Friday, 7 October 2011

How to help the poorest (1)

I grew up in a family which would be considered poor by many. ("Poverty" is always relative. We were rich in love and enthusiasm for learning.) Yet I am against the welfare system that I have to subscribe to in the UK.

So how do we help the poorest of the poor amongst Singaporeans?

I remember when in primary one the teacher Mrs Jalil said to bring in 20 cents to buy a plastic cover for a workbook. I went home to ask Mum for 20 cents.

Mum did not have 20 cents to spare. Instead my eldest sister removed the (dirty) plastic cover from one of her books and put it on the workbook which I took back to school.

The next day a classmate laughed at me. I was too poor to afford the 20 cents to buy a book cover. I cried.

I went home, told Mum, and a few days later Mum found the 20 cents to let me buy a pristine plastic cover.

On another occasion someone told me the handbag I was using (a gift from my aunt) came from the "50 cents bargain bin" at CK Tang.

There I was, chuffed to the bones with a handbag at last (I was 12) as my mum had never bought me a handbag. A rich girl turned her nose up at my handbag because it cost all of 50 cents.

I remember these occasions well because clearly they had left marks on my psyche.

Sadly the classmate who laughed at me lost her father soon after that. She had become one of my best friends by then.

Then it transpired that her grandmother was given a stall in a nearby coffee-shop to sell wanton noodles (very yummy ones, too). This way her grandmother helped to support her family.

It appears to me that that was the way the Singapore government used to help the very poor and uneducated. They were given help or some sort of priority in running a business in coffee-shops, school canteens and so on.

I don't see how my friend's grandmother would have found a way to run a stall these days. The cost of renting a stall must be exhorbitant when one hears of coffee-shop owners having to bid a million dollars for a unit.


It has long been recognized by people "in the field" in developing countries that "throwing money" at some people would not help their situation. International aid often goes astray, lining the pockets of dictators and those in positions of influence instead.

Yet many charities are able to make a real difference by offering interest-free micro-loans to women (usually) so that they could start a business. The loan is then repaid and the money given to another person to start another business.

Such schemes engender empowerment instead of dependency.

Are we in Singapore able to do something similar?

Instead of making old ladies sell tissue paper in food centres, is there something we could do to set them up in business?

Here's an idea, an untested idea. So please bear with me, and do please add your suggestions.

In the bus exchanges, void decks, and appropriate locations, could shop space be allotted to a group of needy Singaporeans who might wish to run a business? Let's call it, for now, a "Ho Sim [good heart] Shop"*, run by "members" and not "owners" or "employees".

Members could run mini-units (just a table space, say) within the shop/space, or they could run the whole shop on a rota, or the shop could be run as a co-operative, with members sharing all profits. A decision as to organization has to be made at the start.

Say we find a group of individuals who make some really beautiful one-off cushion covers, aprons, dolls, clothes, other decorative objects, etc. They do not have the platform to sell these items. They could sell these through a Ho Sim Shop.

Items could be bought outright for re-sale or on a "sale or return" basis. Members pay makers a commission, as if they are running a physical version of eBay.

Maybe the Ho Sim Shop members are themselves creative people. They could weave baskets out of discarded magazines, for example, or knit and crochet items that people would wish to buy. They could sell such items (and perhaps the odd pack of tissue paper) at such shops.

The thing is Ho Sim Shops must only sell items which are unique, not items that other shops could sell better(er?) and cheaper, like tacky plastic mass-produced items bought extremely cheaply from another country.

Maybe (and this idea is full of "maybe's" because it is just an idea) polytechnic/university business (and law?) students could come and help them get started, help organize them, help source supplies (eg gather a group of housewives keen to make things to sell), help them to agree on how to run the shop, help them commit to doing some simple book-keeping.

Maybe other students could advise on window displays, marketing, etc. ITE students could be in charge of the fittings and upkeep (electricals, plumbing, eg) of the shop, etc.

An audit trail is important. Because we want members to be able to return whatever start-up money they were given. Maybe they could be given tax breaks for a fixed period. Maybe there is a maximum stay of three to five years so someone else gets the chance.

So perhaps they get a discount on tax/rent every time they let a new member in. On a first-in, first-out basis, members also have to think about a longer-term plan. The point is this scheme is a temporary help. Members who have gained confidence and contacts could move on to other enterprises.

The result?

A platform for home-bound creative people, a source of income for destitute Singaporeans, a chance for students to hone their skills (which would sit well in their CVs), and a unique shop for shoppers to browse where they can expect the unexpected.

A win-win situation?

Alternatively, existing shops could be given a discount on tax or rent if they gave a "Ho Sim space" to a needy person "approved" by the appropriate authority. (Be careful this does not degenerate into a "rent-a-granny scam".) In the long run, this is still cheaper than a comprehensive welfare state.

Who qualifies for such help is a tricky question. If left to a bureaucrat, underlying reasons for "need" would become subsumed under red-tape. One could almost guarantee that.

I suspect it is better for a charity or a "people's champion" to do this work.

If you think you could do something, please kee chiew.

* Overnight thought of another name "The Traiding Post". As some charities say, "Trade, not aid". We also have "Traidcraft".
Playing on the concept "Hand up, not hand out", what about a "Hand-me-up" shop (in contrast to the "hand-me-down's" I used to wear)? NB there is a shop in Georgia, USA, called "Hand Me Up's".

How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (3)

1 comment:

Abao said...

have thought along the lines also. i always feel that there is a need to return to a sense of common good instead of worshipping the god of money.