I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve had a rather comfortable childhood — and on this note, I would like to state that “comfortable” does not equate with being born with a silver spoon or brought up in a privileged wealthy family — but for a long time, I found it hard to reconcile with the fact that there are homeless people in Singapore.
I’m also uncertain where I got that perception from, but when I was a kid, I’ve always thought the one or two hobos on the streets I’d come across while going out with my parents or spotted in the estate where my grandparents lived must have been some kind of “siao lang” odd-balls who were sleeping in the open because there was something mentally unsound about them; it didn’t help that most times, they really were some kind of siao-lang who would be talking/laughing loudly to themselves, unwashed and everyone around them avoiding them like the plague.
My first encounter with real homeless and destitute up front and personal was when I was in JC. We were doing a General Paper project on poverty in Singapore (that was in the 1990s), and I remember how disturbing and jarring an experience it was for me to realize that there were people who were living out of cardboard boxes and calling the back alleys and void decks of nondescript HDB estates amidst the booming Singapore economy of the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, we were hailed as a roaring “Asian Tiger” economy, and it seemed so surreal as we went to rubbish dumps in the housing estates where the homeless we were trying to interview spent hours rummaging through other people’s garbage looking for pieces of junk to sell at flea markets like Sungei Street, for a couple of dollars each time for their meals. More jarring was the realization that some of these people we spoke to were not the siao-langs I had thought they were when I was a kid (embarrassing, come to think of it), and that they were displaced not by choice but by their circumstances.
The experience got me interested in doing modules on poverty and social economics when I decided to read economics at university. It’d also planted a resolve in me that I would never want to be caught poor, and no matter how challenging my circumstances, I would always ensure I’d have a firm roof over my head.
Fast forward to my adulthood, and my next encounter with the underprivileged and homeless was when I was working in the Prison service, where it reinforced notions of what I already knew from social economic theories: that high economic growth actually displaces more people into the “under-privileged” category, and that criminal activities are an economic consequence — ordinarily, no one wants to commit crimes, but when the economic incentives of committing a crime far outweigh the costs (i.e. imprisonment), then crime actually becomes an attractive and viable option. [MailOnline - Poverty is not an excuse for crime]
There is one commonality I noticed amongst the inmates: almost all of them started off the way you and I did, holding everyday jobs, and whatever the reasons they found themselves in dire straits, be it gambling debts or being displaced and long unemployment periods, excluding those with some form of psychiatric disorder, nearly all committed offences out of desperation. For the repeat offenders, it seems to be a case of learned helplessness: the inability to escape the mental prison where they think no one would trust and hire an ex-offender, despite rehabilitative efforts, and then they return to a life of crime.
My point is that it’s all to do with economic incentives, and where there exists some sort of perceived “pay-out” for socially-deviant acts, then we’d see the manifestation of these behaviours.
The question you’d ask then is if homelessness is deviant? My answer: it depends on the person who sees the problem and defines it. It all depends on what goes on in your head when you see someone sleeping at the void deck of your housing estate with a shopping cart full of what remains of his private property — social deviant, or unfortunate displaced soul?
On Oct 21, The New Paper ran a story about a family living out of a van at the East Coast Park area. 2 things are glaring: one, the family has a three-room flat in Punggol they have applied for since last year, but they’re not able to move in because a $20,000 resale levy isn’t paid; two, They are one of several families that spend the night at vehicles at that carpark.
Meaning to say they are not alone. And if you noticed, the sole breadwinner earns $2,100 a month: net off his CPF employee contribution at 20%, and his effective monthly disposable income is $1,680 — still above the international definition of poverty, but poor enough to be poor in Singapore if you had a family to feed.
There have been calls for the imposition of a minimum wage, but the problem is determining what is an acceptable minimum wage rate: $1,500? $2,000? $2,500? Therein lies the difficulty of figuring what is an acceptable minimum wage, because whatever methodologies you used to work out the sum, the whole exercise at some point would seem arbitrary, because disposable incomes come into play with lifestyle choices, and there is no way you can come up with a matrix that covers all lifestyle preferences; in other words, you cannot have a condition where you make someone else better off, without making someone else worse off.
2 decades after I’ve done the GP assignment (goodness, I’m that old??), it’s still hard to imagine how there are people who are homeless and sleeping on the streets even after we’ve attained first-world status, and for all the progress we’ve made over the years. As I mentioned, the irony of prosperity and economic success is that it only widens the divide between the rich and the poor, and the poor become poorer.
It’s easy to dismiss the vagabonds in our midst, because most of us choose to ignore their existence, or even to acknowledge that they exist in the first place. How many of us would take the time to feel thankful for having a home to go to at the end of a work-day today, and how many of us would remember, as we sit down to eat with our families, that while we feel safe and secure within four walls in our homes, having nicely cooked meals and getting that sense of homeliness, there are people like Mr Ahmad and others like him who are probably silently envious, frustrated and ashamed even, that he can’t provide a decent roof for his family?
Nobody gets left behind? There already are.