“Chief executive Catherine Loh from the Community Foundation of Singapore, who administers charitable funds for philanthropists, would welcome more data on the demography and geographic locations of Singapore’s poorest households” (Tracking the Poor Without Using a Poverty Line, Miss Radha Basu).
More data on the poor in Singapore will not only help the government determine – more objectively – if its transfers and schemes have been effective, but also strengthen performance management and measurement of non-profits, which look to quantify their impact in communities. For at first glance the Household Expenditure Survey and the latest ComCare report show that households living in one- and two-room flats and those households in the bottom 20 per cent by income respectively are better off as compared to a decade ago. The excellent commentary by Miss Radha Basu however, having ploughed through “350 pages of [such] publicly released information” (ST, Oct. 5), reveals gaps.
She concluded that “it is possible to track the numbers and demographic profile of the poor without setting an official poverty line”. Last year in Parliament and in the media the Minister of Social and Social Development Chan Chun Sing defended the government’s stand on not having an official poverty line. A poverty line is one-dimensional and does not reflect complex issues faced by poor Singaporeans, he argued, to the dissatisfaction of many.
The call for more data is not new. Last year a report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation and the Singapore Management University School of Social Sciences noted that the Average Household Expenditure on Basic Needs – an official measure of deprivation, according to the report’s research team – “is not easily available in the public domain”. It would appear that the government’s apprehension over a poverty line is not fully fleshed out.
Why make a fuss though? Has the government not done enough?
Social support in Singapore has been premised upon the “many helping hands” approach, which in principle helps low-income households achieve self-reliance. In this vein greater availability of data will enrich academic discourse, and likewise strengthen the work of non-profits. Around the world philanthropy has evolved from basic relief to improvement, to social reform, and then to civic engagement. This concept of going beyond the charitable alleviation of human suffering per se is in line with the desire for personal empowerment.
And to do that, charities and non-profits have to track the efficacy of their endeavours. Besides soliciting feedback from their beneficiaries and employees – which may be biased – statistical data on the poor is far more impartial. For instance, do study awards and youth programmes improve graduation and tertiary admission rates? Have employment opportunities opened up with monetary aid and training courses? Furthermore, vis-à-vis (financial) support from the government, what difference has the organisation made?
More data and information on the poor in Singapore is not necessarily an indictment of governance standards. It is an acknowledgement that people and non-profits groups involved in civil society – together with the government – hold themselves to higher standards, and are willing to improve after frank, objective assessments.