From ‘PM: We don’t need poverty line to help the poor’, 17 Nov 2013, article by Rachel Chang, Sunday Times
Singapore is past the point where a poverty line is useful, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday, as its groups of needy now take shifting and multi-faceted form. Hence, the Government’s “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, he said, summoning a metaphor that Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing used to describe the multi-layered help it provides to those in need.
Speaking to reporters after a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, Mr Lee weighed in for the first time on recent calls to establish a poverty line in Singapore, after Hong Kong did so in September.
He said that a poverty line like the World Bank’s measure of $1.50 a day was irrelevant in Singapore as there are no “dead poor” here, by which he means those who are starving and unsheltered.
By ‘dead poor’ our PM probably refers to the invisible ‘homeless’ on the streets, a population which was supposedly ‘eradicated’ according to Kishore Mabubhani in 2001. However, he needs to be more explicit on what it means to be ‘unsheltered’. If you define ‘unsheltered’ as not having a roof over your head, which ‘layer’ does a family of 4 who lives in a VAN in East Coast Park fall under? To be fair, it’s hard to fix an income threshold for the needy, given that the sole breadwinner living in his company vehicle earns $2,100 a month, more than some bus drivers. Compare this to celebrity Darren Lim who makes a three-room Lagoon 400S2 catamaran his home. Both have a ‘roof over their heads’ , but clearly one family, due to unforseen circumstances, is at the bottom layer of the kueh lapis model.
Is a family who can’t afford a HDB flat that they have to make do in the back of a van ‘dead poor’? Even if you did have a roof over your head, what if had to put up with 10 kids in a room? Or sleep on a discarded sofa in the corridor? How about wandering about parks and beaches living in tents? Maybe the ‘dead poor’ is an apt definition of the destitute after all, because they’re practically ghosts in the eyes of a government that prides itself in looking after every Singaporean very well. As with every society, they’ll be those who’re bound to fall through the cracks. Just that our ministers are too far off the ground to notice any, or when they do, it’d already be too late. Not having a poverty line because some people claim we have no ‘dead poor’ to speak of, isn’t a very convincing argument, sad to say.
MG Chan Chun Sing himself, creator of the kueh lapis, has his own interpretation of what ‘poor’ means; the ‘temporary poor’ and the ‘chronic poor’. Then there are the ‘working poor’, defined as those earning less than the national median per capita household income of $1920. The types of poor people alone is enough to form a mini kueh lapis on its own, the kueh lapis of poverty if you will. All this coming from a minister who once justified high government salaries using the analogy of XO sauce Chai Tau Quay.
A traditonal kueh lapis cake has 9 layers, but our Government is proposing a fat 18 tier program. If our income structure were like a layered cake it’s an uneven mix, with the prime ingredients like the prunes and rum right at the top, where our 27 and counting billionaires reside. At the bottom of the heap, you have people living in vans, along the corridor, in tents, folks who’re invisible to us just because we don’t see them scrounging garbage or begging for food on the streets. Poverty line or no, it’s troubling if our ministers are unwilling to acknowledge the hidden shame of abject poverty in the first place, just like how we pretend that litter doesn’t exist. Or an emperor denying that he ever fathered a bastard son with a peasant teenager.
The truth is out there, you’d just have to open your eyes and look beyond the Singapore you see in postcards and brochures, the statistics, bar charts, Queens of Instagram, over-hyped success stories; a whitewashed country led by men in white, not so much kueh lapis, but Kueh Tutu.