Poverty in Singapore

THERE IS THIS MYTH that Singapore is a rich country and its citizens are well-taken care of. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 1998 United Nations Human Development Index showed that Singapore ranked 28 on the list behind countries like Barbados and Malta.

In fact many households earn so little that they cannot afford to give their children pocket-money for school, resulting in the students going hungry for the day. The following is a snapshot of some of the more recent cases uncovered:

An elderly woman in her seventies was fatally run over by a hit-and-run driver as she was returning home at 6:40 am, working as a night-shift toilet cleaner. Not only did the elderly lady have to toil in the night shift, her pay was so meagre that she could not even afford to eat lunch. To top it off she had to save to help take care of her 50-year old mentally retarded daughter.

  • Another septuagenarian woman worked as cleaner for a measly US$200 a month which she had to share with her 70-year-old sister. The sisters are so hard-up that even vegetables during meal-times are a luxury.
  • A 77-year-old toilet cleaner was on his way home around midnight after work. He couldn’t afford the fare for a bus ride and had to walk home. He was hit and killed by a car.
  • A 96-year-old woman has to go to the garbage dump to pick out odds and ends to sell to support herself.
  • A 76-year-old man ran a little business selling household provisions. His paltry income had to support middle-aged daughters who are wheelchair bound and suffering from polio since birth, and a wife who is senile and incapable of looking after herself. His problems took a dramatic turn for the worse when the Government upped the rental of his shop from US$150 to US$450 a month.

Below are some statistical indicators of the poor in Singapore:

  • In 1999, nearly 2,000 children did not attend school because their parents could not afford it. Mohammad Hirwan is one such child. His parents earn about US $600 a month, hardly sufficient for a family in Singapore. As a result the boy’s parents had to take him out of school when he was nine. His siblings did not fare any better. All of them dropped out of school because of poverty.
  • A technician lost his job and had no income for about half a year had to watch his two young children live on biscuits for days. A social worker said that the man had no money even to take the bus to find a job. The family was literally penniless.
  • A man with a wife who suffered from manic depression, asthma and diabetes had to stay home to look after her. Whenever he found some contract work, his children took turns to skip school to watch over her. The family had to survive on US$200 a month they received from welfare organizations.
  • A young divorcee cannot find enough money to buy schoolbooks and food for her children. Most days, by 10pm, her sons ask if there is any more food. They cannot afford to eat and live mainly on fried rice.

The elderly poor in Singapore lead just as tragic lives. Many have to, literally, work until they die:

In 1999 monthly wages for low-skilled workers decreased by as much as 34 percent.

  • Nearly 30 percent of households were not earning enough to afford the minimum standard of living. The Government estimates that the subsistence level in Singapore is US$600 for a household of four people—a conservative figure for a country that is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world to live in.
  • Between 1998 and 1999, the average household monthly income of the poorest 10 percent of the population decreased by nearly 50 percent. The following year, the figure nose-dived by another 54 percent.
  • In 1990, the richest 10 percent of households earned 15.6 times more than the poorest 10 percent. (Households with no income-earners are excluded from this category.) By 2000, the gap widened: the richest 10 percent earned 36 times more than the poorest 10 percent.
  • The number of households with monthly incomes of less than $3,000 was 40 percent in 1998 but increased to 42 percent in 1999.
  • According to the 2000 Census, 12.6 per cent of households earned less than $1,000 per month. A monthly gross total household income of $1,500 and below is considered “poor” in Singapore.
  • A more recent survey found that 16 per cent of the respondents had family members who often went hungry.
  • In 2004 37,823 households could not afford to buy their own flats or rent homes in the open market.

Because of the system, an increasing number of Singaporeans are driven to seek the help of mental professionals:

  • In 1990 there were 88,000 such cases. This figure escalated to 147,000 in 1998.
  • In 1990 only 8.4 percent of Singaporeans suffered from neurotic disorders such as anxiety and depression. In 1998 16.6 percent succumbed to these disorders. (This problem continues into the present with a newspaper report highlighting that more people are being diagnosed with mental disorders due to financial woes.)
  • In 1997, psychiatrists noted a sharp increase in the number of teenagers attempting suicide and attributed the phenomenon to the youths being alienated from their parents. The main reason cited is the stressful lifestyle and high cost of living.
  • In 1999, a consumer health survey found that among the various Asian societies, Singaporeans are most likely to have suffered depression, stress, and fatigue. In addition, job-related stresses continue to be the biggest problems for working Singaporeans.
  • In 2003, a study found that Singaporeans aged between 20 and 49 years made up 70 percent of suicide cases from 1997 to 2001. They also constitute the main bulk of cases of attempted suicides.
  • Between 1994 and 1998 the number of divorces shot up from 3,772 to 5,651 cases. Social workers attribute this occurrence to intense stress experienced by workers who have households, children and aging parents to take care.
  • National figures compiled by the Registry of Births and Deaths show that on average, 1 person takes his/her own life in Singapore every day.

Visitors often remark about the tidiness and orderliness of Singapore. It is because of such an impression that makes the cases of poverty described in the earlier paragraphs so hard to believe.

The reason why the poor in Singapore are not more visible is that the Ministry of Community Development and Sports conduct frequent raids through its Destitute Persons Service, looking for and picking up vagrants. If Singapore seems to have less destitute, it is not because the numbers are not present. The real reason is that the PAP Government is just much more efficient in clearing the streets of homeless people.

For all the hype claiming that Singapore is a near-paradise, 20 percent of its citizens indicated that they want to leave the country, predominantly because of the stressful lifestyle and high cost of living. These would-be émigrés are mainly from the strata of younger, higher-income professionals.

With the costs of living rising, or at least not decreasing, and wages continuing to be depressed, Singaporeans are going to facing increasingly dire economic times. Without any rights, their problems will persist.

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