How can Budget 2021 adequately address the needs of our low-income communities?

On 16th February, DPM Heng announced Budget 2021. With COVID-19 posing greater challenges to persons from low-income communities:

How can Budget 2021 adequately address the needs of people from these communities?

On 18th February, our team at A Good Space (AGS) decided to organise The Ground Speaks: Budget 2021 Conversations with the awesome young changemakers from the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE), our first attempt at creating a space for ordinary citizens, changemakers and Parliamentarians to surface and discuss issues and recommendations around this question.

In doing so, we hoped to glean insights which the Parliamentarians could raise in the following week’s Committee of Supply Debates; or changemakers could use to write social media posts, forum letters, etc to continue to advocate for low-income communities.

In this article, we hope to share a summary of the journey we took leading up to The Ground Speaks, the key insights that emerged and what’s next for this experiment for a more active and informed citizenry.

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Recommendations submitted by the changemakers, captured on Mural

Gathering recommendations from changemakers

On 2nd February, two weeks before Budget 2021 was announced, we organised a Focus Group Discussion, facilitated by our Chairperson Anthea Ong, to collect requests and recommendations from changemakers representing various low-income communities on how they think Budget 2021 could adequately support the evolving needs of low-income communities.

A variety of changemakers and individuals participated (see image below), contributing recommendations for a variety of low-income groups, a stark reminder that low-income communities go beyond those who live in rental housing.

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Screenshot of our slideshow presentation, showing the diverse communities and changemakers relating to low-income issues

We looked at all the recommendations that the changemakers put forth, and between the AGS and CAPE team, converted 20 of them to be put forth as statements that the public could vote on, using the civic engagement tool, OPPI.

By doing this, we hoped to get a pulse check on whether the wider Singaporean public and residents agreed or disagreed with these recommendations. Besides voting, they could also add comments to add further nuance to these recommendations. These comments could then be converted to statements other respondents could vote on. 

Note: While the changemakers we consulted came from the listed organisations, not all may have participated in their organisational capacity. Therefore, some of their views and recommendations may not be representative of their organisation. Also, because the AGS and CAPE team were the ones who came up with the 20 statements, we might have missed out some of the nuances the changemakers had intended to portray. Thus, not all the changemakers consulted may agree with the 20 statements put forth.

Screenshots of our FB post and an example of a statement in the poll

Inviting Singaporeans and residents to vote

The poll ran for about a week and as of Tuesday, 16th February 2359hrs, 492 participants had voted, contributing 447 comments to further nuance the recommendations (some of which we will share below).

More information on the demographics of voters can be found at our Facebook post.

We were particularly excited by this and the possibilities for a more participative democracy in Singapore. Beyond voting in the General Elections once every 5 years, could this be another way for citizens to continuously shape this country that we all love and call home?

•  •  •

Alex from CAPE shares the insights gathered from the OPPI poll

Sharing insights from the poll during The Ground Speaks

The next part of the journey was for us to share the insights we gleaned during The Ground Speaks: Budget 2021 Conversations, facilitated by our Chairperson Anthea Ong, with 3 Parliamentarians in attendance — Mr Louis Ng (MP, Nee Soon GRC), Mr Pritam Singh (MP, Aljunied GRC) and Ms Shahira Abdullah (NMP).

In total, there were 3 types of statements:

•  Common Ground statements — these are statements that showed consensus amongst respondents.

•  Divisive statements — these are statements with diverging views.

•  Acknowledge statements — these are statements that have a significant number of minority views and their views should be acknowledged.

Common Ground statements

We began by first sharing the common ground statements. In total, there were 12 of these statements.

Later on in the event, we invited the almost 120 participants to break out into smaller groups of 5 to discuss the various Divisive and Acknowledge statements. In the following sections, we’ll share the insights that emerged from these smaller group discussions.

Divisive statement

The only divisive statement that we found in this poll was statement 3. In the image below, we have summarised the various comments that voters expressed when they voted on this statement.

In addition to the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged, the following key insights were also generated in the various small group discussions:

•  If social assistance agencies (SSAs) are incentivised / penalised based on the number of families out of poverty, might they select cases near the poverty line so as to achieve their Key Performance Indicator (KPI), therefore overlooking the lowest income group?

•  Instead of evaluating SSAs and focusing on incentives and penalties, we should focus on providing adequate resources and support for SSAs that are already stretched out

•  We must include the input of low-income families when it comes to evaluating whether SSAs are successful in lifting families out of poverty, so that the process can allow for more dignity and inclusiveness

•  The SSAs cannot bear the responsibility of addressing poverty through their social services alone as poverty is a structural issue that involves economic and political aspects as well. How can we expand our discussion on poverty eradication to not just discuss poverty but also include wealth creation, labour, capital and how they all relate with each other to cause and maintain poverty?

Note: On hindsight, we could have phrased this statement better by removing the word ‘penalised’. Having both incentivised and penalised in the same statement could have made it a double-barreled statement. (i.e. what happens if a voter agrees with incentives but disagrees with penalties?)

•  •  •

Acknowledge statements

In total, there were 6 Acknowledge statements, and 5 were discussed in the small group discussions. We will share all 6 here:

The first was Statement 11 on whether sex work should be recognized as work.

In addition to the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged, the following key insights were also generated in the various small group discussions:

What is sex work?

•  There was a lot of curiosity and confusion about what sex work entailed — it was not what first came to mind when people thought about low-income communities. Knowledge about what sex work constitutes, what challenges sex workers face and the demographics of sex workers is sparse and this sparseness reinforces the current stigma against sex work in Singapore.

•  Because of this, people may not know of the way sex workers are denied support grants and the disproportionate number of sex workers who belong to other disadvantaged communities as well (e.g. single mothers, transgender women, transient workers, etc)

•  If so, how can we raise public awareness of sex work in Singapore? How can we humanise sex workers by telling their stories? This knowledge will be critical in developing receptivity and empathy on the part of parliamentarians and larger society to listen to the voices of sex workers and understand what they need.

•  The definition of sex work in Singapore and the legal rights of sex workers need to be made clear. There should also be clearer articulation of what financial assistance sex workers are currently entitled to as well. If sex workers are not eligible for some forms of help, the reasons for that need to be made clear as well.

Assistance to all Singaporeans

•  Most participants shared the sentiment that regardless of one’s own moral position or whether or not the work is legalised, sex workers deserve dignity and support, just as all other workers in Singapore do.

•  Dignity entails the right to a livelihood and economic security, which would include access to financial assistance schemes and the ability to conduct their work without facing the threat of prosecution by the law.

•  One participant pointed out that it was contradictory to talk about helping all Singaporeans getting through the pandemic and economic crisis while choosing to ignore the dire economic straits of sex workers. Basic human and workplace rights must be extended to all.

•  Another angle which someone took to this issue is to talk about the moral culpability of the government, which must commit to helping all citizens regardless of whether the decisions made would be unpopular; making unpopular decisions for good reasons is not unknown to the government. The need to help the vulnerable, someone pointed out, outweighs politically favourable choices.

•  •  •

The second was Statement 2 on having a community fund for rental flat residents to organize activities for their block.

In addition to the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged, the following key insights were also generated in the various small group discussions:

Why are people not using existing funds?

•  One group highlighted that there are already a few existing funds (i.e. the Friendly Faces, Lively Places fund by HDB). Some participants suggested that these funds are not well-known and should be publicised more. Others said that it should be less bureaucratically challenging to apply for said funds. After all, residents of these communities do not have much spare time.

•  A common critique of these existing funds was that they were not flexible, and that subsequent schemes should be designed to be more adaptable to the changing needs of the residents within each community.

Policymakers of such funds should recognise residents’ agency and support them with capacity

•  It was suggested that if such a fund were to be made available, residents of the rental blocks should have full agency in organising these activities for their block.

•  It was also suggested that in order for self-directed funds to succeed, policymakers should make sure that residents have the time, mental space and emotional capacity to use the funds effectively. One way to do so was to tap on their existing knowledge — for instance, they could design their fund-assisted activities around existing informal activities which they already are organising (i.e. tapping into existing models that work).

Other concerns

•  What might be the practicalities and logistics of implementing such a plan? Will a community leader be appointed? If so, how? One group also briefly mentioned how it might be tricky to implement such a fund in the near future. Should rental units be integrated into HDB flats, how would such funds apply to these blocks?

•  •  •

The third was Statement 10 on integrating public rental flats into existing purchased flats.

Most groups agreed that the distinction between purchased and rental housing needs to be addressed. In addition to the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged, the following key insights were also generated in the various small group discussions:

•  There was broad consensus around the stigma that rental housing flats are undesirable places to live in and that the upkeep and physical environment of these estates vastly differ from purchased HDB estates. Policy efforts must account for material and experiential realities of low-income communities.

•  Housing integration also should not reproduce existing power inequalities between low-income communities and the rest of society. Housing them in the same estate does not guarantee equitable housing.

•  Mixing low-income families into regular HDB estates may make poverty further invisible in our living spaces and normalise the narrative that poverty doesn’t exist in Singapore. However, at the same time, policy efforts should also refrain from the hyper-visibility of poverty porn.

•  Ultimately, home should be a safe and sustainable environment regardless of status as rental or purchased housing.

•  •  •

The fourth was Statement 8 on expanding the Singles Scheme to enable applicants for public rental flats to live on their own.

In addition to the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged, the following key insights were also generated in the various small group discussions:

Building rental flats might not be the best move

•  To allow individuals to stay in rental flats by themselves instead of sharing would mean that more rental flats have to be built. In land-scarce Singapore, building new units would mean we will have to build over existing areas — where can we build then?

•  If we build rental units on land designated for the construction of BTOs, couples will have to endure even longer waiting times, in addition to having to wait up to 5 years for their apartment.

•  Land reallocated from golf courses takes away a source of sport for stakeholders who play golf. At the same time, land taken from forest areas will elicit resistance from nature groups, who will be concerned with the habitation of endangered local biodiversity.

Make rental flat co-occupancy more enjoyable

•  This could reduce the resistance of applicants to staying with a flat mate. In the short run, we can upgrade the facilities and environment of rental blocks which are currently of a low quality. In the long run, we can aim to eliminate rental blocks, and instead build rental units interspersed with owned HDB flats to avoid the current state of ghettoisation and the stigma associated with living in a rental flat.

•  Another way to make co-occupancy more enjoyable is to conduct programmes to help flat mates get to know each other better and assist in disputes.

•  •  •

The fifth was Statement 13 on providing migrant workers with subsidised healthcare rates for non-emergency medical services, similar to Singaporeans.

While there are concerns that the system would get abused, there was a consensus amongst everyone that there should be some form of subsidies for migrant workers. The following key insights were generated in the various small group discussions:

Who’s going to pay for this?

•  Foremost among the concerns was the question of who should bear the financial responsibility; progressive firms, employers, or regular Singaporeans? The last point seemed particularly concerning — should the financial responsibility be passed on to Singaporeans, there might be an increase of taxes or the cost of goods & services, which could hurt low-income communities.

•  If Singaporeans have to bear the financial responsibility, perhaps there needs to be more awareness of the plight of migrant workers and knowledge of the complexities of this issue.

•  Ultimately, while there was no clear consensus about whether financial responsibility for migrant medical conditions should be shifted to the top (i.e. getting funding from those who can afford to support migrant workers), there was a broad agreement that we must uplift the bottom (i.e. migrant workers)

What types of conditions should we cover?

•  Some groups questioned: what type of medical condition should be covered? For some participants, there was reservation to bear the cost of long-term illnesses.

Note: On hindsight, we could have phrased this statement better by removing the example of chronic disease care and keeping it to “non-emergency services”, instead of chronic care, which might extend to pre-existing conditions.

•  •  •

The sixth was Statement 14 on whether the government should provide financial assistance to migrant workers who have suffered salary interruptions due to COVID-19.

Because of the limited time and the presence of another statement concerning migrant workers (statement 13 above), we decided to omit this statement from the small group discussions. However, the image above shows some of the crowdsourced sentiments that emerged from voters who voted on this statement.

•  •  •

Many folks stayed for the post-event townhall, which ended almost an hour later at 10.30pm!

Other insights that emerged from the post-event townhall from participants and Parliamentarians

The Parliamentarians were given some time to respond to the insights shared above and while the event concluded around 9.30pm, many of the participants stayed for an impromptu post-event town hall, where several of them raised their concerns and ideas for the welfare of low-income communities.

Here were some highlights from the points that were raised:

Strengthen employment rights and social protection for low-wage workers
Stephanie speaks about the need for better employment rights

Stephanie, an independent researcher, suggested for the Parliamentarians to review the recommendations raised in Beyond Social Services’ Mind The Chasm: COVID-19 & Deepening Inequalities in Singapore report, namely: to strengthen employment rights and social protection for low-wage workers.

She felt that there was room for the Budget to more adequately address these needs and cautioned against limiting ourselves in terms of the measures that can be implemented to alleviate a situation.

“I feel that a lot of times we are pitted with two alternatives when we are not given a more accurate picture. For example, GST hikes are the only way to fund healthcare…why not wealth taxes, right? I object to this very narrowing of choices and then limiting the discussion to only these two choices…”

She also raised concerns about how trade-offs might be guided by economic principles and proposed viewing trade-offs through the lens of ethics as well, saying:

“Your right or desire to play golf is not morally equivalent to the right to affordable housing.”

Improve rental flat estate conditions

Another participant shared his concerns over the conditions of rental flat blocks; that they are often littered with rubbish and urine, and that more needs to be done.

From left to right, Anthea Ong, MP Louis Ng, MP Pritam Singh, NMP Shahira Abdullah listen to our participants

Responding, MP Louis Ng clarified that the town council assigns the same number of cleaners for rental and non-rental blocks. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the need to improve the conditions of such estates and added that the poor upkeep of such estates could be attributed to the higher concentration of people in such blocks.

Be transparent about the quality of jobs under the Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI) & reward all essential workers
Kumarr from Beyond Social Services speaks about the Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI)

Kumarr from Beyond Social Services raised two concerns:

Firstly, what is the breakdown of the jobs created under the Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI)? Are they standard or non-standard forms of jobs? What is the minimum wage for these jobs?

Kumarr shared his worry that those most badly affected by COVID-19 were workers who were already in unsteady job positions, like gig workers, and how the JGI may not be providing quality jobs.

Secondly, how do we ensure that essential workers are not “punished” by policies like that of the fuel hikes?

(The pay rise for public healthcare workers) is in the right direction. However, there were more heroes…I am giving just one example, workers in the food industry…it seems like we punish them instead, especially our (food delivery) motorcyclists, they are now paying higher for fuel…

He shared further his concerns about how such policies are often introduced without a warning and how it will affect different food delivery workers.

To this, MP Pritam Singh shared that Kumarr’s point about needing a breakdown of the types of jobs provided under the JGI is valid. He also assured that there will be further discussions on how the fuel hikes impact low-income communities.

MP Louis Ng added that there have been discussions on extending the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for fast food workers.

Where can we go from here?

You can follow us on social media by scanning the QR codes above to stay updated

We hope to put together more of such sessions for active citizens to come forward and contribute their ideas and collective wisdom towards a more caring and inclusive Singapore that emerges Stronger, Together.

In late March / early April, we hope to put together another event after the Budget and Committee of Supply debates to review how Budget 2021 has addressed the needs of low-income communities and identify areas for our continued advocacy.

We are committed to incorporating the insights we have gathered here into a Living Labs for Low-Income Communities, our effort to mobilize diverse changemakers in a sustained attempt to prototype solutions with members from low-income communities.

If you are interested to participate or stay updated, please sign up for our mailing list or follow us on our social media pages to be automatically updated!

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Phew, that was a long article, thank you for reading to the end and we hope this was an enriching read for you! To everyone who either participated in the poll, helped to shape it or participated in The Ground Speaks, thank you so much! We are so heartened and grateful that so many of you contributed your ideas, comments and stories.

Till next time!

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