A stroll down the Central Business District of Singapore greets the passer-by with the majestic sight of the Marina Bay Sands towering above the skyline. In the corner, the megalithic Singapore Flyer, spinning serenely like a Catherine Wheel set ablaze with a spectacular lightshow, and where the river meets the sea, the Gardens by the Bay. Architecturally designed to draw the eyes upwards. That a person may marvel at the level of finesse and planning into making the Singapore skyline a sight to behold.

It may be tough to envision that this economic powerhouse, this Island-State with its meticulously manicured Bougainvillea bushes and Angsana trees, may be anything but wealthy and affluent.

However, a deeper look down the less advertised, and not-so-postcard-ready alleys of Singapore reveals the cracks that have been conveniently glossed over, or varnished to deflect their decay. A walk down the corridors of the ubiquitous H.D.B flat presents the hidden stories of poverty.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index in December 2019, Singapore ranks Number 1 in terms of food security. Yet in the report State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 by the United Nations, it was documented that 4.1 percent of Singaporeans were encountering as part of their every-day, moderate to severe food insecurity between 2016 and 2018.  A local survey conducted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University discovered that 1 out of every 5 participants experienced detrimental food insecurity in 2018.

These findings are surprising to analysts, who expect that given the affluence of Singapore, only to find a small and odd number of people who find it difficult to obtain nutritionally sound meals in Singapore.  It comes as a shock to many that there are quite a number in Singapore, a food paradise, who do not know where or when their next meal is coming from, who have to ration out their meals, or to go entire days without one.

Even more surprising is that fact that food insecurity in Singapore is not limited to those living in shared-tenancy 1 room rental flats, which makes up 60% of those facing food insecurity, but that 40% actually own 3-room flats or 4 and 5-room flats. The issue of food insecurity in Singapore cannot be easily categorised by convenient demographics. (CNA Insider)

Martin* (name changed to protect his identity) for example, is accomplished academically and has a Master’s degree in his chosen field of study. He is a part-time Adjunct Lecturer who is paid by the hour at a reputable local university. Despite being paid $90/hour, due to the rules governing the hire of part-time staff in that institution, he can only work a maximum of 10 hours a week. Given, whether the Dean decides to hire him for particular modules, he may or may not have the full 10 hours per week. At his lowest, he was working 2 hours a week. His part-time work prevented him from getting full-time employment as the hours of his classes were changeable to the start of the term, and he feared.

losing his adjunct teaching position. On bad days, he would survive the day with only cups of watered-down Milo from the staff lounge as he could not even afford a sandwich from the cafeteria.

Elizabeth* (name changed to protect her identity) had a full-time job with a Catholic company. However, her employers did not provide her with any CPF. Her take-home pay was about $2000 a month. As Elizabeth struggled to pay off a massive Credit Card debt which she had amassed from her previous employment through her indiscretionary spending, there were days when she did not even have enough money in her EZlink card to take the bus home. Her work place was far up in the West, while she lived closer to the Central district of Singapore. One night in her desperation, she walked 3 hours home in the pouring thunderstorm from her work place to her home.

Teresa* (name changed to protect her identity) lived in a residential home run by a charity organisation. Prior her discharge, she was diagnosed with low-functioning Autism. While she had learnt some basic skills, due to the lack of parental care and intervention, she found it difficult to obtain employment. It was discovered one day by her case-worker that she had taken to begging by the roadside after her discharge, as it was the easiest way for her to make money.

These are but some cases which speak deeply of the  reality in Singapore.

So what is a Catholic to do about this?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) 2009:

“To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity…. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the [state]. This is the institutional path–we might also call it the political path–of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly…” (no. 7).

“…unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalisation, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering…. the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life’” (no. 25).

“No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or ‘because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family’” (no. 63).

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2005, “A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”

The ministry of the Church is predicated on ministry to the poor, the needy, sick, the prisoners, the widows, the orphans. “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love))

This Lent, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’. Our Faith without works is dead. Let our charity reach out to those who are Hungry and Poor today.


By Brian Bartholomew Tan

Sources: Goh Chiew Tong, Christy Yip, and Corine Tiah, “Why in a cheap food paradise, Some Singaporeans are still going hungry” 16 Feb 2020, CNA Insider, Caritas in Veritate, Deus Caritas Est, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops