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The Case For A Singapore Poverty Line

There has been prominent discussion lately pertaining to whether or not Singapore should have a poverty line set in place. Our government has suggested that a “kueh lapis” approach is preferred and more relevant than an actual poverty line in place.

This is surprising considering that a poverty line, if ever set in place, is a tool useful to measure the level of income adequate for living in a given country. It is particularly more useful for developed nations such as Singapore, whereby the international standard of $1.90 is no longer relevant for us.

For the government to dismiss it as irrelevant is…unexpected.


Why a Poverty Line is Useful

A poverty line is useful and can be partnered along with our so-called “kueh lapis” solution. In economics term, both the poverty line and the “kueh lapis” are “complements” rather than “substitutes” for one another.

We can, and should have both of them, rather than be debating about which one is better.

Having no poverty line set in place is akin to having examinations with no “passing marks”. Without these guidelines, educators are left to their own judgments or discretions on whether their students have truly met the minimum standards required. Some may think their students are doing okay when they are not actually performing well.



What a Poverty Line is Not

A call for a poverty line should never be mistaken to be a call for a welfare state. Those who claim so are simply trying to leverage on Singaporeans’ biasness towards a “welfare state” and conveniently utilising it as an argument against a “poverty line”, irresponsibly.

It also does not mean that individuals or families that are slightly above the poverty line will receive no help at all. Again we reiterate the point that a poverty line is simply a tool and that the “kueh lapis” approach can be used along with it should the government want it to.

Those below the poverty line will naturally receive more attention and support while the attention given to those above the poverty line can be lesser in accordance to their income level.

A “cliff effect” as suggested by the Minister for Social and Family Development can easily be circumvented. Schemes such as Workfare can continue to function and support even those above the poverty line. It is not a matter of choosing those below the poverty line and losing the others.

An analogy borrowed from our own education system is how students who fail their examinations are given more “attention” – in the form of dreaded remedial classes. However those who barely scrap a pass are not spared of the “attention” as well. They too join extra classes as well and are sometimes grouped according to their level of understanding.

There is no “cliff effect” to speak off when scrapping a pass means you receive no additional “attention”.

If MOE is able to get this right, I am more than confident our extended government can do so as well.


What Not Having A Poverty Line Could Mean

As mentioned earlier, the lack of a poverty line can lead to varying standards on what is truly required for adequate living within Singapore. There would be those who needs help but are ignored, while there will be others who are (or have the capacity to be) self-sufficient but are still receiving handouts.

A poverty line will help measure the amount of Singaporean families who actually need support, and provide a benchmark for how the country can improve the on-the-ground situation.

Without it, we may get into a situation where we can only rely on local media outlets regularly showcasing the “success” stories of the minority while the plights of others remain unknown to us. We do not have true statistics to allow us to judge accurately how effective our measures truly are and whether we are simply blowing our own success trumpets.


Disclaimer and Conclusion

The aim of our article is to highlight our own views on why we think there is no harm in having a poverty line set in place. Within the framework of the article, not all views and insights can be covered. As such we welcome you to leave a comment of your own personal view on this matter. aims to provide interesting, bite-sized and relevant financial articles.

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