'Rich people pretending to be poor is like rubbing salt into wound'

An hour to experience the trials and tribulations a destitute person faces over a period of four weeks.

The programme - called "poverty simulation" - is a workshop by the Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) that aims to give insight into the lives of the less fortunate through role-playing.

Mrs Jenny Bong, MWS' group executive director, said: "The purpose of the exercise is to help more people, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, to better understand and empathise with the challenges and frustrations faced by people in need."

The programme will be taken to the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) for its members next month, although it is unknown how many members will be joining the exercise.

The news caused a stir online, generating mixed reactions to the unusual concept, and the fact that a prestigious country club is offering its members a chance to join such a workshop.


The New Paper understands that the programme was started in 2011 and has since run 15 sessions.

One netizen, Maurice Simon, wrote on Facebook: "To think that you can engineer human emotions like empathy and compassion through a simulation exercise is just downright ludicrous."

He doesn't seem to be the only one who thinks so.

"It is very insulting," said Madam Fion Phua, 45, founder of volunteer group Keeping Hope Alive, of the programme.

"Imagine this: While I am here struggling, living on little money and looking after my sick parent or child, there you are role-playing my position.

"Don't you think that is rubbing salt into the wound?" asked Madam Phua, whose group helps the needy here.

Some netizens, however, believe the programme is a step in the right direction.

Facebook user Vicknesh Rajamohan said: "This is a good initiative.

"There is nothing that compels high net worth individuals to come forward to experience this. Why should they? Yet, they are trying to take a step forward and that should be appreciated."

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling also saw the programme as a "fresh idea".

"I am glad Singaporeans care for one another, though I would also encourage more people to volunteer with VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations) or the community to have a better and more rounded understanding of how being poor is like in Singapore," she told TNP yesterday.

One such example is that of Mr Danny Pal's hapless situation.

Mr Pal, whose family survives on food rations from VWOs such as Madam Phua's, said: "How can the participants understand my pain in one hour? This life of poverty is real for me every single day."


The 48-year-old was recently forced to quit his job as a salesman after losing his toe, due to diabetes.

Currently unemployed, he lives with his Filipino wife and three children, aged between four and 16, in a one-room flat in Toa Payoh. His wife, Ms Shey De la Cruz, 35, is 11 weeks pregnant and stopped working as a cleaner as a result of the pregnancy.

The family often subsists on plain porridge and biscuits for meals. Like Mr Pal's family, there are many less fortunate people here who rely on the goodwill of VWOs other than Keeping Hope Alive, such as Lions Befrienders, Willing Hearts, Operation Hope Foundation and Club Rainbow.

Mr Pal said: "The money used to run the poverty simulation course should be given to the needy directly. "Those who really want to experience the life of the less fortunate should do consistent, voluntary work."

Madam Phua urged those who are sincere to help the needy to put kindness and compassion into action and not role-play it. "Do you think acting like a man who has lost his arms by tying yours behind your back for 24 hours is going to help?

"At the end of the day, you know the ties will be taken off." SICC could not be reached for a comment. But the club was quoted in a BBC Online report saying that it was "heartened by the keen interest shown (in) the workshops and activities at the club".

It added that the event was one of many charity events, and that it would be organising more activities to "inspire others to step up and give".

What poverty simulation is about

The Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) poverty simulation programme aims to help people better understand and empathise with the struggles of the less privileged.

The workshop aims to paint the reality of a destitute life over four weeks - in just one hour, The New Paper was told. In that hour, participants role-play and manage actual challenges, including getting children to school, visiting clinics and living a hand-to-mouth existence.

An MWS source explained that each participant takes on a profile and goes through the struggles that profile would likely have.

An example of a profile would be "a 52-year-old suffering from a heart problem that prohibits him/her from working for too long and living hand to mouth because his/her partner is in jail". The workshop is split into 15-minute segments, each representing a "week", and participants are told to immerse in their roles and perform the routines of their character's lives.

MWS, a voluntary welfare organisation, started the programme in 2011 and has conducted it 15 times so far for its church members, other voluntary welfare organisations and schools, the source said.

The programme, which lasts 2 1/2 hours, including break times and briefings, operates best when there are 30 to 35 participants, the MWS source said. The poverty simulation experience ends with a debrief where a facilitator helps participants contextualise the experience. Similar poverty simulation programmes are conducted in other countries such as the US, UK and New Zealand.

Last October, Cambridge University's student society was forced to cancel its poverty simulation event following public backlash. The university's African Society labelled the programme "ignorant" and "deeply disturbing".

Groups that help the needy

Lions Befrienders (Singapore)
Organises weekly home visits and social activities for seniors aged 65 and above with limited or no family support 
Tel: 1800-375-8600

Willing Hearts
Provides daily meals and other support services to the needy
Tel: 6476-1098

Touch Community Services
Provides support services for the needy, including a meal delivery programme for home-bound elderly
Tel: 6377-0122

Children's Wishing Well
Provides meals and grants wishes of children who come from poor families
Tel: 6777-0041

Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore
Provides educational and residential services for the intellectually disabled
Tel: 6479-5655

Club Rainbow
Helps children with chronic and life-threatening diseases
Tel: 6377-1789

Operation Hope Foundation
Organises community projects in less-developed countries such as Cambodia and Thailand
Tel: 6254-3886

Related: Singapore Island Country Club to hold 'poverty simulation' workshop for members 

This article was first published on February 6, 2016.
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