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.

Mr Lien's point was that Singapore needs better measures of poverty and a better understanding of the daily challenges that poor people face.

This in turn relates to a larger question about what it means to be an inclusive society - one that embraces every one of its members and enables each to flourish, leaving no one out in the cold. The strategic shifts that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in his National Day Rally moves Singapore further along the road to this destination.

They do so by addressing gaps in the provision of health care, housing and education.

But while redistributive measures are necessary, they are insufficient, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam signalled in a speech a week later.

He said that we cannot think about a fair and inclusive society purely in terms of wages, incomes and redistribution.

"It is also about people having access to quality living in public spaces: for sports and arts, or just to relax in," he said.

"And about opportunities to keep learning, no matter how old you are, even if you are not learning for the purpose of work, but because there is something inherently satisfying about learning.

"It must involve developing a spirit of fellowship as our young grow up in schools.

"It has to include a workplace culture that treats all employees with respect, including our blue-collar workers.

"And it must include Singaporeans pursuing causes which they feel lead to a better society, and doing something to help their fellow citizens see a better life," he added.

Mr Tharman thus took the vision of an inclusive society well beyond the material and extended it to include access to leisure, learning, fellowship, respect and participation.

In doing so, he was fleshing out dimensions of human well-being that development experts have been discussing and writing about for decades.

Welfare economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, for example, pioneered a capability approach that laid the foundation for the United Nations' Human Development Index. The UN uses it to track how well countries are providing for their people.

Professor Sen conceptualised capability as the freedom of persons to do and be what they have reason to value, and that includes to be safe and healthy, to think and to express, to love and be loved and to have self-respect.

To Singapore's credit, it is already considered by the UN to be a country with very high human development, and this ranking takes into account its achievements in raising income, life expectancy and years of schooling, among other things.

It is however not ranked for inequality-adjusted human development because of missing data. This is a new measure the UN has used since 2010 to get a sense of the actual level of development in a society, after taking into account the inequality that exists.

Just as the UN keeps raising the bar on the accuracy of its measures of human development, so talking about fairness and inclusion in the terms that Mr Tharman employed also raises the bar on what a society must be in order to qualify as inclusive.

And discussing poverty in terms of participation raises the bar on what the state and society must do to prevent poor people from being marginalised.

To be sure, such ideas are controversial.

Townsend's argument that poverty should be defined as the inability to participate actively in the society one lives in, for example, is contested by those who say he has confused poor people's needs with their lifestyle choices, and that society has no business subsidising extras such as an evening out with friends, for instance.

And I can imagine the howls of protests should anyone suggest the Government should subsidise people's smartphone purchases.

Still, this should not prevent us from taking a closer and harder look at how we as a society may be excluding people with few resources, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Once we are aware of the impact our actions and policies have on the less advantaged, we can find practical ways to include them.

We must if we are serious about wanting to make this society truly inclusive.

lydia@sph.com.sg


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