Rich Singapore resists welfare reforms
The recent recession has exposed the vulnerability of Singapore have-nots. Critics say the city-state should provide a better social safety net.
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Roobalosani says she applied for various government grants but got bogged down in demands for supporting documents and interviews. None of the promised aid came through, she complains.Skip to next paragraph
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“By the time you’ve done it all, you just want to quit. I’m genuine. Why do they want to bother asking so many questions?” she says.
Experts say Singapore’s stringent evaluation of welfare claims acts as a deterrent to all but the most dogged. Only 26,000 households currently receive benefits, up from 22,700 at the end of 2007. By contrast, more than 100,000 households – the bottom 20 percent of Singapore's income rung – earn less than $715 a month, a level that can be considered poor, says Mr. Leong. That bottom percentile has seen its income decline in real terms since 2001. Singapore has no official poverty line.
Many Singaporeans shy away from public handouts and have a strong work ethic, says Paulin Straughan, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and an unelected lawmaker. But welfare is there for those who really need it, provided they know how to access it, she says. “If you’re poor in Singapore you won’t go hungry.”
Homeless in tents on beach
Nor do the poor get shunted into slums. Public housing estates are well maintained and a point of pride for Singaporeans who visit other countries in the region with substandard housing.
But social workers say that homelessness, while still rare, is on the rise. Along Singapore’s tropical beachfront, where visitors can camp out under the stars, some tents are quietly occupied by families whose homes have been foreclosed.
“By the time they come to us, it’s already quite bad. We’re really the last resort,” says Samuel Ng, who runs a social outreach center that is partly government-funded and has helped some families living on the beach.
Critics say such hardship is unacceptable in wealthy Singapore, a city-state of 5 million, of which around one-third are foreign workers. Some challenge the government’s focus on rapid economic growth and say it should also be building a proper social security net for its citizens.
Such critical voices are rarely heard in Singapore’s media, which hews closely to the government’s line. But the debate may start to move from blogs and public-policy seminars into the mainstream as an aging society runs up against the limits of its pension system. By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be over 65, putting a strain on retirement savings among nonaffluent workers.
“When your population is young and you have a rapidly growing economy, you don’t feel the need to spend on welfare. But Singapore will age rapidly after 2010,” says Mukul Asher, a professor of public policy at the NUS.