September - Society: Poverty and race issues need to be addressed

This month drew attention to the fact that while Singapore has come a long way forward in terms of racial harmony, there is still some work that needs to be done in this regard. The Suara Musyawarah report and survey findings published by the Institute of Policy Studies in September were a testimony to that. Moreover, the issue of poverty and how the “bottom-fifth” low-income Singaporeans are struggling to survive amidst growing inflation was a persistent discourse all through out the year. Interestingly, a study by the National Institute of Education of over 3,000 students from 18 secondary schools across the Island revealed that they don't have a strong grasp of democracy and its principles.    


Suara Musyawarah

Three separate events highlighted the issue of race in Singapore this year.

During the Hari Raya Aidilfitri festivities last year, Yaacob Ibrahim, the minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs, announced the setting up of an independent, non-partisan committee to engage the Malay/Muslim community and gather feedback on the community's thoughts, concerns and aspirations. The committee met over 500 individuals as well as representatives of groups and organisations from the Malay/Muslim community and conducted 35 focus group discussions. It then submitted its report to the minister titled,Suara Musyawarah: Conversations with the Community’, which highlighted that while the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore “identifies itself as part of and belonging to the broader Singapore community”, there also exists a “perception of unequal opportunities” among the community. 

Narpani dialogue

Similarly, at a dialogue with about 300 grass-root leaders and residents organised by Narpani Pearavai, or “Good Activity Council”, which is an umbrella organisation of People's Association 94 Indian Activity Executive Committees spread all over Singapore, the Indian community in Singapore raised its concerns. The minister for environment and water resources Vivian Balakrishnan and People's Action Party (PAP) MPs Hri Kumar Nair, Vikram Nair and Janil Puthucheary, attended the dialogue. While general concerns such as high immigration, healthcare affordability and PSLE were mentioned, specific concerns such as job discrimination, housing issues due to HDB's ethnic quota policy and educational under-performance were also brought-up.

IPS study

Finally, in a survey published by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), National University of Singapore (NUS), and, an organisation to promote racial harmony and bring different communities together in Singapore, it emerged that 2 in 3 Malays and 3 in 5 Indians have faced discrimination at least at some point while applying for jobs in Singapore. Additionally, the findings revealed that about 17.6% Singaporean Indian respondents and 19.6% Singaporean Malays believed that Indians and Malays had to work harder compared to other races to have a basic, decent life in Singapore.



The issue was brought into focus in September, during a forum organised by the faculty of arts and social sciences at National University of Singapore (NUS) titled, Building an inclusive society: understanding and empowering the poor in Singapore. Irene Ng, associate professor at NUS, presented her survey of 383 Singaporeans on their attitudes towards poverty.

In 2012, One Singapore - an organisation working to raise public awareness on how to make poverty history, civil society activists, journalists and other voluntary organisations debated the same issue in a forum organised by the Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre. Participants alluded to the fact that based on the most recent 2007/2008 household expenditure survey, the average monthly income of the bottom 20% of households in Singapore is only S$1,274, which is far less than their average monthly expenditure of S$1,760.

In 2011, Jacqueline Loh of Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University, published a study, Bottom fifth in Singapore, in which she indicated that “a family of four would need S$1,700 to cover basic costs of living, but S$2,500-3,000/month to meet a 'social inclusion' level of income”. 

Cleaning industry

Attention also turned to the low-paying cleaning industry this year. The industry hires almost 70,000 workers across more than 900 companies, of which two-thirds – or 51,000 are locals. These form the bottom-most part of Singaporean society with the median monthly wage being S$815. As cleaning services are mostly outsourced, with emphasises on low-price contracts, the cleaners bear the brunt with lowest-possible wages. Taking note of this, and other challenges faced by the cleaning industry such as cheap-sourcing, manpower shortage, low-wages, unattractive working conditions, and poor perception, the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) initiated a Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners (TCC) and made recommendations for a Progressive Wage Model for the cleaners in Singapore.

S$1,000 as the entry-level basic wage for cleaning jobs in offices and commercial buildings, as well as the F&B establishment sector; and S$1,200 in the conservancy sector. In addition to the entry-level wage point, each ladder comprises additional wage points to provide a pathway for cleaners to progress to higher wages as they become better skilled, more productive or take on higher responsibilities,” recommended the TCC.