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Commentary: Three stories on why tackling poverty requires active listening

We need to listen to the experiences of families, try to understand the effects of policies, and deliberate as a society about the minimum standards of living that we find acceptable, says one social worker.

Commentary: Three stories on why tackling poverty requires active listening

Flats under the Public Rental Scheme are heavily subsidised to cater to Singapore households with no other housing options. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

SINGAPORE: Recent discussions about helping low-income families have placed the focus on how to encourage changes in individual habits, so as to build self-reliance.

It is said that social workers play an important role in this process. However, tackling poverty requires that we go further than that.

As a social worker, I lead a team of 20 who work with around 350 families at any one time. The low-income families we work with face many difficult choices.


Some time ago, a young colleague came into my office one morning. He wanted to discuss the situation of Mr Tan*, a man in his sixties who was going to be evicted from his current place of stay. He was unable to get along with his sister, who co-owns the flat with her husband.

Mr Tan had strained relationships with his other siblings and no means of income. He was eligible for HDB public rental housing. But as he could not list a family member as co-occupier, he had to find another single person to be co-tenant in a one-room flat under the Joint Singles Scheme. HDB provided a list of names. However Mr Tan declined and so was referred to our team to discuss other options.

When my colleague asked what advice he should give Mr Tan, he said this: 

You know, I wouldn’t want to live with someone I don’t know either.

We would normally persuade clients like Mr Tan* to accept rental housing. We will also refer them to employment agencies such as the Employment and Employability Institute (known as e2i) for career guidance and job-matching. 

In the interim, they will apply for short-term financial from the Social Service Office (SSO). They do not qualify for long-term assistance as they are able-bodied. 

The social worker will also coach them to use the financial aid wisely: Cut down on cigarettes, prepare meals at home more often instead of eating out, walk instead of taking a bus or a taxi. The financial aid will stretch further that way.


In another case, we are working with Madam Rani*, a single mother. Her youngest child, aged 6, has special needs and requires full-time care. 

Her older children who are still in school, aged 15 to 18, recently found regular weekend jobs to provide for their own out-of-school expenses. They work so the additional income can allow them to participate in activities with their friends and afford the things their friends have. All these because these friendships are very important to them.

But when her children’s earnings were discovered during an income assessment, she was accused of misreporting her family income and her assistance was reduced. 

When we heard, we advised Madam Rani’s children to contribute towards their family’s expenses, knowing this would be at the expense of those social opportunities which mean so much to them.

The problem is, social participation is not considered a basic need and its value is invisible to the accounting of financial assistance.

File photo of a youth in Singapore using a mobile phone. (Photo: Francine Lim)


In a third case, Mr Ali* finds himself in a dilemma. He had done well at work and was offered a promotion. Should he accept the promotion, his salary would increase by approximately S$80.

However, the salary increase means that the rental for his HDB flat may be raised under the rules of the public rental scheme. He is unsure if the raise in rental will be greater than his salary increase. This causes much anxiety in Mr Ali.

When we heard that Mr Ali was planning to turn down his promotion, the social worker stepped in and persuaded him to change his mind. The social worker suggested that paying higher rent is fair since he is earning more. The subsidies are, after all, taxpayers’ money.


In my 15 years of work with low-income families, having worked with hundreds of cases each year, I wish these three were isolated examples but they are not. Their struggles with poverty, with the formal systems are common. The fact that it is so widespread should raise discomfort in all of us, whether we are social service practitioners or not.

Giving clients practical advice is part of social work practice. But it is incomplete. It also comes at a cost.

Mr Tan’s homelessness would be resolved when he conforms to the expectations of the Joint Single Rental Scheme. However, housing is not just about shelter and physical safety. It is also about privacy and a sense of security.

It is a place where we feel most at ease and we rest from the day. For many of us, it is a place for leisure and social participation, for pursuing our interests and spending time with friends and family. All of these are important.

A public rental flat provides a basic standard of physical shelter. But living with a stranger in 30 sq m of space without partitions – about one third the size of a typical four-room flat – offers little privacy, security, or opportunities for meaningful social interactions and emotional connections.

File photo of HDB flats. (Photo: Hester Tan)

When we listen to Mr Tan’s concerns, we begin to understand that conforming to what is available in order to meet immediate physical needs may require him to trade off long-term social and emotional needs.

When Madam Rani’s children cut back on social activities, the sort of activities they see their peers get involved in, it is not only frustrating for the children. It also limits their access to the social experiences and relationships that are important at their age. It affects their chances and ability to fit into their peer groups.

While Mr Ali’s colleagues celebrate when they are promoted, he may have to decide between a raise and keeping rent affordable.

We can only appreciate the dilemmas and struggles of the poor when we lean in to understand. Their experiences help us to reflect critically on our policies, identify gaps, and propose changes. 

In the long run, this can help policies to be fairer and take into account social and emotional needs.


Recent commentaries have highlighted the importance of setting minimum standards of living so that people’s needs can be better met. Such standards go beyond food, shelter, and clothing. We must also take into account things like access to the internet, socialising and recreation, which allow people to participate in society.

Minimum standards are produced by inviting views from members of the public and different segments of society. These participants come together in focus groups to discuss and decide on what constitutes a basic living standard.

READ: Inequality has a geographical dimension in Singapore, a commentary

READ: Direct housing interventions needed to tackle inequality, a commentary.

A family taking a rest in Singapore. (Photo: Ruyi Wong) READ: A minimum wage isn’t the answer to inequality, a commentary Given the complexity of the issue, how can we measure a country’s efforts at tackling inequality?

The outcome is based on consensus, rather than the opinions of helping professionals or policymakers. These standards are about listening to what society thinks about the things required for individuals to reach their full potential.

In the United Kingdom, this process also provides a reference for policymaking. We can learn from this example.

Such intentional engagement of the public not only provides an opportunity for robust discussion about basic needs, it also encourages civic participation and fosters trust.


It is important to give practical advice to low-income families, and help them to understand the motivations and rationale behind the policies. 

Beyond this, we need to listen to their experiences, try to understand the effects of policies, and deliberate as a society about the minimum standards of living that we find acceptable. 

It is not a binary process, where we pitch what policymakers and professionals think versus what society desires. It takes all parties to listen in, understand and co-create solutions to tackle poverty.

This will be a difficult process, but is one we must not shy away from.

*The names used in this commentary are pseudonyms.

Cindy Ng is a social worker with extensive experience working with low-income families and persons experiencing violence and abuse.

Source: CNA/sl


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