POVERTY PROJECT: Singapore’s Ugly Truth

VITTO BANEZ WRITES – Singapore is very well-off. At least that’s the perception.

The skyline alone illustrates the nation’s growth.  The island country has become a hotspot for rich vacationers attracted by its fancy hotels and world-class cuisine. Looking at all that, it’s hard to believe poverty exists in a place like Singapore. Yes, it’s one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but the wealth of some comes at a high cost to others. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for poverty stricken families to live in such an expensive place.

Singapore was recently ranked as the world’s sixth most expensive city to live in. With an efficient infrastructure and low taxes, one can see why the rich would run to a city with such incentives. The nation also has a strong financial center and the second largest international private banking market. Despite its reputation as an economic success story, the wealth gap is the second highest in Asia, only trumped by Hong Kong.

Poverty contradicts Singapore pristine image. It’s an incredibly clean city without any sign of graffiti or even discarded gum on its pristine sidewalks.  With such a high standard of living, it is difficult for families to sustain decent living conditions. Some families live off weekly groceries from charities as well as a monthly allowance from the government.  Still the BBC reports that some Singaporeans believe that their nation’s poverty problem is not entirely bad when compared to India, China, or the United States.

However, poverty in Singapore often goes unnoticed or obscured due to the lack of a national poverty line. But the absence of a poverty line doesn’t make the problem disappear as Mr. Laurence Lien, Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, states, “Certainly, poverty is not in your face here, but yes, it is happening here.”  

Poverty does exist in Singapore, though it is hidden under the mask of an unwritten poverty line. Parliament claims to be in the process of ensuring more aid for those families in need, but this seems unlikely since Singapore is ardently opposed to becoming a welfare-dependent state. After triumphantly developing a booming economy after gaining independence from Malaysia, welfare remains an unpopular topic.  In the mean time, those who struggle must continue to live off donated groceries and a monthly allowance.

Despite its glamourous facade, Singapore indeed has an ugly side of poverty and  economic disparity.

2 Replies to “POVERTY PROJECT: Singapore’s Ugly Truth”

  1. The hidden ugly side of Singapore
    0 comments Vijay Kumar Published 3 Jul 2009, 6:48 pm Updated 3 Jul 2009, 6:49 pm

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    In between the glamarous buildings and shoppings complexes of this city state, there is huge suffering that the world has never seen. Something that the Singapore government or media will try to hide from the rest of the world. And this is the lives of 80 percent of ‘true’ Singaporeans who live in the republic’s Housing Development Board (low cost) flats.

    I, like many young youths, went looking for a better future in this Lion City of opportunity, After four years of working experience in Kuala Lumpur. It was my first experience outside Malaysia and I was very happy to be offered a job in Singapore with a basic salary of S$3,500.

    Then, with huge hopes, I started looking for a master bedroom to rent being single. I finally got a master bedroom in Clementi for S$700 a month but only after being rejected by many other landlords for being Indian. The ensuing eight- month ordeal that I spent in this HDB flat really opened my mind to what Singapore is for those who can’t earn.

    It made me ask if this is the type of development that I ever wanted in my country Malaysia. This is the first time that I felt gifted to be born in Malaysia. Anyway, I lived with a family of three (husband, wife with one daughter) who rented out their master bedroom to me while they slept in the common room.

    It was a three-room flat (but unlike in Malaysia, a three-room flat has only two bedrooms). I did not believe it was the master bedroom that I was staying in until I went into the other room and saw that there is no attached bathroom there. I was given a bed and a mattress and also two fans. Then I noticed that the couple with their daughter sleeping on the floor with a thin mattress in the other room. Not even a fan in that room.

    Both husband and wife are born Singaporeans and were employed. It was after one month that I realised that the daughter was not going to school regularly and most of the time there would be a quarrel in the early morning between the father and daughter as there was not enough money to pay for the bus to go to school.

    There were times when the daughter was very sick and father had no money to take her to see a doctor. It was a real pain in the heart to hear a small girl suffering through the thin walls of this HDB flat. It was unbelievable for me to see this happening in this ultra-modern city. It took me another two months to realise that what was happening in this flat was not an isolated case of urban poverty in Singapore.

    It was every where in those HDB flats. There was a Chinese neighbour (an elderly man) and his son had no money to get a taxi to send his father to the clinic for daily diabetic wound-dressing. I soon understood that poverty in Singapore transcends racial boundaries. The whole family of my landlord got a shock that I own a car in Malaysia.

    My landlord would keep pestering me every time I come back to Malaysia to bring my car over so that his whole family could go sightseeing in Singapore. In all my life, I never believed people in a developed country like Singapore would ever consider car ownership a privelege.

    Three months later, one fine day, I came back home and realised that there was no electricity in the house. This time, my landlord did not have the money to pay for the utility bills. I was back in the Stone Age, using candles. This lasted for days until finally he borrowed money from somewhere and settled the bills.

    My landlord as a person I have known during that period never come back drunk or looked like a gambler. He had to pay for his mother’s medical expenses, that much I know. This was the time in my life when I learned what is was like to live in that poor quality HDB flat, drying clothes in the rooms and listening to what the couple talked about in the next room via the thin walls.

    It was this time in life that made me to think, ‘Is this what I want Malaysia to be? For those who talk great or look up to Singapore’s success, have they ever come and lived in Singapore like I how I did? Have you seen a HDB flat and how it looks like?

    Bring your whole family for a dinner using public transport and then rush to catch the last bus. Is this what a 10% growth rate a year is about that we want boast? Does this growth figures mean anything in the first place? Do we want to open our country to expats so that they can progress at the expense of our own Malaysians?

    Do we want to ‘progress’ to a level that even our children can’t buy a house in our own land? Last, I ask myself. Do we Malaysians look at GDP growth as the only measure to choose our government or are we much more matured than that? Achievement at whose expense?

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