘poverty’. Factually the underclass community in Singapore is present. How come the word ‘poverty’ is seen to be so strong and taboo? 2. Today we have more working class with low wages. Permanent jobs are scarcer and scarcer. Contractual work is becoming much more common instead. 3. Bluntly speaking, the ‘blaming the victim’ attitude is quite prevalent, from the apex of the hierarchy to the bureaucrats at the bottom rung. Self-help bodies, including my organisation, are so busy trying to be politically correct that we lose sight of the well-being of our clients. The public at large is not used to the term poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from getting to know what poverty is all about.

The conversation in singapore drifts towards schemes and an incrementalist approach. We should move towards a different type of score card. By changing the method of assessment, we can measure the unmet needs more easily, for example, how many people with income less than $5000 have had to pay $100,000 out of pocket due to catastrophic illness? A woman from another social agency disagreed with a suggestion by Braema that Singapore needs more social workers . . . We need to shift the discussion to ‘what can i do’ to help

people in need. Otherwise the blame game will continue. We need to shift policy. How do we handle the poor? Can we resolve poverty? Who should be resolving it? As professionals, what can we do to activate the citizenry? A member of the clergy added this reflection: It’s not lack of money that prevents the government from helping. 25% of the budget goes to defence. My feeling is what’s lacking is the voice of the poor. The poor here are docile. We need stronger unions. The Panelists’ Final Reflections Laurence: We are confronting this not just as a nation, but as a globe. Income inequality is hitting the whole world. The whole capitalist model has to be reviewed. We shouldn’t be ashamed. There are poor here and we need to talk about it more openly. But they are not helpless and always receiving. We have painted the poor in a way that a lot of Singaporeans feel they are not deserving of help. It’s the mindset. The government has a fixation that people will take advantage of assistance schemes and over-consume. Nadia: I think I speak for social workers and all the wonderful people who do this work, we need a lot of workers who are passionate . . . we see are a lot of people with zero income and nothing in the bank. How do you compare that with 1500 a month? These are the people we look at. I agree with Laurence, I see our beneficiaries with strengths. They are resourceful, but their basic needs are not met. How much can we really do? Radha:

Another participant comment:

1. We touched on minimum wage and contract jobs. Go to wikipedia and type in minimum wage and collective bargaining – almost all developed countries have one or the other, if not both. We have no minimum wage and limited collective bargaining. We need one or the other and it’s time people started talking about it. Contract jobs and immigration may be worldwide phenomena, but other countries have support systems that we don’t.

Our government has consistent budget surpluses, except in 2009. After a period of time, the surpluses are locked into reserves. This comes from the society, but what’s being done with the surplus?

2. We need more discussion as well from welfare groups. When I asked them for interviews to discuss unmet social needs, they refused to talk because they saw our story as being ‘too negative’.

Braema: At the end of the day, we are talking about people in need. We need to treat the person coming through the door with dignity. Yes, they have a blame approach. Now they talk about teaching the person to fish, but what if you fence the pond or what if the pond has no fish? Having a conducive environment is equally important. I want to go to fish, but i can not find the pond because there are too many obstacles in my way.

Kirpal: Sometimes, it’s easier to say yes and sign protocols, but when you visit them on the ground they are not as good as Singapore. There’s a lesson by old guys like me. We always begin by saying to government, ‘it’s your job to help me’. The government might be less anxious if we see them as a partner rather than always putting them on the defensive. They’re human too. There are practical ways of moving forward, without judgement and the blame game.


3. Should we be spending $850 million on baby bonuses every year, but less on welfare?


How do Singapore’s poor families get by?

Nurhaida Binte Jantan is making dinner. She is roasting otah-otah, a Malay dish of fish paste wrapped in banana leaves, over a portable stove.

What is surprising about Nurhaida’s story is that she lives in Singapore, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But it is also one of the most costly.

She is a 29-year-old unemployed single mother with six children from five to 13 years old. She lives in a tiny flat, just 30 square metres, with little furnishing.

Singapore recently ranked as the world’s sixth most expensive city according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and its property market is among the top 10, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

There is no dining table, so the children eat their otahotah with rice and chillies crouched on the floor. The children share the single bedroom - their only bedding is mattresses and thick blankets. Nurhaida sleeps on the sofa in the living room. She receives weekly groceries from charities, as well as about S$600 ($474, £262) a month in government aid and money from a boyfriend. But she admits that it is difficult to make ends meet. She has not been able to afford asthma medicine for her second daughter for months. “No one can afford to get sick in this house because our finances are too tight. It’s quite tough and a struggle for me to be raising them up,” she said. “I have to look after this house 24/7… so for me if I were to find a job, it would have to be a night job, so that once they are in bed, I can go out and the older kids can watch the young ones.”

The city-state’s efficient infrastructure, relative safety and low taxes have attracted many of the world’s wealthy. It now boasts more millionaires per capita than any other country. Its gross domestic output per individual is among the highest too, at over $51,000 (£30,600), outranking that of developed economies like Germany and even the US in some measures. But the wealth gap is the second-widest among advanced economies in Asia, next to Hong Kong. So it comes as no surprise that the less well-off would struggle to pay for daily necessities. There is no minimum wage or poverty line set and no welfare provision along the lines of many developed Western economies. It has become such a problem that anti-poverty campaigners are now posing a challenge - can you make ends meet on S$5 dollars a day?


But Mr Lien said that national identity was also a


contributory factor. “This society has been founded on the basis of meritocracy… if you have been successful, it’s because of your own efforts, if you’re not, it’s your fault,” he said. “But we need to change that narrative because people have got different opportunities and different conditions that could impede their ability to move out of that poverty trap.”

Welfare ‘ crutch ’

‘ Change the narrative ’ According to the campaigners, S$5 a day is what nearly 400,000 Singaporeans are left with after paying for utilities, school, rent, loan instalments and healthcare. The people behind the challenge are Caritas Singapore, the social and community arm of the Catholic Church. They wanted to change the opinions of Singaporeans about the poor, said Tang Lay Lee, an advocate and social worker from the group. “Mindsets will not change just with facts and figures about poverty. We want people to feel what it is like to be in the shoes of a person getting by on S$5 a day for food and transport,” she said. The issue has been raised in parliament by Nominated MP Laurence Lien. “Social researchers have estimated that 10 to 15% of households are low income. We do not see poverty in your face; it’s not abject poverty around here,” he said. “And that’s why it’s hard to understand, if you look at the infrastructure, it’s beautiful but what happens behind closed doors is a different matter for most families.” Mr Lien said that despite government efforts, the problem had got worse in the past decade because of globalisation and the influx of lower-cost foreign workers who have suppressed the wages of many bluecollar Singaporeans. It is meant that the income of the poorest 20% of Singaporeans had stagnated, he said.

The budget announced by Singapore’s Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam last week aims to address some of these problems. The stated aim of the budget, which will push the government into deficit this year and next, is to achieve a “fair and equitable society”. To do this, the government is offering kindergarten fee assistance to more households to help families like Nurhaida’s, as well as transport subsidies to those with disabilities. But the lion’s share of spending will go to the older generation. Singapore is spending the equivalent of $7bn on lifelong healthcare subsidies for elderly citizens. Some 450,000 aged 65 and above will get medical benefits ranging from specialist care to medical insurance. The city-state has one of the fastest ageing populations due to the low birth rate, and many of the elderly, dubbed the “pioneer generation”, are credited with the work that built today’s modern, wealthy Singapore. But despite the wealth, there is increasing discontent. The ruling People’s Action Party, which has held power for more than half a century, suffered its worst election result in 2011. It has since lost two more by-elections, and some analysts say that they are now seeking to placate a more demanding electorate. Financially, Singapore can afford a welfare state for those in need, said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University who comments widely about local politics. But politically, welfare is unpopular, he said. “It is seen as a path to economic irrelevance because it undermines the dignity of work in a society that abhors and just doesn’t do welfare,” he said. “It’s an abiding fear of becoming enervated by a poor


work ethos where welfare becomes a crutch.” But he admits that Singapore has become more welfare -oriented than ever before, even if that welfare is strictly controlled. “It’s a social welfare state in-the-making, where the tight-fisted approach is now recognised to take away from nation building.” But whether Singapore ever goes the way of many other developed economies by providing more welfare for families like Nurhaida’s would be “a tightrope walk”, he said.

W hat ex ac tly i s “p ov er ty ” i n Si ngap o r e?

Mr Ang* and his wife, both in their 40s, live in a fourroom HDB flat with five children. Their ages range from

eight to 23 years old. Mr Ang works as a driver, earning $800 a month, while Mrs Ang is a homemaker. Four of their children are visually-impaired. Two of the oldest children attend daycare at the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped. While their fourth child is studying in polytechnic, the third and youngest children have behavioural issues, and are unable to pursue further education. Some concerns Mr and Mrs Ang have are paying their bills, caregiving and long-term planning for their children’s future. The above is a true story. And there are more families faced with similar (or worse) situations in Singapore. While most Singaporeans are able to benefit from Singapore’s success as a fast growing economy, there is a segment that gets left behind, living from hand to mouth, struggling to stay afloat.

Due to various factors like health issues and family circumstances, they struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, they are caught in a vicious poverty cycle, with little or no means to make a better life for themselves. Their children are often not able to do better than their parents due to lack of access to knowledge and educational support. For example, the child would quit school to work and supplement the family’s income, simply trying to put food on the table. I s i t p o s si b l e to b r eak thi s cyc l e? While the factors impacting the poor’s plight are complex and often involve systemic issues like housing and employment, and it may take many generations to overcome, some concrete things can be done. One way is to focus on our younger generation. Programmes like money-management workshops allow children to grasp the concept of money and how to use it wisely. Upgrading of work skills also allow adults to gain a more competitive edge in the job market, while better coping with economic challenges. It is critical that the young remain in the education system, and that they receive the best support they can to gain the knowledge and skills for a better future.



In Singapore, it is highly unlikely that you will find beggars lining the streets or see starving children walking the pavements, scrounging for food. The poor and needy in our society struggle with “relative poverty” —simply defined as that their financial resources fall substantially below what is needed to pay for the necessities of living in Singapore.


How did I get to know about Jalan Kukoh As I was looking through the topic of poverty in Singapore. I chanced upon this special area in Singapore, this neighbourhood is labelled as the slums of Singapore. Slums of Singapore definitely got my attention. In this cosmopolitan country, there is actually a hidden slum that Singaporean does not know about. After doing some research, I decided to apply my accomplishments as a graphic designer to get more exposure to Galen Kukoh and at the same time, make Jalan Kukoh a better and more conducive space to dwell in. At the same time, this will also allow younger generations to know about this and there’s such a slum in Singapore and you also distinguish them they’re a lot more to serve in life other than academic accomplishment and goals. They should be more mindful of what is falling out in Singapore and they are fortunate to receive such a conducive environment where there are children not as fortunate as them. At the conclusion of the project, I hope that the younger generations are will know about poverty in Singapore, and adults to do a minimal bit to facilitate.


OLD BLOCKS, NEW FACEtS ABOUT BLOCK 2, JALAN KUKOH JUST across the road from Robertson Quay, along Havelock Road, is the mature estate of Jalan Kukoh. About 10 per cent of Singapore’s 19,700 one-room rental flats are situated here.


There are 2,073 one-room flats in the area, which falls within the Kreta Ayer division of the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency. Rental flats, also comprising two- and three-room blocks, make up about a fifth of the total residential units in the area.

Source : Straits Times – 20 Jun 2009

Rental flats today are no longer just a shelter for the destitute. With the worsening economy, some middle-class families, faced with financial hardship, have been forced to downgrade. How are the newly poor, who are now moving into one-room flats, coping with their new environment, envy and hostility? THIS is the last place Mr Ramah Arif (not his real name), 33, expected to end up. A cheap, far from cheerful one-room rental flat, hostile neighbours and about as far down the housing ladder as one can go. In 2006, he moved into Block 2, Jalan Kukoh after selling his four-room flat in Little India. He had quit his job to care for his ailing mother who was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome. The disease, which attacks a person’s blood vessels, had left her bedridden. ‘I couldn’t keep up with the mortgage without the steady income,’ says Mr Ramah. With his parents divorced and his sister married with her own family, the bachelor has spent over $20,000 of his savings on his mum’s medical bills in the past three years. The business administration diploma holder who worked as an accounts manager for a local telecommunications firm used to earn more than $3,000 a month – easily five times that of the average blue-collar resident living in the block.

He had never before seen the interior of a one-room rental flat, let alone lived in one. He is not alone. A survey last year of 264 units in the same block found that half its residents had downgraded from three- and four-room flats in new towns such as Yishun, Woodlands and Sengkang. Most were plagued by financial problems. Others had lost their jobs, from around 1998 to 2005, when an estimated 126,000 people in Singapore were laid off and forced to sell their flats when they could not meet their mortgages. The loss of status has made it a painful, even humiliating, transition. Many still struggle daily to deal with the smallness, litter, crime and disregard for social niceties in a rental block. There are 42,800 HDB rental flats in Singapore today. These one- and two- room flats, each ranging from 26 to 45 sq m, were first built by the HDB in the 1960s to provide immediate housing for people cleared from their squatters and slums. But as the HDB began building bigger flats and introducing home ownership schemes, these rental flats became subsidised housing for the elderly and destitute. Depending on the size of the flat, monthly rent ranges from $26 to $275. To rent such a flat, one must be a Singaporean or Permanent Resident aged over 21, with a total monthly household income not exceeding $1,500, and apply with a ‘proper family nucleus’, such as with a spouse or parents. Singles above 35 can apply with other singles. NEW RESIDENTS AS PART of the Housing Board’s Rental Flat Upgrading Project since 2001, the ageing estate of Block 2 has seen various upgrades such as better lifts, metal grilles for doors and hand-grips for the elderly. But these physical changes are minor, compared with the changing tenant base at Block 2, as the downturn creates a whole new class of residents. These new entrants usually come from middle-income backgrounds. Some are single parents getting over a divorce, others are middle-aged former home-owners who have fallen on hard times, yet others are cost-conscious newly-weds starting families. Generally, the newcomers are better- educated, possess at least a primary school education and are comfortable speaking English. Quite a few work as professionals, managers, executives and technicians and think of Block 2 as transitional housing. Contrast this to the earlier generations of residents: mostly elderly, who have never had formal education and have erratic incomes as odd-job labourers. Many have lived in Block 2 for up to 30 years. Newcomers like Ms June Tong, who moved into the block in 2006, have much better odds of gaining employment. Ms Tong, 64, who studied till Secondary 4, kept her receptionist job at the Law Society of Singapore despite a recent retrenchment exercise, thanks to her command of English and work record. ‘I’m just glad that I’m still employed even though I had to take a 50 per cent pay cut,’ she says. But the pay cut came at a bad time, just after she and her husband had to sell their four-room Yishun flat to help clear their son’s business debts. Unable to afford another home, they applied for a one-room rental flat, which costs them

$33 a month and up to $70 in municipal bills. The rest of Mrs Tong’s income, about $1,000 a month, goes towards the couple’s medical expenses. Meanwhile, Ms Jean Teo (not her real name), 28, moved in with her eight- year-old daughter in 2006, after ending her marriage and leaving her ex-husband’s four-room flat in Jurong West. The well-spoken and stylish events planner looks every inch the successful executive, a far cry from the average grey-haired resident of Block 2. But although she may not look the part, her monthly income of $1,300 and legal custody of her child – which means she has a ‘proper family nucleus’ – qualifies her to rent a flat. CLOSED DOORS, SMELLY LIFTS

The curry rice was an unwelcome accessory to the new baju kurung she had bought specially for Hari Raya. ‘There is no point in hanging my washing outside since it will be stained by those living upstairs,’ grumbles Madam Kusnah, who lives on the third floor. She now hangs her laundry on a rack indoors. Newer residents like her blame the elderly tenants, accusing them of having no consideration for their surroundings. Former cabby C.H. Yap, 60, who moved in last year with his wife after downgrading from a Sengkang executive flat, says residents blatantly litter in lift lobbies. ‘People here do not care,’ says the part-time martial arts instructor, who moved to Jalan Kukoh after his savings were wiped out in 2006 by heavy losses in the stock market. ‘I have to speak to them nicely, convince them to throw their rubbish properly and even thank them. ‘I tried complaining to the town council about the rubbish and inconsiderate actions since I moved in. But it still happens,’ he says with a sigh. The Jalan Besar Town Council has posted notices throughout the block, warning residents to stop dumping rubbish out of the window, but to little avail. The littering mirrors a deeper malaise and a lack of community spirit that often thrives at owner-occupied


For newcomers like her, deteriorating family ties – due to divorce, abandonment or strained relationships – are the push factor towards rental housing. But the move is far more than swapping a large living space for a smaller one. The cultural and social dislocations can be traumatic. Houseproud newcomers bristle at what they see as a blatant disregard for the environment among older residents. The ground floor of Block 2 piles up with rubbish every day as older residents simply bundle up trash and hurl it out the windows. Metal cans, glass bottles and the odd chair rain down on the uncovered concrete walkway outside provision shops on the ground level, such that shopkeepers have resorted to hoisting tarpaulins to shelter their goods. There are also complaints of people urinating and defecating in the lifts although such incidents have been fewer since upgrading works recently began. ‘I was just walking out of the block when a packet of curry rice dropped onto me,’ recalls 43-year-old Madam Kusnah Abdullah, a food stall helper, who downgraded from a five-room flat in Sengkang three years ago.



HDB ESTATES ‘It’s like a dead town,’ complains Mr Mohammad Amin, 57, a security officer, who downgraded from a four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang after divorcing his wife and selling the flat. Community spirit in rental estates rarely gets a foothold because of the high turnover rate of residents. Many newcomers see rental housing as a transition phase and cannot be bothered to interact with their neighbours.


They also point to the drunks, drug abusers and loan sharks who occasionally lurk in the stairwells. To avoid trouble, many residents just padlock their doors. Even on weekends, when

most are home, the corridors of Block 2 are unnervingly silent. Mr Pang Chai Kang, 41, says he witnessed his first drug raid the very first month he moved in. Until February, the odd-job labourer used to live in a cramped two-room 484 sq ft flat in Marine Terrace with his mother. So he had no qualms about moving with his new Thai wife into the marginally-smaller 355 sq ft flat at Jalan Kukoh, their temporary matrimonial home until they save up enough to buy their own flat. But unlike in Marine Terrace, Mr Pang noticed that residents in his new block keep to themselves and hardly speak to one another. Even an exchange of greetings is done silently, with a wave or nod of the head. It is unsettling but hardly surprising.

Ms Masriani Akab, 31, a condominium cleaner, has seen many drug users and illegal cigarette peddlers hovering around the void deck since she moved into Block 2 in 2006. ‘I was very scared when police raided the flat opposite mine because the people inside were selling duty-unpaid cigarettes. I often see glue sniffers at the staircases,’ she says, She now makes sure her 58-year-old mother stays at a relative’s home while she is at work during the day, something that had never crossed her mind before when they lived with her brother in his four-room flat at Old Airport Road.

2003 HDB study on public housing study showed that oneroom flat residents know the least number of neighbours, compared with residents of other unit types. Madam Siti Rashidah, 33, who is unemployed and moved in in 2006, says: ‘I’m just so disappointed in the people living here.’ In March, when her depressive husband beat up her father, no one on her floor bothered to help, even though she screamed for assistance. In the end, she called the police who helped to break up the fight. ‘Some residents keep their doors locked shut to avoid any contact with strangers,’ says a police spokesman. The police now pay regular visits to the estate and educate residents on crime prevention measures. But most residents figure their best protection is reclusiveness. When he works the night shift as a security officer, Mr Amin sends his 17-year-old daughter Nuratika to stay at his friend’s house. ‘It’s too quiet here. If something happens to my daughter, no one will know,’ says the single father.

INCREASED POLICE PATROLS A retired police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says substance abuse has been a problem in Jalan Kukoh since the 1980s. But increased police patrols and raids have brought the situation under control over the last decade. Still, Ms Masriani feels unsettled. ‘For now, I just close the door to avoid any trouble,’ she says. Another bone of contention is sub-letting, when residents illegally let out their unit or part of it to others. Mr Ramah loathes this and has blown the whistle on one of his neighbours. ‘We pay low rent, typically between $33 and $128 per month, but these people charge their illegal tenants 10 or even 20 times more,’ he says, adding that it is unfair for tenants to profit by sub-letting the flats for up to $1,000 a month. According to recent figures released by the HDB, flats seized for illegally sub-letting increased fivefold last year. In August last year, as many as 147 rental flats were recovered as a result of this offence, compared to 28 in 2007. The HDB conducts routine inspections and has stepped up enforcement of its rules against sub-letting of one- and two-room flats. Offenders are evicted at once and face a five-year ban from renting or buying HDB property.


‘I’m just so disappointed in the people living here.’


46 But social workers say sub-letting is just too lucrative an opportunity to turn down for many poorer tenants, who are often approached by interested parties. ‘Many of these old folks have never earned or seen so much money before in their lives so it’s very tempting to give in,’ says Ms Mabel Wong, 43, a volunteer from the Lions Befrienders, who has been helping out in Jalan Kukoh for 16 years. Of course, it is not just the upward mobility of the newcomers which rubs the old guard the wrong way but the real reminders of it, especially when they move in with their flashy gadgets and plush furniture from their old lives. At first glance, Mr Ramah looks to be living it up. His small apartment is crammed with a giant plasma TV set, a designer couch, an exercise bicycle and a fish tank filled with a dozen koi. But the modern conveniences do not reflect his current predicament, he maintains. ‘All these are from my old home. I bought them when times were good.’ He had no money to spare for new furniture after moving to Block 2 since his savings had dwindled because of his

mother’s medical bills. So he has to make do with the bulky furniture from his old flat, even though there is hardly any walking space. Yet some older residents, whose houses are bare, seem resentful. He notes a few have a disconcerting habit of staring into his flat, wordlessly, as if ‘checking out’ his stuff. About four months ago, Mr Ramah and his mother were watching TV when a middle-aged, heavily-tattooed neighbour, who lives two doors away, strode towards his flat He walked up to his door, carrying what looked like a ’30cm-long knife’ concealed within a rolled-up newspaper, and challenged him to a fight. ‘It was ridiculous. Why should I give in, make him happy and fight him?’ says Mr Ramah, who immediately rang the police. When the police arrived, the neighbour accused Mr Ramah of being a snob and ‘looking down’ on him. In his own defence, Mr Ramah, who denies any condescending behaviour towards his neighbours, says: ‘I open my door, not to show

off the interior of my home, but to improve the ventilation.’ But for the less well-off, appearances are everything. And poorer, older residents struggle to understand how their new neighbours can be stuck with financial burdens similar to theirs. Madam Zaimah Buntak, 43, a part-time cleaner, who moved to Block 2 some 12 years ago, gripes: ‘Some of those who moved in recently don’t look like they have money problems. Some can even afford to drive cars.’ The oneroom flat has been the setting for her second marriage to another divorcee, Mr Talib Abdul Rahman, 52. They have a combined salary of $500 a month from their jobs as temporary cleaners.

Before Jalan Kukoh, they camped outdoors at Fort Canning Park for three whole years. They consider their sparselyfurnished rental flat, which has a TV and a fridge donated by relatives, a big step up from where they came from. For them, it is as good as it gets.

the feet, but otherwise very easy!” Her kids have done well enough in the Catch-Plus programme to win the monthly bursaries given out: “In February, all three got bursaries: $75, $100, $50.” MSF minister Chan Chun Sing officiated at the launch, and told reporters he hoped the programme can be replicated in other needy estates in Singapore. He had mentioned this programme in Parliament during the Budget debate, which I had covered and I’d been interested to go take a look for myself. How much can one MP do, with a bunch of grassroots volunteers, tapping their friends, their friends’ friends,

and their associates? What can a bunch of young people do, spending evenings and weekends tutoring a bunch of active kids? How much change can anyone effect?

‘One-room flats should be for people who have difficulties getting jobs and no money to buy other types of houses,’ she says. To many newcomers, it is just a temporary, stopgap measure and they cannot wait to move out, she adds. While Ms Teo has come to terms with Block 2’s harsh living conditions, she is dead set against having her eight-yearold daughter grow up in the neighbourhood. ‘I hear about stabbing cases and there are loan sharks who come regularly to splash paint on doors,’ says the concerned mother, who makes her daughter stay with a family member on weekdays. Mr Ramah has similar getaway plans. ‘I will get back to work as soon as my mother’s condition stabilises so that I can save up to buy a bigger flat,’ he says. But while younger tenants have time on their side, it is nearly impossible for long-term residents like unemployed Mr Andy Ong (not his real name), 58, to effect an escape.

Many others are involved in various ways. Tutors from the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic help coach the kids. Select Group caters meals. Volunteer efforts supplement and complement what social workers and hired staff do. The efforts coalesce into systematic programmes. Each day, about 40 children attend the after school care programme. Their home work is supervised, they get meals, and music and art lessons, and time for computer games. She’s now working full-time as a supermarket cashier, earning $1,695 a month. Is it hard, I ask her. “Tough on


The late-1990s downturn forced the former construction contractor to fold all three of his companies and sell his four-room flat in Bukit Merah to clear his debts. ‘Only if I get a windfall from buying 4-D, then I will definitely move out,’ he says. bring hope and a sense of purpose to children here.” And Paul Broom? Some weekends and at special events, he does a Mr Bean impersonation to add cheer and fun to kids’ programmes. He is seen in the picture above on a bus with Kukoh kids earlier this year.

We never know till we try. It’s early days yet for the Kukoh kids. But judging from the beaming smiles and the stories told by parents of how their kids are now doing better in their studies, my guess is that the volunteers will find happy returns on their investments of time and energy.

JALAN KUKOH GROWING UP WITH LESS https://www.growingupwithless.com


Claustrophobia Large families living in tiny rental apartments are often the result of poor family planning and poor education. In a two-room flat, nine children run about the house noisily and the eldest has to hide in the bathroom to study. While their parents work long hours and grandparents spend most of their time watching TV, the eldest daughter takes over the parental role to round up her rowdy siblings and calm the crying baby. We bring viewers into the home of a family with 15 people living under one tiny roof, and explore how living in an overcrowded environment affects the young children during their formative years. We also include a text story on the importance of family planning based on an interview with the Vice President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, Mr Edward Ong. Though as a whole, Singapore has a low fertility rate, those who can afford it are not having children while those who can’t are. The story attempts to explain why the poor are having more children and what can be done to help them do family planning.

Complex ties In the same neighbourhood, three sisters and their families live in three-room and two-room rental apartments. One sister, Madam Tan, has a few children, fathered by different men. Both her nieces, one of whom had committed suicide, had the same experience. The orphaned children are being cared for by relatives. The vicious cycle of dysfunctional families perpetuates itself in this household – the dead girl’s 19-year-old sister has two children, and is living with her 18-year-old boyfriend, who fathered her second child. This baby is barely a year old. Madam Tan’s daughter, eight-year-old girl Jamie, feeds the baby and changes his diapers. She acts all grown up for her age, and together with her seven-year-old sister Michelle, often oppresses her quiet cousin who is also being taken care of by her mother in the household. Her speech is punctuated with vulgarities – which are ignored by her mother, who takes care of seven children. Madam Tan says that she does not hold much expectation for her children’s future. “As long as they don’t go astray and end up at the police station, it’s enough,” she says. At home, she does not pressure the children, most of whom

are still in primary school, to study or do their homework. “I tell them that if they don’t study hard and do well, and they end up as road sweepers in future, they will have to deal with it themselves,” she says. “I don’t force them to study.” She appears resigned to her circumstances and does not believe that they can break out of the poverty cycle. The children eat barely enough – sometimes just a bowl of porridge or chee cheong fun to last them through the day. We seek expert advice on how much food is enough for children. We also explore the rich-poor gap in Singapore, policy philosophies of financial aid schemes, and how children grow up with all the negative influences of the neighbourhood and ironically, their own parents.

Picking up the Pieces Children growing up with divorced parents suffer from lack of parental supervision. After her husband left her nine years ago, Madam Salbiah goes for job interviews and skills-improvement classes to enhance her employability. She only returns home in the evenings, with barely enough time to take notice of her three children. Left to their own devices, her 14-year-old eldest son Irfan plays computer games till the wee hours of the morning, while her 10 and 12-year-old daughters run about outside the house, engaged in their own playtime activities. Having had the maturity to experience the full blow of his father’s sudden departure, Irfan grows up with much bottled up angst and loneliness – he becomes less trusting of the people around him, seeking solace in his computer games and companionship from the family cat. Good financial management is also seen in Madam Salbiah’s family. Despite having been unemployed for three months, Madam Salbiah scrimps and saves to put food on the table. She would cook instead of eating out, for instance. Having homecooked meals also keeps her children at home for a longer period of time. In Madam Salbiah’s story, we also explore the role of a social worker, and how they help low income families obtain financial aid, giving emotional support and counsel; ensuring that their client’s basic needs are being met. We speak to Saiful, a case officer at Association of Muslim Professionals, to find out more about his personal motivations and beliefs that inspired him to choose his profession. We also explore the struggles and challenges of being a case officer, and lend insight to the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.

Through their Eyes 13-year-old Gavin and his 11-year-old sister Germaine live with their father. Their parents are divorced. When not in school, Gavin has his eyes constantly glued to the computer screen while Germaine keeps herself busy on her smartphone.


50 We explore how children in single parent families grow up as they struggle with the absence of one parental figure, and how the presence of parental supervision can have significant impact on the child’s growth and activities. We also get the children to talk about their neighbourhood so viewers could see their environment through their eyes.

“All for my Daughter” Thila is a single mother looking after her daughter who has just set for ‘N’ levels. They live in a rental flat in Jalan Kukoh, but despite their challenging circumstances, Thila has never thrown in the towel. Well aware of the dangers in her neighborhood, with drug addicts as neighbours, contraband cigarettes being sold, and strange people going into supposedly empty units, Thila has put in place many safety precautions to safeguard her only child. Her daughter is expected to stay at home after school and not open the door to anyone. Thila’s occupation as a nurse also affords her some respect among her neighbours, though she has to make sure that she doesn’t get the midnight shift so that she can be with her daughter through the night. Sharp and articulate, she has managed to protect her daughter from the uncouth influences of the neighbourhood. Besides the good upbringing of Thila’s daughter that is a contrast to many of our other subjects, we also explore the issues of single parenthood in a complicated neighbourhood and the dynamics of the mother and daughter.

The Void Deck Entrepreneur and The Aunty with a Cause In heartland estates, there are sometimes community leaders who rise up to make life a little better for the needy. Leaders like Joanne Lim and Nicole Seah have banded together to start an affordable tuition centre for needy children living in Circuit Road, while Samsuri has started up a self-help group among the Muslim community living in Jalan Kukoh. We speak to these people to find out about their motivations behind rallying up a strong community spirit, and understand their difficulties and struggles in the process. Joanne Lim is well aware of the dangers lurking in her circuit road neighbourhood. Forced to work part time in order to supplement her husband’s meager income, she brings her daughter to work every day to prevent her from mixing with bad company. Despite not knowing much English, she is also very savvy with the different help schemes available. But more than that, Joanne is the go-to aunty of her block when anyone has a problem. More than just dishing out advice on help schemes, Joanne is very passionate about helping the younger generation so that they can break out of the poverty cycle. Recognizing education is the key, she hopes to get her daughter into tuition, but she is unable to afford the $80 a month fee. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this is the exact case Nicole Seah was talking about during the general election rally where she teared up. Despite losing the election, Nicole went back to find Joanne, and together they managed to

start a free tuition programme with 80 children from her rental flat block involved in it at its height. Though the programme has since been scaled down, Joanne feels no less passionate about her cause and is always encouraging every child in her block to study hard. Not willing to succumb to her disadvantaged circumstances, her desire to help not just her own child, but her entire block of lower-income children is truly inspirational. Similarly, Samsuri is equally aware of the dangers of his Jalan Kukoh neighbourhood, which is littered with drug addicts and suspicious people smoking, drinking and loitering around the void deck. Having observed the sedentary lifestyles of the children living there, he teamed up with a few other concerned residents to start up Pekik Jalan Kukoh, the only independent self-help group in the neighbourhood. This group organises activities for the residents, such as neighbourhood concerts, celebration of festivities, and a children’s football team. The main motivation that mooted the team was to encourage the children to engage in a healthier manner such as this, instead of leaving them to loiter around the void deck and pick up habits like smoking and drinking from residents who do so. Samsuri wants to ultimately set up a social enterprise that can allow him to be the go-to person whenever companies look for temporary manpower from Jalan Kukoh, which according to him is a “minefield of manpower resources”

HDB common areas such as void decks and common corridors frequently serve as play spaces for children living in Singapore. However for the children living in the troubled neighbourhood of Circuit Road, they can be seen playing outside mostly unsupervised, sometimes way past midnight. We capture these moments of mindless play, which also reflects the absence of parental guidance in terms of discipline and education. We explore if these children are exposed to risks that come from their complicated neighbourhood environment, where sometimes one can find heaps of refuse on the first floor after being thrown out of windows, walls covered in graffiti sprayed by loan sharks and stairwells littered with used syringes discarded by drug abusers. We seek to explore and give insight to the environment of a rental flat area.


Children’s Play spaces

kukoh kids reach for the stars


It takes a village to raise a child, so the saying goes. I saw this for myself last weekend, at a Housing Board estate in Singapore. Jalan Kukoh is nestled just off the CTE entrance opposite the Singapore General Hospital at Outram Road. I’m sure many of you have driven past the slip road leading to the estate and never wondered what lies there, or ventured along its path. Last Sunday, I drove down the road to attend the launch of a programme called Catch-Plus, an after and before school care programme for children in the estate aged seven to 16. The name is a catch-all name for a host of different programmes run by a bunch of grassroots and community volunteers, assisted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and other government agencies. Jalan Kukoh is an interesting neighbourhood. Most older HDB estates have ageing populations. In Jalan Kukoh, many are young families. According to the area’s MP, the indefatigable Lily Neo, the estate had been slated to be torn down for redevelopment. But meanwhile, she was encountering young couples and families who needed rental housing and sought her help at her Meet-the-People Session where she meets constituents. She persuaded the relevant government agencies to convert the blocks of flats into interim rental housing. Within a period of a few years, about 1,000 households moved into the rental flats. Many were young couples with children. Some children had parents in prison or came from broken marriages. Many others came from families where the parents worked but didn’t earn much, but tried their best to raise the kids the best they could. Dr Neo mobilised her grassroots volunteers, who in turn mobilised their friends and their friends’ friends and networks. In the way of close-knit Singapore, word soon spread about the community. Many folks chipped in. At the launch event on Sunday, I met some of them. There was Philip Loh, the chairman of the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee who mobilised resources. He roped in a friend Derek, who has a business selling women’s clothing. Derek was moved to stump out a six-figure sum to fund the

construction and retrofitting cost for a new centre for the kids at the void deck. Government agencies approved the construction. Derek was thrilled to know the kids would have more room for group activities. I met Chiang Kim Seng and his wife. They run Global Education Hub, which specialises in providing tuition for kids from the Gifted Education programme and in preparing students for the Math Olympiad. When asked if they could help, they did not hesitate. But their programmes for academic super-achievers were useless for kids who need tutoring at the foundational level. So their tutors had to design a programme from scratch. The couple pay their trained tutors to teach at the centre twice a week. Nor was it only Singaporeans involved. I saw an ang moh man in the crowd. He was the only person wearing a jacket that hot Sunday morning, on the top floor of a multi-storey carpark. I wondered who he was and went to chat. Turns out he’s a staff member of the British High Commission, where he is director of political affairs. He had gotten involved with the Jalan Kukoh project after getting to know Mr Ramanan Raghavendran, the chairman and seed founder of an outfit called Magic Bus, a programme that uses sport and games to teach social skills to youth. Mr Ramanan is seed founder of Magic Bus that began in India. He got it tailored for Singapore kids for the Jalan Kukoh programme. A 45-year-old American investor in tech companies who has lived in Singapore since 2012, he’s passionate about helping underprivileged kids: “The most rewarding thing I have experienced in my life is to see

Many others are involved in various ways. Tutors from the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic help coach the kids. Select Group caters meals. Volunteer efforts supplement and complement what social workers and hired staff do. The efforts coalesce into systematic programmes. Each day, about 40 children attend the after school care programme. Their home work is supervised, they get meals, and music and art lessons, and time for computer games. The centre opens from 2.30pm to 9.30pm on weekdays. On Saturdays, a bunch of young folk turn up for the Magic Bus programme. Some kids drop by once or twice a week for tuition. Others come for ukulele or guitar lessons. When a group of students go up stage to perform a song on the ukulele, I see a woman stride right up to the front to take pictures. She has Proud Mother written all over her. We chat. Madam Huang Caiying, 41, is from China and married to a Singaporean. She was beaming with pride when she snapped photos of her son, Mok Lui Yang, 10, performing. He goes for ukulele classes and tuition. “All the classes here are free,” she says. And she adds: “He topped his class in math.”

Another mother, let’s call her Madam Siti, is young and pretty. A scarf is tucked round her ears, fringing her big, bright eyes. She has manicured nails and a winsome smile. She’s proud to tell me about her three children in the Catch-Plus tuition programme. She herself has just started work after several years. She’s now working full-time as a supermarket cashier, earning $1,695 a month. Is it hard, I ask her. “Tough on the feet, but otherwise very easy!” Her kids have done well enough in the Catch-Plus programme to win the monthly bursaries given out: “In February, all three got bursaries: $75, $100, $50.” MSF minister Chan Chun Sing officiated at the launch, and told reporters he hoped the programme can be replicated in other needy estates in Singapore. He had mentioned this programme in Parliament during the Budget debate, which I had covered and I’d been interested to go take a look for myself. How much can one MP do, with a bunch of grassroots volunteers, tapping their friends, their friends’ friends, and their associates? What can a bunch of young people do, spending evenings and weekends tutoring a bunch of active kids? How much change can anyone effect? We never know till we try. It’s early days yet for the Kukoh kids. But judging from the beaming smiles and the stories told by parents of how their kids are now doing better in their studies, my guess is that the volunteers will find happy returns on their investments of time and energy.


happy children, for they are our future and our legacy — and even the early experiences in Jalan Kukoh have shown me that Catch Plus and Magic Bus can combine to bring hope and a sense of purpose to children here.” And Paul Broom? Some weekends and at special events, he does a Mr Bean impersonation to add cheer and fun to kids’ programmes. He is seen in the picture above on a bus with Kukoh kids earlier this year.




In light of the growing concerns about increasing inequality and the existence, extent and nature of poverty in Singapore, it is time for Singaporean to take action in driving a societal change, by interpreting the values of fellow Singaporean living in poverty. I know that most Singaporeans are not mindful of the scale and the depth of poverty in Singapore. The procedure of engaging Singaporean will generate greater public awareness for efforts to address the needs of the poverty in Jalan Kukoh.

Profile for Kah Hui Chng

The Hidden Slums  

An editorial titled “ The hidden slum” is to let people know more about my project and also to tell the audiences along the topic of poverty...

The Hidden Slums  

An editorial titled “ The hidden slum” is to let people know more about my project and also to tell the audiences along the topic of poverty...