Poverty exists in Singapore. But poverty exists in every country. So the fact that it occurs here is not particularly surprising. What would be of concern is if the incidence of poverty was prevalent, or if it was worsening, either in numbers or in depth.
The problem is that we do not really know. This is because there is no clear definition of poverty in Singapore.
By some monetary measures, we ought to be worried. The bottom 20 per cent of wage earners saw their real wages fall by 8 per cent between 1998 and 2010, while the top 20 per cent of earners saw their real wages rise by 27 per cent. Some academics have put the percentage of Singaporean households living below the basic household income of $1,500 at more than 10 per cent, or 110,000 households.
But poverty is not just about establishing a single income threshold. Different thresholds are required for households of different sizes and with different needs.
Relative poverty and income inequality also matter. We also need to factor in social inclusion, which is expenditure on items that can help a person participate more fully in the mainstream social, economic and cultural activities of society.
For example, a smartphone may be a necessity, rather than a luxury, if having it is important for one to feel included in a particular social group.
Poverty is not just about a lack of money either.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that we should consider what the poor person or household lacks in terms of capability. This approach focuses on the causes of poverty, and on non-welfare solutions that promote greater empowerment.
Poverty is also culturally contextual. The way it is defined in Singapore may be different from an approach regarded as appropriate in Hong Kong, for example.
Citizens can participate in helping to define the level of resources needed to support a minimally adequate standard of living in a given community. Such participatory poverty assessments can help produce useful insights.