Seeing poverty in Singapore through a new lens

Seeing poverty in Singapore through a new lens
(left) MWS Girlsʼ Residence provides 24/7 care in a safe and nurturing environment for girls aged 15 to 21 years old, who are at risk (right) MWS employs a trauma-informed approach for families experiencing multiple complex challenges such as domestic strife, incarceration and chronic illness

In affluent Singapore where we rarely see beggars or the homeless, few would imagine that the issue of poverty is worth a conversation.

But is that because of how we see poverty?

At the tender age of 11, Natalie* lost her father, who was her confidante and best friend. For years, she could not process the grief and ended up mixing with bad company and eventually lost interest in her studies. At 15, she was referred to MWS Girls’ Residence.

Deborah’s husband was a proud man and he was temperamental towards her. When he fell ill, she struggled emotionally to dedicate herself to his care. Due to past hurts, she harboured deep hatred towards him.

Natalie’s and Deborah’s situations say nothing of their financial circumstances. But the brokenness in emotional, mental and relational well-being—was palpable.

Widening the definition of poverty is necessary in order to address the whole person.

Poverty is complex

We would never want to diminish the realities or struggles of those experiencing poverty by trying to package it in a simplistic way. It is a complex topic and numerous experts have spilled much ink on it.

For many, “poverty” may conjure images of starving children with flies swarming their faces. Many of us may also think that poverty is the state of a group of people, whom we may refer to as “the poor”.

The problem with this understanding is that it divides. By its nature, the label separates people into hierarchical groups where “the poor” is framed as helpless individuals whom society deems inept and in need of whatever we have, for which we decide.

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Poverty is not just about financials

Another common perception is that poverty is a situation of dire financial constraint or lack of material resources. But poverty is not just about money. An individual who lacks fulfilment of any deep need or faces impoverishment in any facet of their well-being is in fact experiencing poverty in that area.

For instance, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds or youths at risk may experience a poverty of love, self-belief or hope.

Among those who are socially isolated or battling chronic illness, many experience poverty of physical health, as well as crippling mental and emotional anguish.

Similarly, families who are struggling with debt and financial distress may not only face monetary constraint, but also marginalisation and a poverty of choice or even identity, as if they do not exist.

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked, and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

– Mother Teresa

A Christian perspective

Corbett and Fikkert note in their book When Helping Hurts that “poverty is the absence of shalom (peace)”. It is the result of relationships—with God, self, others and the rest of creation—that do not work. By this definition we are all susceptible to poverty, and that levels the playing field.

Founded in 1981, Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) is a Christian non-profit organisation that serves people across all ethnicities and religions. Today, we serve over 9,000 families and individuals who are experiencing different forms of poverty— including children from disadvantaged backgrounds and youths at risk; seniors battling chronic illness or social isolation; and families troubled by fractured relationships, financial woes and other forms of distress.

But more than social service and healthcare, our work is really a mission to alleviate all kinds of poverty, to ignite God-given dignity into the hearts of all who experience poverty, by empowering them—us—to be who God had created us to be.

Matthew 25:40 (NIV) says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” At the heart of Jesus’ words is that people are created in God’s image. The call to alleviate poverty is compelling because every person bears his likeness, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, economic status or social standing. Our Christian response to poverty thereby recognises the dignity and value of the person, and our goal is to see the person flourish.

Because we believe that every person is made in God’s image, every person has God-given potential. John 10:10 (NIV) tells us that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The ability to live life to the fullest honours the dignity that God has given us.

A response that honours

These perspectives have a direct impact on MWS’ way of care.

Firstly, instead of trying to “rescue” people from their despair, we aim for a more empowering approach. What this looks like is togetherness, walking alongside those experiencing poverty with them in the driving seat. Hence, no matter how tempting it is to push through case plans so as to see clients’ situations improve rapidly, our social workers are mindful of moving at clients’ pace and carefully considering their experiences, hopes and strengths.

Secondly, we seek holistic transformation by addressing the whole person. For instance, at MWS nursing homes, residents enjoy appropriate autonomy and curated activities from urban farming to purposeful voluntary work in-house that makes for a vibrant and more dignified life.

A transformative approach

At MWS Girls’ Residence, Natalie enjoyed a safe environment and learnt to handle her anxiety and grief. After getting her N-Level certificate, she is today working in a local nursing home.

As for Deborah, her husband was subsequently referred to MWS Home Care & Home Hospice. The team not only guided her on caring for her husband physically, they were a huge source of emotional support. Over time, he became gentler and more loving, and even asked to be baptised. The couple eventually reconciled before he passed on peacefully.

Natalie’s transformation was more than the outcome of therapy and rehabilitation. The change in Deborah and her late husband’s situation was more than just responses to medical aid and counselling. These are the results of restoration and growth towards God-given potential.

This article was first published on MWS’ website.

*Not her real name

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We love because God first loved us. We care because he loves all. We act because he has placed in our hearts a passion for these issues, such that we run towards all who face poverty, not as saviours but as those who have been saved.

Visit mws.sg today and we welcome you to come alongside and support those we care about.

By the Methodist Welfare Services Communications Team. / Photos courtesy of Methodist Welfare Services