Being poor is more than having too little money

Being poor is more than having too little money

Earlier this year, a colleague and I went to a junior college to give a talk on Singapore politics.

As I had a sneaking suspicion that this was a topic most 17-year-olds would find less than compelling, I cracked my head for a way to get their attention and to better connect with them.

I decided that smartphones might just do the trick, and decided to use the rivalry between Apple's iPhones and the Android phones produced by companies such as Samsung as a way to get a discussion going on political competition.

It worked.

But unintentionally, I had also reminded my audience of the divide between students with smartphones and those without; and as it turns out, this is a difference poorer teens feel keenly.

After the talk, an educator was kind enough to let me know my mistake. He said that in future, I should avoid asking students who had iPhones and who had Android phones. He told me that students without smartphones feel so excluded from their peer groups, they need to be counselled.

That stunned me, and made me realise how little I know about the lives of fellow Singaporeans whose circumstances are different from mine.

I was reminded of this incident when at a National University of Singapore forum on an inclusive society on Tuesday, Nominated MP Laurence Lien cited the lack of a smartphone as a mark of poverty in today's Singapore.

Those who cannot afford such devices will not be able to join conversations that increasingly take place over smartphone applications such as WhatsApp, he said.

He went on to argue that in measuring poverty, society needs to take into account what people need to spend on items (such as phones) or experiences (a night out) to feel they belong to a group and thus socially included.

Mr Lien, who is also chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, used the example to illustrate an idea of poverty that has gained currency in Britain.

This is the idea of the late British sociologist Peter Townsend that poverty is less about shortage of income and more about the inability of people on low incomes to participate actively in society.

Townsend's insight was that poverty is both relative and multidimensional.

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