Free meals salvation for poor in wealthy Singapore

Elderly volunteers peel potatoes at the Singapore Buddhist LodgeAFP

Singapore may be one of Asia’s wealthiest nations but soaring food prices have hit its poor hard, as can be seen by the queues at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, which serves daily free vegetarian meals.

For Tay Soon Kin, a cleaner, the meals dished up by temple volunteers have been a much-needed helping hand as soaring food prices hit Singapore’s poor.

Singapore’s per capita is 28,730 US dollars, but Tay earns far less than that, just 700 Singapore dollars (515 US) a month.

He says it is barely enough to feed his family of five.

For the last few months Tay has been walking to the temple at least three times a week, he says, from the nearby office building where he works. Eating the temple’s free food helps him save whatever he can for his family, which includes three children.

“I earn only 700 dollars and it is not enough. Every cent that I can save from my lunch helps a lot,” he told AFP after finishing a simple meal of rice, stir-fried vegetables and watermelon for dessert.

“Prices have gone up, including food. How to survive on my salary alone?” he said with a rueful smile.

With inflation at a 26-year high, charities say more people are joining queues for free meals.

Latest government figures showed inflation in March rose by an annual 6.7 percent, pushed in part by higher food prices which increased 7.6 percent during the month.

Singapore’s inflation averaged 0.7 percent over the past decade but it has soared since the first half of last year when it was 0.8 percent.

The Singapore Buddhist Lodge says it has seen an increase of more than 30 percent in the number of people turning up for free breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Wages have gone up but so has the cost of living so they are not earning enough,” said lodge president Lee Bock Guan.

“They try to save as much as they can so where there are free meals, they will go, as every bit of savings means a lot to them,” he said.

The temple now cooks about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rice daily but on weekends the figure rises to 300-400 kilograms when the lodge caters to about 5,000 people.

That compares with 3,000 people three months ago, Lee said, adding that they are cooking 40 percent more food, on average.

The island nation of Singapore relies on imports for virtually all of its food needs. At a time of sharp increases in global commodity prices, especially the local staple rice, the financial burden of Singapore’s lower income group has worsened, analysts said.

Figures show income disparities are widening.

The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased to 0.485 in 2007 from 0.472 in 2006, according to Singapore’s Department of Statistics. The scale ranges from zero to one, with zero regarded as perfect income equality.

Alvin Liew, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank, said the price of agricultural commodities will continue to weigh heavily on inflation levels.

“And with the wages rising much faster in the higher-income group while food prices remain elevated, the income gap is definitely widening, as food is of much less importance for the high-income group,” Liew said.

Inflationary pressures are not expected to ease any time soon, which means lower-paid people will bear the strain of heavier food bills, said Liew.

Member of parliament Baey Yam Keng, from the ruling People’s Action Party, said he has seen a 20 percent rise in the number of his constituents seeking vouchers to buy groceries at the country’s biggest supermarket chain, FairPrice.

“There are more people, and also regular people who are coming back more frequently to ask for help,” said Baey.

“The recent increase in food prices is adding pressure on their living expenses,” he said.

Apart from vouchers, Baey’s constituency also gives out 100 bags of food rations, including rice and oil, to needy residents every month.

Political analyst Seah Chiang Nee says the poor are hardest-hit partly because the city-state has virtually no social safety net.

“‘Subsidy’ is a dirty word in Singapore. So when food prices go up, their budgets get affected,” said Seah.

Ng Soo Gek, a 94-year-old widow, says she gets a free daily lunch and keeps some of it for later so she does not spend extra on food.

“I eat a little and I split the meal into lunch and dinner,” she said at the Care Corner Seniors Activity Centre, which serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea without charge.

A worker at the centre said rising inflation has led to a 10 percent increase in the number of elderly citizens turning up for the free meals in just two months.

Ng receives 180 Singapore dollars a month in financial aid from religious groups, and said the rising cost of food has had a significant impact.

“If I didn’t come here to eat, I would have starved to death,” she said.

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