Singapore is past the point where a poverty line is useful, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday, as its groups of needy now take shifting and multi-faceted form.
Hence, the Government's "kueh lapis" approach to social assistance, he said, summoning a metaphor that Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing used to describe the multi-layered help it provides to those in need.
Speaking to reporters after a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, Mr Lee weighed in for the first time on recent calls to establish a poverty line in Singapore, after Hong Kong did so in September.
He said that a poverty line like the World Bank's measure of $1.50 a day was irrelevant in Singapore as there are no "dead poor" here, by which he means those who are starving and unsheltered.
Rather, the poor here range from those going through temporary setbacks to families suddenly felled by illness, to the needy elderly and low-skilled workers.
Each of these groups needs a different sort and scale of help, and often, "men and women of good sense" are required to assess what assistance is desirable and necessary in each case.
This cannot be accomplished by a rigid poverty line, he said, which might be polarising and leave some outside the definition of poor.
"To say as an ideological matter that 'I must have a proper definition, and I want to reduce this group to zero' - I think we have moved beyond that point and I don't think that a definition will help us to improve our schemes," he said.
Mr Lee also dismissed suggestions that a poverty line would help "focus minds" on the issue of the poor in Singapore.
"What is important to us is not about whether we can find a definition with which we can focus minds on the problem, because our minds are focused on the problem," he said.
There are many people doing social work of various kinds in Singapore, he added, a diversity of effort that could actually be hindered by the establishment of an all-encompassing poverty line.
The topic dovetailed with discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, whose theme was "Growth with Equity".
During retreat sessions with leaders of the 53-member grouping, PM Lee set out Singapore's approach to sustainable development, explaining why it is careful to spend within its means and not provide a false sense of well-being through deficit spending.
While it is right for governments to shield their people from the uncertainties and inequalities of the globalised world, it is hard to translate "noble intentions" and social spending into real gains, he said.
In some countries, heavy public spending has not solved the problems of unemployment and a lack of competitiveness but has led to growing debt, he said.
Singapore's approach is to live within its means so as not to leave the next generation indebted, pursue long-term growth strategies rather than deficit spending, and protect the environment, he summed up.
Later, he told reporters that the biennial Commonwealth meet remained a valuable point of contact between Singapore and countries in Africa and the Caribbean that it did not have many direct links with.
On the sidelines of the two-day summit, PM Lee met his counterparts from Malta, Rwanda, Tanzania and Vanuatu for bilateral discussions.
He also congratulated Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa on a summit well-hosted.
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