Singapore’s growing homeless problem

  New Straits Times
October11, 2003
Periscope: By Yusman Ahmad

IT was three in the morning on a very cool Saturday. Most Singaporeans were fast asleep. So was a group of more than a dozen able-bodied men — some even snoring — on flattened cardboard boxes laid in neat rows. But unlike most of the Singaporeans who were asleep in the comfort of their homes, the group of men slept in the open — with the sky as their roof — in a secluded spot near the World Trade Centre Ferry Terminal. Most of them have been spending their nights there for the past year. They have named the place Heartbreak Hotel. Over at Toa Payoh housing estate, a thirtysomething married couple was cuddling each other under a bridge to keep themselves warm, amid the nearby tall and impressive apartment blocks. The spot under the bridge has been their home for the last one month. Like the group of men at the Heartbreak Hotel, they had rejection written all over their faces. Their meals are at coffee shops or food centres, while they answer nature's calls at public toilets. The group of men and the couple are part of the growing number of homeless in Singapore — once an unusual sight in the wealthy island of four million people. No official figures are available, but the numbers are certainly growing.

Most are among the country's more than 100,000 residents who are currently unemployed, although one in the first group works as a cleaner at the Singapore General Hospital. But his monthly salary of S$600 (M$1340) is enough only for food and transport. Another member of the group owns a threeroom flat. But without a job for close to two years and without much savings, it was impossible for him to maintain the flat. He, instead, rents the flat out, and survives on the rental income of about S$700 a month.

Given the absence of unemployment benefits and a lack of welfare aid, and nothing in their wallets, a growing number of Singaporeans are being forced to give up their homes and seek alternative accommodation. Also hit are those in the income bracket of S$400 a month. Their numbers, according to government data, stand at 180,650 workers or about nine per cent of the workforce. While many of the luckier ones have been able to move in with their relatives or to cheaper accommodation, there are a number that have been forced to seek shelter in the open — in parks, under bridges and vacant areas. The couple under the bridge, for instance, once had a three-room flat in the Toa Payoh Housing Estate. But since the husband lost his storekeeper job nearly three years ago, the couple had to endure life first without electricity and water, and subsequently their home. Most of the money that they received from the sale of their flats went back to their Central Provident Fund account, while the rest was used to pay for the utility bills. Like the couple, most Singaporeans have debts and are compelled to pay utility charges and mortgages on their homes each month.

Given that most of the unemployed and those in the low-income bracket lack education and marketable skills, and are being frozen out of the worst job market in 17 years in a country with one of the most educated workforces in Asia, many other may soon share the fate of the couple and the residents of Heartbreak Hotel. The main reason: the country's lack of a social safety net, despite the immense wealth generated during the last three decades of prosperity. The Government does not believe in a welfare state and firmly discourages dependence on the Government. Only a few thousand people are considered poor enough to get a paltry benefit of between S$300 and S$400 per month — barely enough to live on, and that too after a tedious and long process. Instead, the Government insists that those who lack education and marketable skills retrain and upgrade their skills through its subsidised retraining programmes. Still, the presence of these homeless is posing a new problem for the Government, which is currently engrossed in seeking a solution to the country's worst economic problems in history caused by the exodus of manufacturers and multinationals to China and other low-cost regions such as Malaysia and India. A solution is needed.