Reflections on Urban Poverty Forum

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The forum, organised by Singapore Poly as part of their Design Thinking Summit, was a mere 3 hours long and tried to cover a lot. This was the institutions first foray in this area.


  • Opening speech by Lawrence Lien was fantastic. He has a deep understanding of the psychological toll of poverty and how the burden of poverty is not simply about limited financial choices. He set a high bar for the rest of the afternoon.
  • The panel discussion at the end of the day include Gerard Ee and Fion Phua
    • Gerard Ee heads Beyond Social Services. I think of him as a guy who really understands the systematic hurdles to helping the poor and though he hints at them often, he mostly bites his tongue in order to keep doing the good work he is doing. He is quite sensitive to the subtle social forces that keep people down. He shared a simple story which showed how privilege and entitlement can create invisible barriers between the haves and have nots. It was profound in a way that surprised me in this setting. I don’t think most people got what he was saying. I would queue to hear more from this man.
    • Fion Phua is a much celebrated charity worker who is practically a social service all on her own. But clearly her years of service have taken their toll. Her cynicism and frustration with so many acts of aka “charity” was thinly veiled indeed. She had tale after tale of rich people expecting the poor to take their discarded items whether it helped them or not. She also spoke of how so many people attach strings to their gifts – conditions which reflect their own values and patronising opinion of the choices poor people make (“I will give this money to you only if you promise to buy organic”). She was trying very hard to get the audience to “get it” – to understand that charity is not charity when it is so self-serving. I think she was successful. But I do expect her to throttle someone some day. You heard it here first.

The panel discussion mostly focused on volunteering so has little to offer to those interested in the structural issues of poverty. There were certainly a number of such questions from the audience (queued in their app and never addressed) and one very long “this is really a speech not a question” from the floor. But the panel mostly focused on how poly students could be nicer people so was rather lightweight.

My own question which reached #4 on the question leader board (due to someone gaming of the system jeez) remained unanswered as did most of the 40 odd questions posed (thanks for hogging the floor Mr That-is-not-a-question).


The largest part of the afternoon was taken up with a theatre piece which was a spin on forum theatre: after a short play, each character goes off to a corner and you are invited to speak with them and make suggestions about how they could improve their situation. Of course the systematic issues these people were facing were quite challenging. I wanted to suggest a life of crime to one of the characters but this might not have gone down well. It was in this setting that one of the audience members suggested to a character that he could stretch his budget further if he just at once per day. Yes he really said that in all seriousness and when challenged, replied, “I often eat once per day.” It didn’t show.

The term Urban Poverty was used throughout as a proxy term for “poverty in Singapore” – ie the poverty we know. How it differs from rural poverty was not discussed nor was how this distinction is important to informing the proposed solutions.

All in all not bad for a first effort and definitely some takeaways. But in future I would prefer to attend discussions focusing on the meatier issues of urban poverty and skip the education and personal values bits. But on re-reading the literature, I discovered that the latter was really what this forum was about: “To promote awareness and engage participants on social issues affecting our community.”

That there were so many people there wanting to discuss this topic in more detail, makes it clear there is a hunger for more in depth discussion of this area. I’m one of them.