Poverty in Singapore: The Side We Never See

Singapore is undoubtedly one of the world’s most attractive tourist sites, as it’s rich cultural diversity and beautiful sights and city vibrance draw in large crowds. Luckily for me, this is where I grew up. The cleanliness, safety, and modernness are just some facets of the city that make it as special as it is. However, as much as I love my home, and as much as the news titles boast the wealthiness and economic success of this small city-state, there is a side to it that often remains hidden. With the recent COVID-19 outbreak, we have finally been forced to recognise it.


Alongside economic prosperity and pride in Singaporean affluence also comes a stereotype that wealth inequality and poverty are completely nonexistent.

Wealth in this city has been growing year after year, with data showing the average wealth of a Singaporean going from USD $115,000 in 2000 to about USD $300,000 in 2019. That’s more than double in the last twenty years. Because of this, Singapore is not only the city with the world’s 6th richest people, according to Business Insider, but also has been ranked the world’s most expensive city in consecutive years alongside cities such as Hong Kong and Paris. Singapore in recent years has even become an icon for wealth in the media with it’s debut in the 239 million dollar box office movie, Crazy Rich Asians. Alongside economic prosperity and pride in Singaporean affluence also comes a stereotype that wealth inequality and poverty are completely nonexistent. However, our city has yet to entirely eradicate these problems, given that our city hasn’t even publicised an official poverty line, and 73% of Singapore’s wealth is owned by the top 20% of income earning households.

Interviewee Sam Myat San, a debate coach colleague of Devin Kay, a social studies teacher and debate coach in our High School Department, provided a professional perspective outside of the numerical data, focusing more on the societal notions ingrained in Singaporeans that has contributed to this ignorance of the poor.

Firstly, he was asked,

He listed off the three main causes of this underrepresented issue:

A) Intense capitalist society Such a system will always favour those who have capital (money to invest, land to rent) and their income will always grow at an exponential rate compared to the poor.

B) Policies which favour the richWe have a fairly low maximum income tax rate (we are considered a tax haven) and do not have a capital gains tax. These are the sort of policies which favour those who are high earners and we also end up attracting more high earners to move to Singapore.

C) Academic and employment policiesIntensive academic streaming leads to the richer students having higher academic results, which play a heavy role in getting a higher income. 

I then proceeded to ask,

San states:

Not enough. There are a few contributing factors to this governmental position. Firstly, the public adherence to the philosophy of “meritocracy” and free market competition often leads to those succeeding and being wealthy as having earned their success and those who have become poor as having deserved their fate to a certain extent. Additionally, the notion that even if there are those who are poorer, the goal should be to keep growing as rich as possible as a nation so that even those who are less well off can obtain a higher standard of living. So the emphasis is not on reducing inequality but on increasing overall wealth. Lastly, Singapore’s institutional memory of having fought Communist movements still makes the leaders more resistance to the ideas of socialism.”

What he made evident in most of his responses was that the majority cause for this neglect upon the poor are the concepts regarding wealth and riches deeply ingrained in our Singaporean society. In order to maintain the external appearance of our cities wealth, the rich and their economic needs are highly prioritised. Additionally, strains in the educational and job opportunities system often lead to a repetitive cycle in which the richer families can provide for better educational opportunities for their children, in hand continuing the cycle for their children onwards. This leaves poorer families without any entry into the cycle.

Straits Times

Although much more can be done to recognise the presence of poverty in Singapore, there are certainly groups and programs seeking to take initiative for change. Singapore’s social service programs have increasingly taken on the role of helping to provide for lower-income individuals and families, for example, ComCare Financial Assistance, also known formally as Public Assistance. It’s a program provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Development which seeks to provide struggling individuals with 600 SGD a month and two-person households with up to 1000 SGD a month.

Additionally, those struggling from illness, old age, or severe lack of family support are also subject to this government support.

Additionally, there have been improvements in Singapore’s wealth inequality issue, given that in recent years, our city has been able to annually lower the Gini coefficient, with recent data showing an all-time low of 0.398 (scale of 0-1, with 1 being the highest rate of wealth inequality)

With the rampant COVID-19 pandemic occurring and Singapore’s implementation of a strict circuit breaker to last until June 1, impoverished and even homeless Singaporeans have gained more exposure than ever.

Public spaces such as parks have closed down, leaving the homeless struggling to find a space to sleep. Some have been able to find refuge in some of Singapore’s homeless shelters, many of which are organised by the New Hope Community Services social service agency, one group amongst many others trying to address this problem and provide assistance. According to the Straits Times, shelters are filled to the brim and continue to receive inquiries about vacancies as hostels and hotels shut down. With the spacial restrictions put in place, many of these shelters, which could theoretically hold up to 100 people, are only able to max out at 40 or even less. (If you would like to donate or learn more about what the New Hope Community Services organization is doing, visit their website here)

Additionally, with the continuation of the circuit breaker alongside the implementation of Singapore’s periodic phase plan, lower-class Singaporeans and public service workers are left with little to no pay, and the possibility of losing their job. However, one of the biggest topics of the coronavirus in relation to poverty is the work-permit holder dormitories located all around the country.

Sungei Tengah Lodge, Image From Channel Asia News

When the virus began it’s major increase in early April, it was discovered that these huge spikes in hundreds of daily cases were originating from clusters of foreign work-permit holders all residing in dormitories that host 12-20 men per room, as stated by The Guardian. Interviewees assessed by The Guardian, most of which are workers primarily from India and Bangladesh who play a large role in contributing to the Infrastructure of Singapore, stated that the dormitories are often not very sanitary or spacious given that there are thousands that reside there. The exposure of this information has led the public to further recognise hidden and internal issues in regards to poverty in Singapore, calling upon the government to provide better care and living standards for these dormitory workers.

For a final interview question, I asked Sam Myat San about what Singaporean poverty looks like from the lens of those who live more affluent lifestyles.

San had this to say:

“This assumes these wealthier residents are blind to the poverty and homelessness. This is not entirely true, as they are those who are aware but simply do not care due to the reasons stated in Question 1. They may feel culturally reinforced into thinking that the poor deserve their fate due to influences such as religion (a type of prosperity gospel teaches that those who are good followers will be rich) and racial stigma (some races are lazy and thus will be poor.) Thankfully, more people are beginning to help those whom they perceive as needy of help. But a large number are still ignorant of the very poor due to a combination of the following reasons:

A) Intense class stratification – People from different wealth levels simply do not interact. They are divided by their geography (HDB vs condos vs landed property), schooling (intense academic streaming puts the richer kids into the same schools) and even language (English educated vs Mother Tongue)

B) Lack of popular media focus on the poor While there is a small independent arts scene focusing on the poor in Singapore, mainstream media rarely portrays the poor in Singapore. This makes it harder for Singaporeans who are wealthy to envision how the poor are faring.

C) Excessive faith in governmentMany Singaporeans assume that there would be intensive state support for those who are poorer and thus it is not a major concern for them.

So there you have it. Poverty in Singapore is not simply defined by the old ladies who work at hawker centers, or those who sell tissues in the underground of ION. The scope of poverty and even homelessness extends far beyond the instances we often see, opening up discussion about wealth inequality in Singapore, and how our culturally and wealth-rich city-state could potentially grow to be one with more equal living standards and a stronger understanding as to how we can eradicate poverty as a whole.

Author: Ariana Rossuck

Ariana Rossuck is a junior at Singapore American School, and this is her first year on the Eye. She’s Filipino-American, but is proud to have grown up in Singapore, and loves to travel. She loves volleyball, English, and hopes to pursue law in the future. She can be contacted at rossuck34822@sas.edu.sg

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