Dialogue explores ways to help lower-income bridge social divide

Participants suggest integrating rental with BTO flats, tenant fund for community events

Most residents who live in public rental housing have found that their Housing Board blocks have only rental units. This gives families little opportunity to get to know others in their transient neighbourhood, and they may feel isolated as a result.

Ways to overcome this - such as integrating rental HDB flats into blocks of Build-To-Order (BTO) flats for purchase and having a special fund that tenants can tap for community activities - were among suggestions by participants to address the needs of lower-income communities and boost social solidarity at a virtual dialogue on Thursday night.

Among the participants was Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who welcomed these ideas. He said those living in rental units should not have to face stigma, and that their situations should not be construed as something out of the ordinary. They could also be temporarily in dire straits.

"But that may not be how the cookie crumbles," added the Workers' Party secretary-general and MP for Aljunied GRC.

"We need to accept that there are imperfections in society and... we should be more open-minded as a people. That may not be an end point but at least it will be a better place than where we were," he said.

"Solidarity cannot just be for those who are like me, you know, sitting on a chair, living in relative comfort. It has to be about everybody. There has to be a certain authenticity about solidarity, it can't be just simple words."

More than 100 people took part in the session organised by local co-operative A Good Space and student-run group Community for Advocacy and Political Education (Cape).

The conversation was moderated by A Good Space chairman and former Nominated MP (NMP) Anthea Ong, and was also attended by Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment, and new NMP Shahira Abdullah.

Timed to take place two days after the Budget statement by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the dialogue was planned to discuss whether Budget 2021 adequately addresses the needs of low-income communities.

These could include rental-flat households, low-wage workers, migrant workers, migrant spouses, as well as seniors, single parents, people with disabilities or mental health conditions, and those who are homeless.

Participants dived straight into debating the feasibility and practicality of various suggestions.

To glean recommendations, the organisers had, over the past few weeks, organised a focus group session with those who help the low-income community. These were formulated into statements that were put to the public in a survey, and were also discussed by participants in small groups.

Suggestions raised included allowing single tenants to live alone in public rental one-room flats, instead of with a co-occupant; providing migrant workers with subsidised healthcare rates for non-emergency services; and having more skills upgrading courses with disability-accessible features.

In his comments, Mr Ng noted that with any decisions and policy-making, trade-offs have to be considered.

For example, some participants suggested that golf courses be cleared for housing, which would mean that the smaller group of those who play golf may be unhappy, but could result in more housing options for more Singaporeans.

"It is important to recognise the trade-offs and then make a decision, but I think most important is for Parliament to have all the different views out there, and we debate it," he said. "We need to focus not just on the dollars and cents of the issues, but the social side as well."

Dr Shahira, an associate consultant with the dental surgery team in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital who has also worked with youth, said: "There are a few solutions that I feel are very practical and can be brought to fruition. Hopefully I can bring up some of these solutions, thoughts and opinions in Parliament."

Mr Singh acknowledged the efforts of groups like A Good Space and Cape to help those on the other side of the income divide.

He said: "People are organising themselves. When you organise, you create a movement, and people start listening and people start hearing you."

He added: "For too long, we've had a hesitation to organise... I think as a society we are plateauing a little - we have different groups with different interests. I think it's so critical for us to have this open-minded attitude if we really are talking about being one united people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2021, with the headline 'Dialogue explores ways to help lower-income bridge social divide'. Subscribe