Looking to 2020: Tackling poverty and inequality in Singapore

Singapore needs to ensure the needs of all its members are met, including financially vulnerable persons engaged in low-wage work

| By Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser |

Singapore is known as an affluent society or, at the very least, a middle class society. It has a vibrant, adaptive knowledge-based economy which produces much opportunities for employment and social mobility. It has enabled most Singaporeans to enjoy a significantly high standard of living, including quality housing, healthcare and education. 

The disadvantaged and challenged

However, as in most societies, there would be those who for reasons of disadvantaged family background, poor health condition, physical or mental challenges, or misfortunes are unable or less able to access available opportunities leading to better paying jobs and a decent quality of life. Clearly, without a leg-up from the state, community, and fellow Singaporeans, the multiple disadvantages they experience would likely perpetuate their poor material condition, as well as produce a strong sense of hopelessness about their own future and that of their dependents.

What then should we as a nation and people do to prevent them from being entrenched in poverty and, better still, help them to rise up above their circumstances to become thriving members of our community? The answer seems clear, or is it? 

Are some more deserving of help than others?

But some among us may argue that the poor have only themselves to blame, because they are lazy, they are irresponsible, they have too many children they could ill-afford, they take drugs, they commit crimes, or they generally make bad choices. The implication here is that there are those who are deserving of help, and those who aren’t. 

This begs a further question: Do people become poor because of bad decisions, or poor people make bad decisions? Simply put, is poverty the cause of bad decisions, or are bad decisions the cause of poverty? The two opposing views here suggest that either the poor are not to be blamed for the condition they are in or they are to be blamed.

Membership in a nation: Not about being deserving

I don’t think we can ever settle this issue convincingly. And if we take too long, we may condemn some of the truly deserving and their children to remain trapped in poverty. A more socially just position to adopt is that the poor in our midst are fellow members of our nation. They are part of “us”; and should not be seen as “them”. 

A nation is a community or a large family. It is not a market where the ability to pay determines whether individuals and families can meet their basic needs or access a decent quality of life. A family is expected to take care of its own. 

In our context, it could be understood as pockets of socialism operating within a capitalist market system. In a family, the operating principle parallels that of the Marxist maxim: from each according to his ability, and to each according to his needs. In other words, while there would be social sanction that requires members to play their part in contributing to the family, the support they receive does not hinge on their actual contribution, which may or may not be much, but on their needs. 

Welfare-cum-workfare system

This suggests that a nation’s welfare system should meet members’ needs, which may vary across individuals and families, even as it nudges and equips those it supports to contribute whatever they can to the economy, which sounds like a workfare system.

My basic argument here is that if Singapore is understood as a nation, it would need to ensure that the needs of its members are met. In short, membership has its privileges, but it involves responsibilities as well. What then should our approach be in aiming to meet the needs of the more vulnerable members of our nation?

What would a good welfare model look like?

I believe all proponents of welfarism have their hearts in the right place. They have argued convincingly that in the neo-liberal capitalist economy we inhabit, there are structural and cultural factors - not within our control - that put the poor or middle class in a vulnerable position. This suggests that we need a socially responsible capitalism, one that is vibrant, innovative and productive, yet sensitive to our material welfare and psychological well-being.

Simply put, we would need a vibrant economy and progressive tax system to fund redistributive measures capable of ensuring that all members of our nation can at least meet their basic needs.

So conceptually, if basic needs can be identified and reduced to a number, say, at least $X per household, then a form of universal basic income providing that amount of funds per household would lift all poor households out of poverty. Can the solution be as simple as this? We know from the literature that there are possible unintended consequences, such as recipients’ disincentive to do paid work. Admittedly, the literature is not conclusive on the issue of unintended consequences.

What we do know is that a good welfare system should meet needs and not be too costly and complicated in terms of implementation. It should also not deal with needs in a piecemeal fashion. For it to be effective, it must address the usually multiple problems facing a needy family holistically. For instance, subsidising pre-school education, without at the same time ensuring that the family has a stable home environment conducive for learning would at best be a half measure. 

A good welfare system would also be equitable, rather than equal, in its treatment of those who need help. Some would need more help than others, some only in the short or medium term, while some may need long term assistance. There is no one size fits all. It is also essential that those in need do not have to “jump through many hoops”, filling many forms, visiting different offices in various locations, repeating the stories, and being made to feel embarrassed in order to get the help they need. 

Just as important is that the welfare system should be supported by a sustainable funding model, rather than being motivated by political expediency. 

We do have in place a fundamentally sound system in Singapore, though an imperfect one. However, I would add another requirement for a welfare system to qualify as a good one. If its objective is to ensure that the people it helps eventually graduate into self-reliant and thriving individuals or families, then its caseworkers should keep track of its graduates just to be sure that the help it provides has been effective in reducing poverty and facilitating social mobility. 

This would not turn Singapore into a classless society, but it could reduce inequality, enhance equality of opportunity, and make it more probable for even the poorest among us to do better for themselves and their families. 


About the author

Tan Ern Ser.JPG

NUS Sociology Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser is the Chairman of the Social Science and Policy Cluster at NUS Arts and Social Sciences. He is also Academic Adviser of the Social Lab at the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS. Assoc Prof Tan’s research interests include class and stratification; citizenship and national identity; and ethnic relations. A Justice of the Peace, Assoc Prof Tan also serves as a research consultant to the Housing & Development Board, and chairs its Research Advisory Panel.



Looking to 2020 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the fourth installment of the series. 

Here are the earlier commentaries in the series: