Monday, June 17, 2013

Wait... Our Prime Minister has a point

The PM's call for Singaporeans to step up and serve the community has been rebuked and interpreted as the Government washing its hands away by some. I seriously hope this skewed view is not shared by the majority.

The PM never claimed that the government has no role in helping the poor; rather, what he said was that citizens need to play an active role as well. A valid question to ask is why the need for citizens to plug in the gap ?

In his speech at Lion Club's Silver Jubilee Celebrations, PM Lee briefly put forth his reasoning. He explained that, " ... we can and we must do our best to help the poor, both to express our concern for fellow citizens and also to make sure the needy citizens are not left behind." His points are valid but I believe that there can be a stronger case for the need to serve the less fortunate.

I would argue that we must stand up, because poverty is a complex problem and requiring customized solutions that only we can deliver. (I elaborate on this in the next section.)  This realization dawned on me about 3 years ago.

The turning point in my thinking 

Credits: The Real Singapore 

In 2010, I took part in Singapore Can Speak- a public speaking competition based on social issues. Most of the speaking topics dwelt around poverty.  Till the finals, the issue of poverty seemed so detached; my approach to it was merely clinical.

But what sparked some serious soul searching and intellectual probing was the trip down to the Redhill Close one-room flats a week before the finals. (Credit to the organizers for putting us through it). It was an eye-opener to see up close, the lives of the less fortunate in Singapore. The diversity present in the corridors of Redhill Close was staggering.

Everyone had a different story to tell. Everyone had different problems. Everyone required customized solutions. The speech I gave at *Scape for the finals in June 2010, reflects my thoughts on this issue well.

The following is an exercept:

(Mdm. Chan is the name of the resident there at the one-room flats at Redhill close, whose story I had shared earlier on in the speech.)

All of them had different stories to share, completely different circumstances, different problems.

There were the middle aged people who were led astray in their youth, mingled with the wrong company, neglected their education and involved themselves in gang activities. Some of them realized that, they had to change their ways. They wanted to start anew but were confused on how to live well. They needed mentors to guide them through.

I also saw families, in which the sole breadwinner earned a fairly decent wage but their families were indigent nonetheless. Why ? Huge chunks of cash were frittered away in frivolous pleasures of alcohol and tobacco leading to great tension within the family.They urgently needed help to weed them out of their costly addictions.

There were also families with young children who were afflicted with medical disorders like leukaemia, requiring a lot from the household’s pocket despite the state’s subsidies.They needed extra financial support to tide them over the occasional tough months. 

That evening as I returned back home, one thing dawned on me : if we ever believe that urban poverty can generalized and lumped into one problem then we are dead wrong.

The poor might live in the same estate, same floor, have similar incomes but they all have totally different stories to tell. They come from different backgrounds. They have different mindsets. They have unique needs and what we require is customized action to get them out of the poverty cycle.

Often we believe, that we are limited and that only big institutions such as the governments and social organizations can solve such a complex and seemingly intractable problem like poverty. The great track record of our institutions has perhaps propagated this belief. But friends, this is a deeply flawed view.

No institution can ever understand the intricacies of this perplexing issue. No government would be able to effectively distinguish the problems that Mdm. Chan is facing from her neighbors and design appropriate solutions.

Poverty is one issue where a one size fits all policy is not going to work. Everyone is different and it is we the people- yes you and me- who can truly understand and empower people like Mdm.Chan.

Empowering the poor is neither a highfalutin concept nor an arduous task. More than 30 years back, in Bangladesh, Mr. Yunos, a humble Economics professor lent 42 US dollars to 27 poor villagers. This simple act of the professor didn't merely just assuage the daily concerns of the indigent by offering some symptomatic relief. It went beyond that.

 It gave them hope by giving them the means to realize their dreams of economic freedom. Some villagers invested in higher quality seeds, improving their output considerably. Other used the money to procure capital to set up a small scale in-house catering. Overall, the simple act of Mr. Yunos, transformed the lives of the individuals for the better; it put many of them firmly on the path towards prosperity and greater progress.

Empowerment goes beyond just offering monetary support to the poor. It can take so many different forms and ladies and gentleman, all of us, just like Mr. Yunos can stand up and empower too. 

To all the youths here, I say lets stand up to tutor poor students. To all the medical professionals here, I say lets stand up and empower the poor by making them more aware of the health choices and their implications. To all the lawyers here, I say lets stand up and ensure those afflicted by poverty don't have their misery compounded by legal issues or an ignorance of help available. Ordinary man, like you and me can stand up and empower the thousands trapped in poverty, in our own ways. Everyone counts !

For far too long, we have been playing the blame game.  We have been taking comfort by saying that we were too small to change the world , hence we excused our self from action. We looked at everyone else as a solution- the government, social organisations and so on, except ourselves to alleviate the misery that our fellow brothers and sisters have been going through. But let it dawn on us, that these institutions can never truly solve this problem alone. Let us realize that it is we who play the most integral part in winning this war against poverty.

Ultimately, it is we who have the duty to be the light which relives their plight, the hope which rescues them from despair and the force which shatters their suffering.
Ladies and Gentleman, let us recognize our responsibility to help people like Mdm. Chan and others limited by poverty. Let us stand up and do whatever is within our means to help them out.

As you stand up,  day by day, month by month, year by year, others will follow suit, the numbers will swell while stories like Mdm. Chan shrink. Trust me, soon the day will come when we can proudly proclaim that as a nation we have marched onward together and showed the entire world, that when we- ordinary citizens - are inspired and do our part, the entire nation can be galvanized and poverty can indeed be wiped out."

 An idea to help the poor and help us, help the poor

One of the best ways to get reduce urban poverty, might be to create a platform which allows for customized solutions to be generated and implemented. 

Imagine community activists  go on the ground and proactively look into what specific assistance these underprivileged families require and note them down in the online platform. The assistance they require might vary considerably but that’s fine.  It might range from finding a tutor for the primary school student or securing a job for a family member proficient in pastry making. Whatever it is, they just key it into the system.

On the other side, we have volunteers who register what skills they have to contribute. Then volunteers try to find a match both sides.

My intuition, is that when people realize there are real individuals in need and learn of their stories they would be more emotionally compelled to serve than when it is large organisation requesting for assistance. The human connection would be a lot stronger with this platform.


Victor Hugo once remarked that there is more poverty among the poor than there is humanity among the rich. His statement still holds true unfortunately. This just can not do. We don't want to live in a Singapore where we have any segment of population in profound hardship. We are all one family, and no one must be left behind.

It is time we realize our own responsibility to help the "last,lost and least" around us. Let's have an honest conversation about how we can make a positive difference to their lives. 

I am fired up to make a difference and I believe the online platform idea to aggregate the needs of the poor and services that people can offer holds much potential.

 What do you think ? What are your ideas ? What if we could gather the various practical ideas, put them in the form of actionable plans and get public support to advance progress ? 

The writer blogs at and can be reached at palaniyapan [at]

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Are all voices being heard in Our Singapore Conversation ?

The idea of a national conversation was mooted by PM Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally address last year. The main purpose of it was to chart a common direction based on the aspirations of Singaporeans.

“Our Singapore Conversation” (OSC) has now crossed the open-ended stage to the structured segment where the emphasis is on specific issues. It is believed that over 20,000 Singaporeans have participated in this exercise. However, questions have been asked about whether all segments of Singapore have been represented in this national conversation.

In “ Let’s talk,but not among ourselves.” , the writer Ng Jing Yng, wrote about her observation that not all parties had been engaged in this exercise. Specifically she highlighted how lower income participants weren't being represented in the sessions centered on education and how the quality of the discussion suffered as a result.

Having participated in two OSC sessions myself, I concur with her assessment. To be clear, the participants in the sessions I took part weren't all from identical backgrounds. During the first  conversation, I attended in December last year, I had a chance to converse with grassroots leaders , NGO activists, socio-political bloggers, paralympians and university students. Without OSC, it would have been unimaginable for me to engage with such a diverse bunch of people in a discussion centered on national issues. But the fact remains that most of the participants were opinionated, articulate, middle-aged and English educated. Are they reflective of the whole Singapore ? Unlikely.

The success of OSC hinges on whether it engages with all quarters of the population; the voices of all Singaporeans needs to be heard. Importantly, Singaporeans must perceive OSC’s participants to be representative too.  Otherwise the legitimacy of this project would be derailed; the “common consensus” forged would be tenuous and gain little traction.

Without data on the composition of participants, most Singaporeans now have to rely on their own first hand experiences or hear-say -which are both limited and imperfect sources- to judge how the national conversation has fared with regards to its reach.

It would be helpful if the OSC secretariat goes beyond sharing the total number of participants to include information on the  breakdown of the participants along important markers such as age, income and educational levels..  

How successful “Our Singapore Conversation” is in forging a common consensus depends largely on its perception. More specific data with regards to participation can certainly help Singaporeans come to a better judgement on it.