"1998 to 2005, when an estimated 126,000 people in Singapore were laid off and forced to sell their flats when they could not meet their mortgages" - Straits Times 20 June 2009[Link]
When I was in secondary school, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to go to his home located about half a kiliometer from mine. I had been aware of the row of rental 1-room flats but had never gone into one. When I got there, there was this strong smell of alcohol and urine in the lift. When I got to my friend's place, I realised the 1-room flat actually had no rooms and hardly a kitchen. My friend's family - him, his mom and 3 sisters - were packed into the same space. They optimised the little space with bunk beds. My friend's dad had a heart attack and passed away when he was in primary school and the family descended into poverty. His was a decent family put together in a block with drunks, half-crazy neighbors and gamblers. Clawing their way out of poverty was made harder by the living environment they were in. They got out 10 years later in the 90s when the children grew up and had jobs. One of the 4 children made it to university against the odds. We cannot make everyone rich in our affluent society but there is more we can do to make sure that poverty does not become a vicious cycle. Sometime in the early 90s, it looked like the HDB could tear down all these 1 room flats as we reach for the Swiss standard of living. However, despite the GDP growth of the past 10 years, poverty has made a comeback and these 1-room flats are again offered to Singaporeans who have fallen on hard times. We are supposed to have gotten richer but povery is just painful if not more painful today than it was 2 decades ago.
"I was very scared when police raided the flat opposite mine because the people inside were selling duty-unpaid cigarettes. I often see glue sniffers at the staircases,’ she says.
‘I hear about stabbing cases and there are loan sharks who come regularly to splash paint on doors,’ says the concerned mother, who makes her daughter stay with a family member on weekdays.
‘I tried complaining to the town council about the rubbish and inconsiderate actions since I moved in. But it still happens,’ he says with a sigh.
They also point to the drunks, drug abusers and loan sharks who occasionally lurk in the stairwells. To avoid trouble, many residents just padlock their doors. Even on weekends, when most are home, the corridors of Block 2 are unnervingly silent.
- from article "Old Block, New Faces", Straits Times 20 June 2009.
If you go to Orchard Road today, you will see thousands of shoppers many carrying multiple bags from various brand name shops and see the long queue of people outside Tung Luk or Crystal Jade whose problem is they have money to spend but just can't get a seat at these restaurants. But for every Singaporean shopping at Orchard today, there are 10 that you don't see who don't have money to shop. Many will move down the economic ladder during this recession and add to the numbers from the previous 2 recessions. The problem is the way down and the way back up is asymmetric - without social safety nets in place, it is harder for family to climb back up. The insistence that those who have fallen economically(sometimes through no fault of their own) have to be made to suffer and live in degraded environments will disadvantage the children in the family. 30 years ago, the reason to not to help the poor was that we lived in a poor country that cannot afford it....30 years later, the govt is rich but poverty is a growing problem among Singaporeans and the solution is still the same old 1-room flats, piecemeal assistance and the suffering of the poor is no less today than what it was in the past. Today, Singapore has resources to do more yet the PAP govt choose go for a minimalist approach so long as the suffering is silent and invisible, the PAP govt will see no urgency to do something very different from what they have done.