Is setting a poverty line all it takes to alleviate poverty in Singapore?

By October 31, 2016Current

TL;DR – There ain’t no quick fixes nor magic potion to eradicate poverty.

Screenshot from Facebook

Screenshot from Facebook

There was this article by The Independent – Singapore (TISG) published on 29 Oct 2016 claiming that there are 105,000 households in Singapore that “get little food”. It then reminded Singaporeans that Minister Chan Chun Sing was against the idea of setting a poverty line. And oh, it also brought up how Hong Kong was bold enough to set up a Commission on Poverty to define poverty line.

The article cited some study by the Centre for Culture-centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) and Bain & Company which apparently found that 105,000 families “get little food”. We tried to find the actual study the article cited from. We couldn’t find it.

We did, however, find this, a study by CARE titled:

Singaporeans left behind: A culture-centred study of the poverty experience in Singapore

via CARE

via CARE

In that study, this particular line stood out for us:

“In Singapore, the neighbourhood ecosystem of relatively cheap hawker food, supermarkets, wet markets, and food service providers for the needy has managed to safeguard the low-income from suffering from hunger or starvation, which is very rare.”

Yup, the quote above is from the very same centre that supposedly did the study that TISG headlined as saying that 105,000 households “get little food”.

We wonder at the thinking process involved to take the original quote and turn it into the eventual headline by TISG. It seems to us that someone must have misread or misinterpreted the study results.

What did the CARE study say?

What CARE found was that low-income families in Singapore faced food insecurity. Which is VERY different from getting little food. CARE defined food insecurity as the following:

  • when a family/individual consumes cheap but innutritious foods such as instant noodles or canned food in order to stretch their dollar
  • when a family/ individual cuts down on the number of hot meals a day in order to save money
  • when a family/individual experiences anxiety worrying about whether they will have enough food
  • when an individual with a chronic illness has to make a difficult choice between spending their limited resources on ‘healthier’ food versus paying for everyday expenses
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Surely and clearly, CARE’s definition of “food security” is not a straightforward lack of food or “very little food”.

What about the poverty line?

Then the article went on insinuate that the lack of food security that these 105,000 families face is a result of Minister Chan’s reluctance to define a poverty line. The article then talked about how Hong Kong has defined a poverty line and that:

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has taken a bold step to go ahead to set up a Commission on Poverty so as to help define poverty line in Hong Kong…. (omitted) Since then, the Hong Kong government has addressed the poverty situation in its territory seriously, announcing a series of initiatives to alleviate poverty.”

Alright. Let’s see if Hong Kong has indeed addressed the poverty situation. Hong Kong had defined a poverty line in 2013. If TISG’s claim that setting a poverty line is the answer to solve the poverty problem is correct, then we should see that Hong Kong would have gone a long way in alleviating poverty, right?

But the number of Hongkongers living in poverty (as defined by Hong Kong’s poverty line) has surged to a six-year high in 2016.

via South China Morning Post

via South China Morning Post

How bad is the situation in Hong Kong?

So bad that veteran social worker Ho Hei-wah, the director of the Society for Community Organisation said that the Hong Kong government has “definitely failed” in battling poverty.

And, despite defining a poverty line, Hong Kong still has a high proportion of people who are homeless and suffering from food insecurity, where one in three seniors struggle to meet their basic nutritional needs, and 300,000 children do not get three meals a day.

Image from

Image from

A quick search online yielded article after article about how despite having defined a poverty line in Hong Kong, the situation has not eased.

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You can read the full report here.

via South China Morning Post

via South China Morning Post

Singapore’s Kuih Lapis Approach

So does defining a poverty line do anything to actually alleviate poverty? It appears that it has not, and does not. If that’s the case, then why should we harp on defining a poverty line as if that’s all that’s needed to alleviate poverty in Singapore? Isn’t it more important that we do have a whole suite of concrete measures to tackle challenges that low income families face?

And we do have a whole suite of concrete measures. This suite of measures doesn’t just help low income families, but all Singaporeans, in different ways, to different extents. This is the “kuih lapis” approach.

Image from

Image from

Why did Singapore take this approach? Because, according to Minister Chan (who was then Minister of Social and Family Development), a single definition of poverty such as a poverty line based on a fraction of median income may create more problems than it solves. And hence the kuih lapis approach.

Here, Minister Chan explains it in greater detail:

Yes. Singapore’s system isn’t perfect. Yes. We can do more to reach out to low income families to ensure that those who need help receive help. Yes. We can still improve. Especially in helping low income families coordinate the different lines of assistance to maximise the benefits. But just having a poverty line alone does very little to actually alleviating poverty in Singapore.

The reality is this:

There is no one perfect solution to solve poverty, there are pros and cons in the many different ways each country chooses to tackle the poverty problem and to overcome widening rich-poor divide. While we are dissatisfied with our policies, chances are the citizens of other countries too are unhappy with theirs.

If welfarism, nordic models, drawing a poverty line or whatever else you can think of will solve the poverty problem, then everyone would have done it and we would not have any poor countries or poor people in the world.

via Channelnewsasia

via Channelnewsasia

If the government has decided that the kuih lapis method is what it wants to adopt, then we ask that it be mindful of the cons and proactively reach out to help those who may have fallen through the cracks. Otherwise, if we just blindly follow others and draw up a poverty line, we could jolly well just be shifting the argument to how to draw the poverty line.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Hewlett says:

    Hi CRC, thanks for this post. I notice a number of typos here and there. I like that your article helps guide readers to unpack a complex report (and dispel some skewed reporting), but I think that the typos may hurt your credibility. Would be helpful if you got someone else to proofread and correct typo/grammar/other errors.

    • CRC says:

      Hi Hewlett! Thanks for your comment. We have corrected (hopefully all) the typos. It’s heartening to know that there are people like you who appreciate what we do. We’ll strive to keep writing posts that meaningfully contribute to the discourse on various issues. We hope that more people like you will stay engaged. Once again, thanks!