Singapore is often described as an economic miracle, a phenomenal development that is the product of long-term economic and social planning while largely upholding free market principles. The island nation features highly on several economic indicators, including being arguably the most economically competitive country in the world, third least corrupt nation in the world, among the top ten best nations to do business in the world, and the top country in the world for expats to live in.
While Singapore actively avoids being a full-fledged welfare state (the state tries to promote self-responsibility), in recent years more redistributive policies have been introduced, such as the Merdeka Generation and Pioneer Generation care packages. These were attempts to recognise senior Singaporeans for their efforts and sacrifices in helping Singapore develop into the prosperous nation it is today. One such sacrifice was giving up their homes in the villages and resettling into public housing. While some Singaporeans baulked at losing land that was owned through several generations, ultimately almost everyone could own affordable housing, and this created a stable environment in which families could thrive. This is often seen as a case of housing policy done right.
Homelessness is not new to Singapore, but the phenomenon seldom has any salience in people’s minds. This is arguably due to the police having the authority to send homeless persons that they encounter to a shelter, thus reducing the visibility of the homeless to the public eye. Additionally, public infrastructure is designed to deter people from sleeping in the streets. Take a close look at the bus stop seats in Singapore; they are designed to deter individuals from using them as makeshift beds. It would therefore come as a surprise that a recent student of homelessness in Singapore revealed a surprising finding: up to 1000 people sleep on the streets in Singapore.
The first nationwide survey on homelessness
I had the fortune of being part of that study, specifically helping to survey one of the many housing estates in Singapore for homeless persons. Homeless persons in Singapore are hard to find during the day as many hold jobs in the day. Often, they would wait until most people are home before setting up for the night so as to stay out of sight of the general populace. Yet, often they would situate themselves in a place that is not too secluded for safety reasons. Striking a balance between privacy and safety would mean that there are certain preferred places, such as stairwells or gazebos. Alternatively, they might resourcefully use folded cardboard boxes to create a makeshift shelter, providing refuge from both the elements and prying eyes.
Striking a balance between privacy and safety would mean that there are certain preferred places, such as stairwells or gazebos.
Starting at 11pm on a humid late July evening, nearly 500 of us volunteers set off to our designated zones to keep an eye out for any homeless persons. We worked in pairs, sharing a map with the potential areas where we might encounter homeless persons marked out. Ideally, we would try and speak to someone who was in the midst of settling down for the night. Should we encounter someone who was already asleep, we would make some quick notes about the living conditions of that homeless person and move on. Otherwise, we would proceed to ask some questions regarding their current life situation; should the topic of social assistance arise, we had the contact details of several helping agencies on hand. This helped address certain ethical concerns, and as volunteers, this lifted a big burden off our shoulders.
I was tasked to a district in Choa Chu Kang, a relatively new estate built in the 1980s on large tracts of former farmland. The search was admittedly rather uneventful. Like most of Singapore, the streets are brightly lit at night, deterring both crime and mischief. While we were given confused looks by several youths who were hanging out late, we did not see any homeless persons in our designated zone. We did meet someone sleeping on a bench, but it turned out to be a partygoer who partied a little too hard – the survey was done on a Friday night, after all.
Despite the lack of an encounter, I did go home with a sense of accomplishment, for the lack of an encounter could imply that social policy is helpful in addressing the issue of homeless persons, at least in Choa Chu Kang estate. As it turns out, most of the homeless in Singapore tend to be concentrated either in the central or eastern districts of Singapore, whereas Choa Chu Kang is situated in the west.
Additionally, several homeless persons shared that they are homeowners, but personal issues or familial conflict compelled them to move out of the home and onto the streets. This is a finding that is surprising as it implies a gap in the purported success of Singapore’s housing policy, that the benefits of affordable housing can be eclipsed by serious family conflict.
The experience of being part of the survey did prompt me to think deeper about the homelessness situation in the Central district of Singapore. Yes, that glitzy, glamorous city centre does have its share of homeless persons, and this might reflect a gap in Singaporean social and housing policy that might one day impact Singaporeans living in other districts too.
Many older folks have lived in the older public apartments that dot the city centre since their younger days. However, as the economy changed from being labour-intensive to one that is more knowledge-based, many of these older workers have been relegated to doing menial work that does not pay well. Additionally, the traditional concept of family living, captured through the phrase “three generations under one roof” no longer holds true my many younger Singaporeans, as seen in 2015 study on family structures by Mathew Mathews and Paulin Tay Straughan. The researchers uncover a growing trend of parents living alone after their children have moved out. This is in spite of the fact that many young couples acknowledge the benefits of having parents around when they are raising their children. Yet for many young Singaporean couples, privacy takes precedence over living with parents, however beneficial that living arrangement may be.
As a result, I did wonder if the combined effect of lowered incomes and societal changes in terms of family living arrangements resulted in a situation where many of these older folks are in a particularly vulnerable state. Add in the fact that living in the city centre means facing a higher cost of living, and the situation becomes particularly acute for many lower-income elderly persons living in the central district.
In fact, the official findings from the study shared that the top three reasons contributing to homelessness in Singapore include unemployment and wage issues, estrangement from family and difficulties with paying for housing. Many were elderly men, and most reported having made several attempts to seek help. For many of them, homelessness was a chronic issue, fuelled by the economic and familial challenges that ensnare them. Their situation is only somewhat ameliorated by their resourcefulness in making life on the street a bit less miserable through the creative use of scrap materials as shelter, or the forming of social bonds with other homeless people.
Help for the homeless in Singapore
While homelessness is not new to Singapore, there have been recent policy innovations that seek to address this issue. For starters, low-income elderly persons are eligible for affordable housing in the form of Senior Group Homes, where two seniors are assigned to share a single room located in a residential area. These seniors would have ready access to healthcare workers and social workers, addressing their physical, mental and emotional health issues.
However, friends of mine who work in Senior Group Homes have shared their observations that, more often than not, having two elderly strangers live together can result in significant interpersonal conflict. Still, the service has expanded widely, with plans for every major estate to have at least one such home.
Additionally, homeless individuals in Singapore can seek assistance from several homeless or crisis shelters available in Singapore. While these shelters only provide short-term assistance, often shelter workers would link residents to social support services that can provide better long-term care. NGOs that provide support for homeless persons in Singapore also exist, such as the Homeless Hearts, which befriends the homeless and subsequently help them re-integrate into the community, and various other charities and religious organisations.
In fact, some places of worship have chosen to leave their premises open through the night so that homeless persons can seek shelter and refuge instead of roughing it out on the streets. These services are not unlike those provided by other developed economies such as Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, and while these initiatives may not eliminate homelessness entirely, it surely is a step in the right direction.
Singapore does not exist in isolation, and homelessness is an issue that all major cities face. The recent study’s key aims were primarily to get a sense of the scope of homelessness in Singapore, but these findings can form the foundation for further in-depth research into homelessness in Southeast Asian cities. Social research, when shared across nations will not only help each nation’s citizens prosper but also improve their quality of living and other intangibles, resulting in real progress that goes beyond economic performance.
You can access the full report here: https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/faculty-publications/homeless-in-singapore.pdf
 https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/open-for-business-rankings, accessed 20/11/19
 https://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/the-10-best-countries-for-expats, accessed 20/11/19
 https://www.swd.gov.hk/en/index/site_pubsvc/page_family/sub_listofserv/id_serstsleeper/ accessed 7/12/19, while not explicitly mentioned in the website, the author has personal contacts that are involved in outreach activities to engage street sleepers