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.
Clearly, we need a holistic definition and a set of indicators.
An official poverty line can help convey the size of the current problem and mobilise the community to become engaged rather than relying on the Government for all the answers.
But no one should argue that a single poverty line alone is a sufficient measure, especially when it comes to designing intervention schemes. Better research on the state of poverty is needed, including how poor households cope or do not cope with limited resources.
Historical or longitudinal data would also produce a better sense of how to deal with multiple needs and vulnerabilities over time.
Although research is limited, it is still possible to identify some families who do not have three decent, nutritious meals a day. Some people also struggle to meet multiple challenges. These include family members who are in jail, others with health issues, or a child with disabilities.
There are also families that depend on a single, low-income breadwinner because the spouse cannot work due to regulatory restrictions. Yet another category comprises the elderly poor with meagre old-age savings eroded by inflation.
Fortunately, the Government is more focused on the problem than ever before and has been actively expanding its welfare schemes. But having good intentions and multiple schemes does not say much about effectiveness.
How is aid perceived and used? What works and what doesn't?
Poverty is not something for the Government to tackle alone. In fact, community action can often be more effective than bureaucratic or professional help.
The first thing to do is to seek to understand the day-to-day realities of the less fortunate.
For this reason, I have been involved in the Singaporeans Against Poverty campaign that was launched in October by Caritas Singapore and other partners.
This campaign seeks to bring about awareness of poverty in Singapore and encourage public discussion. Everyone is invited to move out of his or her comfort zone to bridge not just the awareness gap, but also the empathy gap.
Most poor people do not deserve their plight. Their aspirations are also often no different from those of the rest of society. They want the best for themselves and their families. Most also do not want to receive handouts either.
But many are trapped in poverty. And this in turn can cause a loss of self-confidence, and - as researchers have discovered - even a loss of IQ.
Singaporeans need to develop relationships with people that cut across social cleavages. This type of social capital can help disadvantaged individuals "get ahead" in contexts like job search.
This is very different from bonding with people of similar socio-economic status. The latter only helps people "get by" in their day-to-day activities.
Hence, as part of the poverty awareness campaign, a Beyond My (Comfort) Zone (BMZ) challenge was recently launched.
BMZ aims to get Singaporeans to strike up conversations with people from lower-income occupations to understand them better. This follows the $5 challenge which Singaporeans took on to live on $5 a day for food and transport to simulate the realities of the poor.
I am confident that the empathy thus generated will spur generous giving and make us each take concrete actions to ensure that everyone is able to live decently and with dignity.
Beyond empathising, volunteering or donating, BMZ also gives Singaporeans an opportunity to re-examine their choices and the way they live. Are Singaporeans chasing the wrong life goals? Are they too materialistic?
Tackling poverty is not just about the plight of those in the lower-income groups. Giving aid is easy. It is also about rethinking all our values, priorities and lifestyles.
This latter activity may be the most unsettling of all. But it is also necessary to create a more sustainable future.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament, chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation.
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