By Ang Fang Ying
SINGAPORE, May 13 (Campus Eye) – Mr. Lim and his neighbours sat at the fitness corner and chatted on a clement Monday afternoon. “Well this is the only form of entertainment that the poor can afford!” Lim said with a chortle.
Lim and his neighbours live in public rental flats just a few hundred metres away from the hustle and bustle along Singapore River and a street across high-end condominiums at Robertson Quay. The rental flats that line the tri-street area made up of Jalan Minyak, York Hill and Jalan Kukoh form one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Singapore.
Staying with his wife in a one-room flat at Jalan Kukoh, Lim, 44, pays a monthly rental fee of approximately S$110.
Due to health issues, Lim is required to visit the hospital three times a week which hinders his hunt for a job. He gets by with only a few hundred dollars a month doing odd jobs.
Lim, who declined to be named, and his wife survive on a combined income of slightly more $1,000 a month, but consider themselves as the “more well-to-do” in their estate.
In 2012, Singapore had the third highest GDP per capita in the world and yet its gini coefficient, which stood at 0.478 in the same year, was the second highest among developed nations.
The Economist Intelligence Unit also recently named Singapore as the world’s most expensive city to live in, and this ongoing inflation is made worse by an approximate 8% fall in real wages among the bottom 20% employed residents in the last decade.
Associate Professor Hui Weng Tat at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said: “We do have a problem, because we do have a large number of households who are earning income in the lower end, not having enough to cover their household expenditure, especially the lower 20%.”
AN AGING NEIGHBOURHOOD
Comprising of nine rental blocks, the neighbourhood is home to about 6,000 families, of which many are elderly people staying alone.
While it is not the case for him, Lim pointed out that some of the elderly have wealthy children visiting them as infrequently as only once every few years.
“I think the so-called bad kids understand filial piety better than the educated kids do,” Lim said.
A former gangster and ex-convict with tattoos covering much of his arms, Lim laments about Singapore’s judgmental society where police officers have approached him for random checks on multiple occasions.
“So what if I’m no longer involved in gangs? People still look at me and treat me differently because of my tattoos,” Lim said in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Hokkien. “Not all who live in this complicated neighbourhood are bad people.”
“Sometimes I wish I could wash and scrub them (my tattoos) away.”
While acknowledging that the Singapore government has significantly increased financial assistance to the needy, life remains a struggle for many of them and Lim felt that more could be done for the poor.
“Some of my neighbours go by without eating anything at all on some days. I don’t have much but I try to help when I can,” said Lim.
Singapore’s government has always rejected the welfare system practiced in many countries in the west, championing instead individual responsibility and social-support schemes to encourage employment and boost household savings.
With growing social discontent and public outcry, the government has relented slightly on its anti-welfare stance in recent years.
The recent announcements made in its budget for 2014 included more aid to older and lower-income Singaporeans, such as the introduction of the ‘Pioneer Generation Package’ where the elderly will receive targeted support. However, the government continues its staunch refusal to set neither a minimum wage nor a poverty line.
“A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships,” Minister for Social and Family Development, Chan Chun Sing said in a press statement in October.
“If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a ‘cliff effect,’ where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded,” Mr. Chan said.
Despite official insistence on self-help, Lim said with a tinge of sadness: “To me, Singapore is still a very good nation.”