Park Royal Hotel along Pickering Street in Singapore is nothing short of spectacular. Lush greenery lines the undulating planes of its facade, mimicking the vibrant green of paddy fields that are common sights in the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours. The building has won numerous architectural and design accolades, and been featured as a location in the Hollywood film Hitman: Agent 47.
But walk a few paces past this impressive glass facade, deeper into the heart of Chinatown, and the surroundings start looking a little different.
Pieces of paper are strewn carelessly on the ground; there’s a seemingly impenetrable layer of grime. Here, the buildings are older, tinted yellow from long exposure to the elements. Come nightfall, men and women, carrying their possessions in backpacks or plastic bags, will discreetly unfurl blankets and newspapers on street corners or stone benches to get some rest for the night.
Not just home to millionaires
It’s easy to miss signs of poverty in Singapore. The city-state is frequently touted as one of Asia’s runaway success stories, catapulting from “Third World to First” in a matter of several decades.
There are accounts of luxury apartments that fetch an eye-watering SGD100 million (USD72.8 million). The market for luxury goods in the country, including watches, handbags and cars, has almost doubled from USD2.2 billion to USD4.3 billion in the last eight years. Singapore has one of the highest densities of millionaires worldwide, with 100 millionaires per 1000 households, coming in only behind Qatar and Switzerland.
Portrayals of Singapore in popular culture often feed into this narrative of affluence and abundance, with the most recent manifestation being that of Hollywood rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. But such depictions are far removed from the realities that Singapore’s urban poor face everyday.
As of August 2018, about 50,000 Singaporean households live in public rental flats, where rental costs are heavily subsidised by the government for families with no other housing options. But there are others who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have a roof over their heads, and government officials have been historically reluctant to acknowledge the existence of homelessness in the utopia that this country is meant to be.
“There are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore,” wrote former Singapore ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani in 2001. “Poverty has been eradicated, not through an entitlements programme (there are virtually none) but through a unique partnership between the government, corporate citizens, self-help groups and voluntary initiatives.”
That narrative has been slowly changing to reflect a growing recognition of inequality in the city-state, but official statistics on the homeless are still difficult to come by, making it challenging to fully grasp the scale and depth of the issue. The government has also refused to set an official poverty line, arguing that it would not fully reflect the complexity of the issue.
What’s known, however, is that the Ministry for Social and Family Development (MSF) saw an average of 300 cases of homelessness annually between 2005 to 2015. In addition, a point-in-time study undertaken in 2017 by assistant professor Dr Ng Kok Hoe at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and group of social workers known as SW101 found 180 people sleeping on the streets around the country in a single night—a figure that took many by surprise.
Homelessness in Singapore
When we think of homelessness, we tend to think of people who have no legal residence. But the social workers’ study made a surprising discovery: 26% of respondents found sleeping on the streets actually had legal residences to their name. In other words, defining homelessness is not always a question of lack of housing.
“Some want to be on the streets because they like the freedom—they don’t like the restrictions a shelter will place on them, while others are there because of the circumstances,” says Ravi Philemon, a community worker who has been working social issues for over 25 years. The “circumstances” he refers to can vary, ranging from divorce, mental health issues, financial debt to domestic abuse. “It’s a wide spectrum; you can’t narrow them down into specific slots and [say] that this is the reason why these people are homeless.”
“We’ve got to understand that different groups of people need different approaches,” says Abraham Yeoh, founder of Homeless Hearts, an organisation that works to strike up and sustain relationships with the displaced. “A one-size-fits-all approach cannot fit.”
Researchers and social workers found 180 people sleeping on the streets around the country in a single night
MSF says it has three different types of shelters to meet these various needs. There are welfare homes for the destitute, meaning those who are elderly, unable to work or care for themselves, and have no relatives to depend on. For victims of family violence—who often tend to be women and children—the ministry funds crisis shelters to provide them with temporary accommodation. Lastly, transitional shelters exist for individuals and families who have exhausted all other means of accommodation; they’re intended to provide temporary accommodation while addressing the individual or family’s social issues and working towards long-term housing arrangements.
But some say that the wait to gain admission into transitional shelters can range from weeks to months, with few options in the meantime.
The working poor
It’s an experience that’s familiar to Liyana Dhamirah, who once lived in a tent by the beach for four months, alongside her then-husband and two young sons, after being thrown out of the house by her ex-mother-in-law.
“The case worker would always come back to us saying that you’re not the only family who applied to be in the shelter; there’s a long waiting list,” she tells New Naratif, even though she was four months pregnant with her third child at the time. No mention was made of how long the wait would be.
Getting a subsidised rental flat—leased straight from the government at a far cheaper rate than open market rentals—can take even longer.
There are also issues with ideology: the Singapore system is deeply averse to the idea of breeding entitlement or laziness. In keeping with Singapore’s oft-proclaimed adherence to meritocracy, the government is keen to emphasise self-reliance rather than the establishment of a welfare state. Social workers often advise those who are unemployed to look for work; in fact, financial assistance schemes are sometimes contingent upon one being employed. It comes across as sensible advice, but may not take into account the obstacles and barriers faced by a person who’s homeless.
In keeping with Singapore’s oft-proclaimed adherence to meritocracy, the government is keen to emphasise self-reliance rather than the establishment of a welfare state
For one, they may lack the most fundamental tools necessary for a job search today: a functional computer and a stable WiFi connection. The nomadic life of the homeless also means that important documents—such as birth certificates, educational credentials or paperwork related to one’s employment history—often become misplaced or lost while shifting from place to place.
The suggestion also falls apart when it fails to consider people who suffer from mental health conditions or chronic physical ailments that make it difficult to hold down jobs, or severely limits the type of work one can apply for.
The process of asking for help—regardless of whether one is homeless, or living in a public rental flat—from the government can sometimes be a humiliating experience. Teo You Yenn, Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, writes that one has to prove deservedness in order to qualify for public assistance programs.
But in Singapore, deservedness is often judged according to one’s willingness and ability to be employed—a process that “therefore involves a strong assumption of individual failure,” she writes.
Liyana reports a similar experience, having been told repeatedly by various agencies she approached for help that she should keep trying to find a job, despite being heavily pregnant at the time.
“For someone who is stressed, or depressed, they could just easily give up and say I don’t want to do this anymore because it is demoralising to keep going there and keep repeating the same story over and over again,” she says.
It’s also a misconception that people are poor or homeless in Singapore because they don’t have work. SW101’s study showed that 60% of the homeless people they’d come across were in fact working. 58% of them were working full-time, while 38% were in casual employment.
“They are able-bodied, and they are actually holding down jobs—just not very rewarding jobs. The low wages are a reminder of the work issues that a particular segment of the population faces,” Dr Ng told The Straits Times in October 2017.
In October 2018, Oxfam and Development Finance International released their latest Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, which highlighted the lack of a minimum wage in Singapore as one of its reasons for ranking the city-state 149th out of 157 countries in tackling inequality.
“They are able-bodied, and they are actually holding down jobs—just not very rewarding jobs”
For some, the precarity of their employment meant that they were willing to sleep in public places close to their jobs, to eliminate any risk of tardiness and consequently losing an already meagre means of subsistence.
“Many people perceive homeless people as lazy, unemployed and relying [on] financial assistance,” says Tan Yi Shin, a social worker at Marine Parade Family Service Centre. “However, most of the homeless people do not fit into these stereotypes.”
Some of the homeless are also caught in a situation where no valid housing options are available. Renting a single HDB room on the open market can cost between SGD600-1200 (USD437–873), placing it firmly out of their financial reach. At the same time, they may not qualify for a public rental unit if the amount they earn exceeds the household income cap of SGD1,500 (USD1,092).
“A double-edged sword”
Liyana is now in a much better situation, but still recalls the time she spent camped out by the beach. It was an exposed, vulnerable life, where even keeping personal belongings secure required constant, exhausting vigilance.
“Anyone could get access to [our belongings]—it was in a public park. We had a lot of our things go [missing] from there,” she recalls.
Social workers are familiar with such difficulties. Tan says that weather changes, the lack of a proper resting place and long-term exposure to the environment may aggravate existing health issues. Getting sick then becomes another challenge; Yeoh points out that it can become a big problem even if one has subsidised healthcare, as making a trip to the nearest public health clinic could involve hauling all of one’s possessions on foot in Singapore’s tropical heat.
Liyana says that sometimes the homeless avoid approaching the government for help as they fear it might attract reprisals from the authorities. She recalls seeing officers from the National Parks Board conducting spot-checks and issuing fines to homeless families who have overstayed the seven-day permit issued to campers.
“We fear more the drawing of the attention getting us into trouble than the drawing of attention to get help,“ she says. “It’s like a double-edged sword.”
Reframing the discussion
While the causes underpinning homelessness are complex and varied, community workers say that conditions of poverty arising from economic inequality are inextricably linked to the issue overall.
“There are people who are… on the brink, or just one paycheque away from being homeless,” says Yeoh. “What can be done for them so that they don’t fall into that situation?”
Over the last five years, MSF has expanded the assistance net to aid more low-income families, increasing the number from 20,500 families in 2012 to 30,000 families in 2015.
But experts and community workers posit that such an approach is more reactive than preventative, providing stopgap solutions but failing to address deeper conditions of economic inequality.
Teo writes that even though “social service programmes try to supplement inadequate cash flow by giving vouchers for utilities or food”, they fail to address the issues of “endemic low wages made possible by the exploitation of foreign and local workers.”
Philemon also says that the valorisation of self-reliance that the government has held up as a cornerstone of social policy means that being poor or homeless carries a stigma that can make it difficult for people to come forward and ask for help.
“It’s a very exacting society, because of the values from school [and] our families,” Philemon says. “So it’s easy to point the finger at them and say that you failed because of you.”