George Yeo reminds politicians about poverty and responsibility in a post labelled “To read before 11 Sep”

On the 7th of September, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo posted a link to this article, with the note “To read before 11 Sep”.

In the article, Pope Francis is quoted as saying:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! Politicians who look after the vulnerable: the hungry, the unemployed, the homeless, immigrants, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly left alone and abandoned, children who are still in their mother’s bellies. All those who are exploited and those whom today’s throwaway society has turned into waste, “leftovers”, because in today’s “economy which kills”, “people are less important than the things that give profit to those who have political, social, economic power.

What exactly may Mr. Yeo be thinking about? Maybe he’s thinking about the roughly 387,000 people who live at or below S$5 a day for food and transport (source). Or perhaps he’s troubled by the cardboard collectors we’re all a little bit too familiar with. Personally, I keep on thinking about the elderly toilet cleaners I see in our MRTs and shopping malls. I always am embarrassed by the fact that young people like me live in a society that forces such old people to clean our piss and shit.

Regardless of his private thoughts, it is a timely reminder by the former Minister. Not only is there a political need to deal with poverty, we have the moral and spiritual need to do so. We keep on hearing that Singapore is free from corruption, and on some level, this is true — there are very few cases of bribery that see the light of day. However, the Pope points to a different kind of corruption — a spiritual kind. As he notes in the article:

the corrupt are those whose hearts have hardened to the extent that they no longer hear the voice of God and are blind to people’s needs, showing an interest only in their own affairs and the affairs of their party.

Whoever gets into Parliament, I hope they heed George Yeo’s reminder. Thankfully, this isn’t idealism that only looks good on paper. Singapore can do what the Pope and our former Minister recommend — the numbers have been crunched.

Singapore’s Community Chest reveals the gut-wrenching price of poverty in 4 minute video

GP tutors may talk about inequality till their mouths run dry, but there is nothing like grounding it in a local context that really drives home what it is like to be poor. If you let a few tears fall in response to the video, take heart; you’re not depressed, it’s just your body responding to the complex mix of extreme emotions you were probably feeling. (Google “why we cry when we are happy”, if you’re curious about this phenomenon.)

The video raises so many questions. Why can’t this family afford a S$28.90 treat? Where are the children’s parents? Why has the older man lost the financial means to buy a cake? Why are we living in a society that forces some members to forgo cake?

The problem of poverty is a complex one; speak to any social worker and you will learn that poverty in Singapore is never simple. Sometimes there are gambling debts; sometimes there is addiction; sometimes there is a toxic culture in the family; sometimes there are medical problems. The family in the video is a kind of “ideal” family when it comes to poverty. They speak English, seem well-educated enough, seem to share the values of mainstream society and seem open to receiving help. It would be relatively easy to make sure that the children get the nurturing they need (education, nutrition, proper shelter, some level of mental health care) that will enable them to escape a poverty trap. In the real world, however, things aren’t so simple.

The two Chinese males clad in business casual are symbols of economic productivity in our culture. (Hmm..) We look at them and think, “Ah, those must be working men, they surely will be able to afford cake.” The video cleverly throws this into question — the old man, presumably having spent a productive life working, is now wheelchair-bound and at the mercy of the mechanisms of poverty. The choice of the filmmakers to put him in the wheelchair suggests that the family’s financial situation is due to some kind of medical crisis in their past, and it also should make us wonder: will that be the fate of the younger working man as he ages?

The sad fact is that this video isn’t unrealistic. We know that people can fall into poverty for any number of reasons, including the fact that we are all subject to economic cycles (booms and recessions) that can often render whole swathes of society un- or under-employed. Moreover, even if someone works diligently through his/her productive years, sometimes s/he can be left with insufficient funds for retirement in life’s final stages. This needs to change. When a family can’t afford a cake, guess what else they’re probably skimping on? It is possible that they are trying to save money by not visiting the doctor even when they need to, by avoiding house repairs, or by buying cheap but unhealthy food — strategies that will not only impact the children’s health and safety, but also their long-term development, behaviour, and performance in school.

The instances of generosity in the video are uplifting and terribly heartwarming to witness, but a cake is only a poor plaster over a gaping, festering wound. Yes, we need to be much more generous, and we also need to ask if we can accept a society that is structured in a way that creates this level of poverty. We may have to jettison neoclassical economics and its ill-advised focus on productivity, and go through a complete examination of our society’s conscience — tasks that will not be achieved only at the voting booth.

Still, the video carries an important lesson for us all: a simple act of caring creates an endless ripple. Let them eat cake.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money. It is because parents have such intense fears of their children getting low grades that the tuition industry is so massive now.

The problem starts with the fact that social and income inequality is bad in Singapore. No parent wants their child to be so low on the income ladder that they become one of the beachfront homeless here, or to have to be overworked at a dead-end job just to make ends meet. This problem is compounded by the fact that the education system here tends to favour those who are able to spend more money on their children.

I need to think long and hard about setting my soul right by doing something more than what I already am (<singlish> but eh, free essays and tips for everyone already la, rich or poor also can get </singlish>).


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