The “mirage” of poverty in S’pore?

ES sent me the following extract of a




: – “When I suggested the title ‘Mirages & Visions’ for my talk tonight to a friend, he laughed. I think he was warning me in a friendly way to beware of becoming gloomy beyond my years. I took heed of his advice, and changed not the subject of the talk, but the substance. I do not intend to lecture you on why you should behave soberly, and obey the government’s stern warnings to ignore false prophets, and the mirages which they try to lead you to. Instead, I would like to share with you some of the problems of distinguishing mirages from visions, and of finding new visions which all of us can believe in.

The second type of mirage – the belief that we can do away with any imperfection of society if only we set out to do it – can be equally plausible. Let me take another current example: the poor. Amidst the general well being of Singapore, there are poor people. The President in his Address at the opening of Parliament talked about the 10 – 15 per cent of the poor, who would need special help. In subsequent debate, nearly every MP, government and opposition, spoke up for them. Recently the Sunday Times, on 21 Apr 85, carried a long article, entitled ‘At the tail-end of Singapore’s prosperity are a shocking number of Singaporeans who live on less than $500 a month per family: 400,000 eke out a living.’ The impression might easily be gained that there/ is no reason for people to continue to be poor in Singapore, if only the government were less money faced, and would seriously do something about it, for example by being more generous with its welfare benefits.”

In this connection, now after about 30 years –

1 in 5 Hong Kongers in poverty

according to the article “One in five residents lives in poverty: Report” (Straits Times, Oct 13) – “One in five Hong Kongers lives in poverty … the poverty line is set at half the median household income”.

According to the Department of Statistics’ Key Household Income Trends 2014 – the median household income was $8,290 in 2014.

The average household income for the bottom three deciles were $1,775,  $3,641 and $5,226 respectively.

More than 1 in 5 Singaporeans in poverty?

So, if we use the same “half of median income” measure as Hong Kong – does it mean that Singapore’s percentage in poverty may be similar if not worse than Hong Kong’s?

Cash vs non-cash handouts?

As to “But after factoring in cash handouts,  the number of poor people fell to 960,000 and the poverty rate dipped to 14.3 per cent – the lowest in the past six years.

The fall could also be related to the establishment of the poverty line in Hong Kong in 2013″ – since I understand that much of the government transfers in Singapore are not cash handouts, like Medisave top-ups, Workfare (the bulk of which goes to CPF), etc – aren’t we arguably worse than Hong Kong?

Why no ‘poverty line’?

If we really want to help needy Singaporeans – we should also establish a poverty line, like Hong Kong.

Applications & success rate statistics disappeared?

In this connection, the ComCare annual report’s statistics did not give the number of applications for financial assistance and the success rate like in the past – which apparently has disappeared from this year’s report.

How many needy families actually received financial assistance?

15,699 households received ComCare financial assistance

According to Social Statistics 2014  – the number of families that received ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance was 12,535 in 2013.

The number that received ComCare long-term assistance was 3,164 (I understand that this figure has remained at around 3,000 for more than a decade!).

So, the total number on Short-to-Medium Term and Long-term Assistance was 15,699 (12,535 + 3,164).

But 107,490 households per capita income $494

Even if we do not talk about the bottom second and third deciles of employed households or the 3.4 per cent of non-retiree households with no working persons and 7 per cent of retiree households which may fall below the ComCare criteria of $650 household per capita income – the bottom decile alone had about 107,490 employed households with per capita monthly income of only $494 (including employer CPF).

Only 15% of bottom decile received ComCare financial assistance?

So, does it mean that only about 15 per cent (15,699 ComCare financial assistance divided by 107,490 bottom decile households) actually received ComCare financial assistance?

Only 4% of those in poverty received ComCare financial assistance?

If we relate this to the 360,000 (30 per cent) households) estimated to be in poverty – does it mean that only about 4 per cent (15,699 divided by 360,000) received ComCare financial assistance?

Short-term financial assistance less than $200?

According to the ComCare Annual Report FY2013 – $31.36 million was disbursed to 17,182 households on short-term assistance in FY2013 – with only 6,867 households remaining (still on) assistance as at 31 March 2014.

So, does it mean that the average monthly financial assistance per household was less than $200 ($31.36 million divided by 17,182 = $152)?

Medium-term financial assistance less than $250?

Similarly, $24.34 million was disbursed to 8,774 households on medium-term assistance – with only 5,520 households remaining as at 31 March  2014.

So, does it mean that the average monthly medium-term financial assistance was less than $250 ($24.34 million divided by 8,774 = $231)?

Please tell us more

Why can’t the ComCare annual report just disclose the average amount of monthly financial assistance per household?

Bottom 20% households spend more than what they earn?

Is the bottom 20% of households still spending more than what they earn, according to the last Department of Statistics’ Household Expenditure Survey?

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.