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Saturday, June 10, 2023


What is life like for poor people in Singapore?


Netizens share their stories

Being poor is tough but not impossible to succeed

I’ll just answer this through three personal anecdotes that I remember vividly.

My father was bankrupted when I was about five. Our HDB flat was protected from bankruptcy but all our furnitures were gone. I remember that day when my parents brought my sisters and I to a lan shop which was odd as we rarely indulged in such activities. Two hours later, when we got home, all we got left was the television and nothing else. It was odd but I wasn’t mature enough to understand what happened. I was actually happy because there’s more space to play and run in the house.

Over the next few years, we slowly bought furniture one piece at a time. During this period of time, there was frequent power outage as we couldn’t afford the bills. During this period of time I recalled studying by the corridor using the corridor light. There was also the fun of blowing bubbles into my small fish tank during power outage. Life was all right, I was largely insulated from the hardship as I was too young then.


Things got tougher when I got into secondary school. The discipline master somehow learnt that I had problems with excursion fees and school fees and often used it as a reason to single me out for the silliest reasons. One of which was smiling; during assembly one day, she singled me out for smiling and asked why I liked to smile so much and that I should feel more sad and shameful about not paying my dues, she then assigned me to the front of the hall in front of the entire cohort to do nothing but smile. I never told my parents about this as I understood by then that they were stressed enough trying to provide for the family. As time passes, not smiling became the norm and I perfected my rbf.

Was life tough being poor in Singapore? Yes. Was it impossible to succeed in life? No. I am doing pretty all right now, graduation in a few months’ time. The toughest part of being poor is being chinese at the same time; even if you succeeded, there will still be many people telling you about chinese privilege in Singapore. I wish I could cash it on my chinese privilege, but what the academics fail to tell you is that the chinese privilege they are talking about only begins from middle class and above.

Everyone’s story is different, but we help each other

I guess people ask the same question in many ways for different purposes. I hope by sharing a little with you it keeps us positive about life.

I am speaking from experience and general observation, knowing that the government did not set any standard for what it means to be poor in Singapore.


I grew up in a comfortable environment in Singapore. My Dad’s pay only became better in early 2000s when I was in secondary school. My Mum had a hard time looking for a job because of her Low education level and my parents figured it would make sense for her to stay-home and organize our living, thereby saving for us. Before that, we made ends meet with my Dad’s low paying job and helped with outsourced factory work assignments, bringing total income to about 18k per year for a family of 4. I am grateful that I could live in a flat that my parents bought with supportive policies from the government. It still is today, while government housing prices have increased there are cheaper alternatives amongst flat options (2-room, non-mature estates) and cheaper than private housing.

My sibling and I did well enough in school to qualify for all sorts of scholarships. Our income easily qualified us for bursaries too, which helped my parents who worked hard to try to give their best to us. There are a lot of schemes and subsidies for education other than cash rewards, like Edusave. At one point, I was enrolled in the meal program in school, which was a nutritious treat for lunch every day. I hardly had to buy textbooks, because there were many sharing schemes in public schools. The only textbook that I owned was an Economics textbook in Junior College, which I did not find helpful compared to what my teacher in JC taught me.

Life became tougher when I was in university. My dad was down with hospitalization bills from his gut problems and chronic illnesses. I took up more assignments as a private tutor to cover his medical expenses though government schemes helped a lot to alleviate the heavy bills.

In a small island with a lot of public resources, it is relatively easier to live on a low budget. It comes with a catch; that is to be extremely well-informed and skilful in planning.

Along the way in life, I met nasty people; teachers who do not bother to help, friends who will compare wealth, social workers who judged and the list goes on…

It was a strange feeling being a private tutor back then, because except for a short tuition of less than 2 weeks in JC for my weak subject (which I declined eventually as it was just too expensive for my parents), I never received tuition and hardly understand what my role meant to my students. There will be friends who do well because they are more well to do at home and could afford private tuition. Despite so, there are many ways to learn and make life good for yourself; I learnt from friends, joined public activities that I was interested in and forged strong friendships.

It was definitely not easy in my younger days worrying about finances, but I know that there are people who had it tougher than I did. I have met friends with very poverished backgrounds and had permanently ill family members to care for. Everyone’s story is different, some better, some worse but we help one another along.

My circumstance today is an outcome of many great help along the way. I graduated with distinction and I am working with an MNC. I travel a lot with the company, and where schedule allows I try to contribute to the local communities on personal account. After all, I might be contributing to another person’s aspirations just like someone did to me years ago.

Elderly woman poor but happy

I had a friend once. She was a single elderly lady. She lived in a one-room flat with her nephew. Every day, she would go to the nearby church where she ate lunch and helped out with feeding the dog, folding pamphlets and such. The dog’s name was Ginny, and she (the dog) listened to no one but her.


One day, her nephew sold the flat and bought another place to live. He didn’t take her along, and she was very sad because she had no place to live.

She met the conditions to stay in a charitable home and was transferred to St Vincent’s Home for the Ambulant Elderly in the city area. She stayed there with up to 13 other occupants.

She had no possessions except for what could fit into a small wooden cabinet. Mostly a rosary, a purse, and a statue of Mother Mary that I once gave her.

She received $450 a month from Public Assistance. Her medical bills were paid by Medifund, a financial support scheme that only the poorest of Singapore had access to.

The Home provided her with at least 1 meal a day. Her typical day started at 6am when she attended the morning Mass at a nearby church. This was followed by breakfast with the priests. Then she would help out around the church until lunch.

In the afternoon, she would meet a friend or go to Chinatown to windowshop. Sometimes she would buy a dress, or a purse, or some make-up. Alternatively, she would return to the Home where various schools and organisations would visit.

After dinner, she is usually asleep by 9pm.

She was happy most of the time, except when she quarreled with her room mates.

I used to visit her about once a month and listened to her stories.

When I got busy in my new job, I stopped visiting her. One day, I got a phone call from the administrator of the Home. She told me that my friend had been admitted to Assisi Hospice, and found my phone number among her belongings.


I visited my friend at the hospice. No one else visited her. She was so glad I came that she cried. She had late stage liver cancer and the doctor said she would go within the year.

I spent some time with her that afternoon. She passed away 5 days later. I attended her funeral service at 6am the following morning. There were only a handful of people in attendance.

She lived a simple, insignificant life, brought smiles to the people she met. She didn’t touch a lot of lives, and she didn’t make a lot of money. But she was happy, most of the time. And she was my friend.

Helping each other

Images source: Unsplash and Vladimir Guevarra on Facebook

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