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Inequality (Urban Poverty) in Singapore

The Best of You believes that kickstarting bold and purposeful conversations is the first step towards helping individuals and families break free from the urban poverty cycle.

In our shiny metropolis of high-rise buildings and glittering malls, Inequality (Urban Poverty) is still a largely invisible social problem. People living in urban poverty often lack access to basic resources such as money, space, opportunities, and time to meet their basic needs – the same resources that many of us are privileged to have. 

There is no official poverty line established in Singapore. As such, many Singaporeans do not think that poverty exists in an affluent city-state like Singapore. This may also be attributed to the media’s frequent portrayal of poverty in extreme conditions where children experienced serious malnutrition that leads to death in some third-world countries. By comparison, Singapore’s poverty situation seems to be mild, and many people tend to trivialise the situation, leaving individuals and families with lesser resources to continue struggling in urban poverty conditions.

So, what is the extent of deprivation one must experience to be considered as living in poverty? Would it be a lack of security in areas such as food, housing, medical, and education? 

It is worth exploring how the urban poor navigate their daily life, struggling to ensure there is a roof over their heads, 3 daily meals, and a continuous supply of water and electricity at home. Singaporean sociologist, Teo You Yenn wrote an enlightening book “This Is What Inequality Looks Like” to send a message that we cannot resolve Poverty without confronting Inequality. Drawing from the lived experiences of persons with low income, the book entails You Yenn’s 3 -yearlong study on persons with low income through conversations, in-depth interviews, and observations to help shed light on the mechanisms of Singapore’s care structure.

“In a city whose story to itself and the outside world is of rapid upward mobility, the people I have been meeting over the past few years are framed as ‘left behind’. More importantly, since mobility is cast as an individual endeavor, they are also marked as losers in the game, people who are ‘unable to keep up’. They are also often stuck in these positions by a confluence of educational credentials that do not open doors, jobs that are paid poorly, and care gaps that are not adequately addressed.” Teo You Yenn (pg. 30)

Breaking Out of The Poverty Cycle

In Singapore, we learned that education and poverty are closely connected as the former is often seen as the main route for social mobility, a crucial factor in a family’s ability to break out of the poverty cycle. Our students from lower-income families are encouraged to gain upward mobility by the means of the education system through standardised testing, affordable fees, and grants provided. 

“However, a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals that the playing field is not as level as we would like to think so. The report, titled Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, states that in 2015, 46% of disadvantaged students in Singapore were attending "disadvantaged schools", up from 41% in 2009. Disadvantaged schools are defined as those which take in the bottom 25% of the student population, and poorer students in these schools face the disadvantage of not having access to the best resources.” 

Many lower-income parents are unable to help their children in their school work given their long working hours as some even hold multiple jobs to increase household income. At the same time, they also cannot afford tuition to teach their children. Very often, the children find themselves lagging behind their peers who have parents with more resources. This social inequality gap was further highlighted during the pandemic when schools implemented Home-based Learning (HBL), where children in lower-income families lacked access to the internet and digital devices to participate in online learning. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Education, about 12,500 laptops or tablets, as well as 1,200 Internet-enabling devices, such as dongles have been loaned to students who do not have enough devices at home for HBL.

The Impossible Timetable of Ron

With the launch of Interactive Simulation Experience (ISE), a compelling web-based animation, we take you through a day in the life of a resilient 11-year-old boy living in a cramped rental flat. Titled “The Impossible Timetable of Ron”, the simulation showcases the thoughts and worries that plague Ron from the moment he wakes up for school, to the time he goes to sleep at night.

Exploring Inequality (Urban Poverty) through a child’s perspective is powerful – it shows how poverty affects the next generation. The simulation is interjected with snippets of information that offer more context to the lived realities that children like Ron face on a day-to-day basis. It highlights issues that mirror their real-life struggles, such as food insecurity and taking on caregiving responsibilities, in a highly engaging and accessible way. 

Through immersive digital storytelling, The Best of You social movement hopes to challenge the myth that “the poor” is an exception in our society, and transform the way Singaporeans view the members of our community who are living in urban poverty. 

We invite you to take some time off and immerse yourself in the lived experience of vulnerable groups in the community, like Ron and his family. Enter the world of Singapore’s urban poor through The Impossible Timetable of Ron and take the first step to reimagine a more equal world, together.

What Can We Do, Together?

In coming up with any kind of effective solution, having a clear understanding of the problem at hand is key. 

The first step is to understand and analyse the lived experiences of our urban poor without prejudices and let that help us examine ways to improve our care systems. 

“There are two prejudices about people who are low income: first, that they have different ‘values’ and ‘mindsets’ - particularly about work ethic and parenting. There is a belief that low-income persons tend to make ‘bad choices’ that perpetuate their poor conditions, particularly when it comes to parenting. Second, that they tend to avoid employment and become reliant on state support. Here the belief is perpetuated through public policies that place ‘dependence’ front and center as that which is to be avoided. Both prejudices are empirically inaccurate and profoundly damaging.” Teo You Yenn (pg. 85)

Efforts to eradicate urban poverty have also traditionally been spearheaded by government bodies, social work agencies, and academics. However, we believe that each person – whether you’re a student or a working adult, a home-maker or a business owner – can play a part to help support those in our society struggling to make ends meet. Every action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, add up and can leave a lasting impact in our communities. 

The Best of You has also developed a helpful online Resource Hub where participants can gain more information about urban poverty in Singapore, as well as discover practical ways to help uplift families and children like Ron who is grappling with urban poverty issues. They can pledge their support to social movements, volunteer with social impact organisations, or spread the message by sharing it with their friends and family. 

Moreover, individuals struggling in urban poverty situations can also access the Resource Hub to seek aid from the various programmes run by social impact organisations and passionate individuals.

Explore the Resource Hub and discover how we can harness the power of community and effect greater change when we pool our efforts together.

References

Teo You Yenn (2018). This Is What Inequality Looks Like

Yong, J. (2021, February 28). Commentary: Children form low-income families and the power of ‘significamt adults’. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/
budget-2021-children-low-income-inequality-volunteers-community-367496


Global-is-Asian. (2018, November 13). Meritocracy in Singapore: Solution or problem?. Retrieved from: https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/meritocracy-in-singapore-solution-or-problem

Lee, V. & Yeo, S. (2020, April 18). How home-based learning shows up inequality in Singapore – a look at three homes. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/how-home-based-learning-hbl-shows-up-inequality-in-singapore-a-look-at-three-homes