Tackling poverty the 'kuih lapis' way

A multi-layered approach tailored to the diverse needs of poor families can lift them from their 'dark valleys'

Blue, green and red pen markers in hand, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing drew up a chart on a big sheet of paper, like an economics professor explaining a concept to his class.

He had called for the interview at the office of his ministry last Friday in the hope of resolving once and for all a contentious debate over how best to help the needy.

First, he makes it clear, any measure - be it the Gini co-efficient that tracks income inequality, or an absolute or relative poverty line to measure the number of poor - has its flaws or quirks and can give a very false picture of the situation in a country. So approach with caution.


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Kuih lapis or kuih talam?

The ST report ended this way: He says that it is not an indictment on anybody that Singapore has poor people – every society has them. (Agree. It’s not an indictment on the G either if that’s what he is worried about.)

“But the circumstances don’t define us. Our responses to the circumstances define us. That’s the message we want to give. So I hope people don’t ask, ‘Are you hiding (poverty), do you not dare to define it?’ No, what’s there to hide? You want to know, I will tell you everything.”

Very well, minister. There are some questions above. And this last one: Can we have both the kuih lapis – and the kuih talam?

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Our Kueh lapis way of tackling poverty woes

Dead poor, or just Poor?

By ‘dead poor’ our PM probably refers to the invisible ‘homeless’ on the streets, a population which was supposedly ‘eradicated’ according to Kishore Mabubhani in 2001. However, he needs to be more explicit on what it means to be ‘unsheltered’. If you define ‘unsheltered’ as not having a roof over your head, which ‘layer’ does a family of 4 who lives in a VAN in East Coast Park fall under?

To be fair, it’s hard to fix an income threshold for the needy, given that the sole breadwinner living in his company vehicle earns $2,100 a month, more than some bus drivers. Compare this to celebrity Darren Lim who makes a three-room Lagoon 400S2 catamaran his home. Both have a ‘roof over their heads’ , but clearly one family, due to unforseen circumstances, is at the bottom layer of the kueh lapis model.

Is a family who can’t afford a HDB flat that they have to make do in the back of a van ‘dead poor’? Even if you did have a roof over your head, what if had to put up with 10 kids in a room? Or sleep on a discarded sofa in the corridor? How about wandering about parks and beaches living in tents? Maybe the ‘dead poor’ is an apt definition of the destitute after all, because they’re practically ghosts in the eyes of a government that prides itself in looking after every Singaporean very well.

Don’t need poverty line: “Kueh lapis”

Very sad” education statistics? - To illustrate the failings of our “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, I would like to highlight some statistics on education.

I have chosen the education statistics to hone in my contention, because in a sense, the problems of inadequate financial assistance in education for needy children  are arguably not as visible in our daily lives. In contrast, for example, for healthcare – we can see people who can’t pay for healthcare; for homelessness – we can see the homeless, the homeless shelters; for poverty – we can see old people selling tissue papers, picking up empty drink cans, cardboard boxes; etc

1)Independent schools? - Why is it that the percentage of students on subsidies in the independent schools was only about 7.8 per cent of the estimated total student population in the independent schools (2,700 divided by 34,769)

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Multiple Lines of Assistance

Looks good, so many lines of assistance. By the way, I can't find a line for public transport. I am interested because Lui Tuck Yew rued that only half of the transport vouchers were given away. I think it is across lines.

What most of us endeavor to do is not to use any of them. This is the best way to make sure we have enough for those who really needs them. However all of us get the long red line which is the most costly. It wouldn't make sense unless all the layers above also get to enjoy everything that is offered at the base. This is where we must focus our worries on. It is the place that trapped the poor in place no matter how you try to help them.

At the end of the day a poverty marker using income is only useful if the government would use it. This government is unwilling and I think the issue at its core is getting people out of the vicious cycle of poverty and preventing the at risk from falling into it. What matters is results. Everything else are means.


Poverty is a significant problem in Singapore: senior citizens scrounging for cardboard and aluminum cans to sell to recyclers, cleaners sleeping in public to save on transport costs, and even outright homelessness. Amid the futuristic weaves of The Interlace and the iconically quirky design of the Marina Bay Sands, the prevalence of such overt poverty is shocking.

In this article, I hope to articulate the need for a coherent response to poverty and show, by way of example, that such a response is indeed possible.

What gets measured gets managed? Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing is right that no single poverty line should be drawn; that we should not introduce policy that includes a "cliff effect”. However, Chan's argument that poverty should not be administratively recognized on the basis of the deep flaws of a policy straw man is fundamentally unsound.

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Tackling poverty is everybody’s problem

POVERTY exists in Singapore. But poverty exists in every country. So the fact that it occurs here is not particularly surprising. What would be of concern is if the incidence of poverty was prevalent, or if it was worsening, either in numbers or in depth

The problem is that we do not really know. This is because there is no clear definition of poverty in Singapore

By some monetary measures, we ought to be worried. The bottom 20 per cent of wage earners saw their real wages fall by 8 per cent between 1998 and 2010, while the top 20 per cent of earners saw their real wages rise by 27 per cent. Some academics have put the percentage of Singaporean households living below the basic household income of $1,500 at more than 10 per cent, or 110,000 households

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The Case For A Singapore Poverty Line

Minister Chan Chun Sing prefers to use a "kueh lapis" approach to deal with poverty in Singapore

There has been prominent discussion lately pertaining to whether or not Singapore should have a poverty line set in place. Our government has suggested that a “kueh lapis” approach is preferred and more relevant than an actual poverty line in place.

This is surprising considering that a poverty line, if ever set in place, is a tool useful to measure the level of income adequate for living in a given country. It is particularly more useful for developed nations such as Singapore, whereby the international standard of $1.90 is no longer relevant for us.

For the government to dismiss it as irrelevant is…unexpected.

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Looking Out For Themselves

Politicians should stop using food analogies to explain policy making. There was the mee-siam-mai-hum debacle, and there was the $10 chye tow kway gaffe. Even Lee Kuan Yew tripped over the extra egg that goes with his hawker meal portion because, well, he thinks he deserves it.

Using "kueh lapis" to dismiss an official poverty line with their "multi-layer help" approach is flawed at the start. Anybody who has seen a sample of the sweet dessert will recognise the many rainbow colored lines, the result of compositing thin layers of butter, eggs and sugar, each laid down alternately and then grilled separately. None are so blind as those who do not see.

Lee Hsien Loong says a poverty line like the World Bank's measure of $1.50 a day is irrelevant since there are no "dead poor" in Singapore, which he defines as those who are starving and unsheltered. By his Cambridge Senior Wrangler (students who gain first-class degrees in mathematics) logic, those living in public housing but can afford only one meal a day are not poor. That must be why Lily Neo had a hard time asking for more money for the poor from Vivian Balakrishnan, and was rebuffed with the wicked hawker center, food court or restaurant line

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Don’t need poverty line: so many needy students not helped?

I refer to the article “PM: We don’t need poverty line to help the poor” (Sunday Times, Nov 17).

Don’t need poverty line? It states that “Singapore is past the point where a poverty line is useful, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday, as its groups of needy now take shifting and multi-faceted form.

“Kueh lapis” approach to social assistance? Hence, the Government’s “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, he said, summoning a metaphor that Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing used to describe the multi-layered help it provides to those in need.”

“Very sad” education statistics? To illustrate the failings of our “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, I would like to highlight some statistics on education.

What does PM Lee plan to do with the New Poor in SG?

What does PM Lee plan to do now that he admits to the existence of poverty in kueh lapis layers?

There are a few things not quite right with PM Lee’s case that “Singapore is past the point of where the poverty line would be useful”. He pointed out that Singapore has moved beyond “extreme poverty” because Singaporeans are living with not less than $1.90 a day – the United Nation’s benchmark for extreme poverty.

If one is to reverse the comparison and compare his wages against the salary paid to politicians across the world, one cannot help but conclude that he is on the other end of the spectrum with extreme wealth.

Now, for one with extreme wealth to give definition to another to define him as not poor based on a subsistence level of $1.90 is truly something. Anyone who can bring himself to such a conclusion must either be a hypocrite or someone devoid of a charitable heart.

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PAP leaders fail miserably using food analogies to talk

In the year 2005, PM Lee in his National Day Rally speech, showed two video clips “Tao Gay Not Enough”, and “Tao Gay Never Enough” (http://bit.ly/Ibqw4j), to make a point. Did it resonate with the people? One commenter responding to PM Lee’s speech then said:

“Frankly speaking, the clips…were rather boring, and they ain’t as funny as to excite even a twitch on my face. Till now, I am still mystified as to why the people in the audience guffawed. The airconditioning must be pumping in laughing gas the whole time. That probably explains why PM Lee laughed so much, albeit alone, during his speech. Wonder if the PM’s aides adviced him that while jokes are good to have in a speech, the jokes must, first and foremost, be FUNNY!!!…They should have chosen a Rojak stall setting with peanuts as part of the title. The clip should be titled “Peanuts Not Enough”.I would definitely ask for an extra helping of peanuts on my rojak. Guess the government is out of them this year. So, they only have tou gay.” (http://bit.ly/18hhy02)

Then in the 2006 Rally, possibly in response to mrbrown‘s Bak Chor Mee Man podcast (http://bit.ly/1d9jUC3), Mr Lee said, “You put out a funny podcast, you talk about bak chor mee. I will say mee siam mai harm. Then we compete. Then what will I do? I will hire Jack Neo to be my National Day Rally adviser. It’ll be a fun time, we will enjoy thoroughly, go home totally entertained.” (http://bit.ly/1injNCO)

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Mind your slip, ministers

If metaphor, analogy and turn of phrase sound tricky and you try and steer clear, you are not alone. But not our politicians, who are in the habit of using figures of speech and unusual lingo to make a point. The problem is, they are often off the mark and end up achieving effects which are totally unintended.

This past week, both PM Lee Hsien Loong and Chan Chun Sing have used “kueh lapis” (cake of Indonesian origin) as a metaphor to refer to multi-layered help for the poor. This has prompted netizens to retort that even a poor man does not live on kueh alone, and that the government is trying to have its cake and eat it – addressing poverty without defining a poverty line.

Both men have been at it before. At a National Day rally speech, PM Lee tried to show connection with heartlanders by giving the example of ordering “mee siam mai hum” (mee siam without cockles). Except that in the first place, there are no cockles in mee siam and he not only failed to make his point but drew flak for messing up his order (which should have been either for laksa or char kway teow).

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Different layers of aid for S'poreans, based on needs: Shanmugam
Mr Shanmugam, who is also an MP for Nee Soon GRC, said: "We look at needs; we do have an income threshold - $500 per capita (for this programme).

"For other types of assistance, we look at a much higher per capita.

"Many events, like this (event), take place every weekend all over Singapore. We are helping people on the ground and it is not defined by a single line."

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Government 'will look out for asset-rich, cash-poor' older Singaporeans

The Government's move towards a more progressive tax system will help address the concerns of asset-rich, cash-poor older Singaporeans, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday

In designing its tax system, the Government is "very mindful of this particular group of sandwiched Singaporeans", he said in response to concerns raised by residents of Joo Chiat in a dialogue

For instance, it has moved away from using Housing Board flat type as the qualifying criteria for Budget surplus sharing schemes, he said.

These schemes now use the annual value of property, which Mr Wong said is a "fairer system" because owners of lower-end private property can also benefit.

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Govt rejects poverty line, says prosperity line better for social objective
Chan Chun Sing
“Who will go after tampon throwers if we focus on the poor?”

The government was today baffled by calls from social workers and experts to define an official poverty line, when the problem had been declared extinct a good twelve years ago.

It was in 2001 when former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani proudly told the world: “There are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore. Poverty has been eradicated.”

With such a bold proclamation coming from a respected thought leader and current Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, government officials have since operated on the premise that poor people exist only in third world countries.

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Assistance schemes for needy
'Range of aid for needy, flexible rules' Chan Chun Sing assures MPs worried about S'poreans missing out

SINGAPORE has many helplines for people with differing needs, and the rules are flexible when they do not meet the qualifying criteria but are genuinely in need, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in Parliament yesterday.

This assurance from Mr Chan came amid renewed calls for Singapore to identify an official poverty line after Hong Kong set one in September. Some MPs had argued it would focus on the state of poverty here and track how it is addressed.

But Mr Chan had rejected their argument at last month's parliamentary session. He said it risks a "cliff effect", where those below the poverty line get all forms of help while citizens who are genuinely in need but outside the poverty line are excluded.

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387,187 IN POVERTY?

I refer to the article “Median household income rose to $7,870 last year, inequality down” (Straits Times, Feb 18).

Real median household income rose 1.6% - It states that “Median household income rose to $7,870 last year, 4 per cent up from 2012, according to a Department of Statistics releaseon Tuesday. After accounting for inflation, the rise was 1.6 per cent from 2012.” According to the Key Household Income Trends 2013 report released today – the Median Household Income from Work Per Household Member only increased in real terms by 1.9% per annum, from 2008 to 2013, lower than the 3.2% per annum from 2003 to 2008.

Income per household member of the 3 lowest deciles? - Average Monthly Household Income from Work Per Household Member Among Resident Employed Households by Deciles – 1st to 10th, 11th to 20th and 21st to 3oth deciles were only $463, $896 and $1,268, respectively last year.

How do Singapore's poor families get by?

Nurhaida, 29, who is unemployed with six children in Singapore, says it is difficult to make ends meet

Nurhaida Binte Jantan is making dinner. She is roasting otah-otah, a Malay dish of fish paste wrapped in banana leaves, over a portable stove.
She is a 29-year-old unemployed single mother with six children from five to 13 years old. She lives in a tiny flat, just 30 square metres, with little furnishing.
There is no dining table, so the children eat their otah-otah with rice and chillies crouched on the floor.


A lot has been said about helping the poor in Singapore, and while it’s heartening to see the leadership coming out to encourage people to help the less fortunate, I’m actually skeptical that such appeals to the general public would hold any clout and actually make life better for the poor.

For one, Singaporeans are not known for their spirit of volunteerism. I’m not saying we’re a nation of heartless and inhumane citizens, but let’s do a reality check: how many people actually come forward to volunteer their time and effort on a sustained basis for the benefit of the destitute in Singapore? Most people would probably think it’s a lot easier to simply donate money, and then get on with their lives.

That is if they bother with donations in the first place. I always believed that in addressing poverty issues, one has to take a very realistic approach, instead of the conventional way that seeks to tug at heartstrings– at the end of the day, what the destitute and underprivileged need are not your emphaties (or is it really sympathies?), but rather real solutions that provide for a roof over their heads and putting food on the table.

Poverty in Singapore

There are various categories of being poor in Singapore. (No official line yet, but some are calling for an official poverty line to be defined [t1])

Some could be the old and frail – these are the elderly living on their own, either with no children or children who have abandoned them. They have no means to work and more so if they are sick, they may not be mobile and hence are dependent on others.

We could also have parents not earning enough to make ends meet – partly because they have quite a number of children, in addition to elderly parents so they are the sandwiched generation.

Singapore: Best Place to Live and Work
Plight Of The Tissue Peddlers
Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?
Singapore’s Story: What comes next
Singapore at 50: From swamp to skyscrapers
Singapore Good Old Times
The Poor & Homeless in Singapore
Support for the Needy and Elderly
The Singapore Story
Other Side of The Singapore Story

ChasingThe Singapore Dream
To Be Or Not To Be Singaporeans
Longing for the good old days
Singapore: A Sampan or a Cruise ship?
Singapore at 50: From swamp to skyscrapers
Singapore is ‘World’s Costliest City To Live In’
Coping with Inflation & Cost Of Living
COL goes Up, Up, Up!
Singapore “Swiss” Standard of Living
Tackling poverty the 'kuih lapis' way
Callings for a Poverty Line
Setting a poverty line may not be helpful
A minimum wage for Singapore?

No homeless,destitute starving people in S'pore:Poverty has been eradicated
Growing Up With Less