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October 2020 Feature

In her book, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018), the sociologist Teo You Yenn gauges that ‘roughly a fifth of the resident population of Singapore could be defined as poor.’ This estimate presenting a high proportion of people in poverty is likely to raise eyebrows, given that the city-state in question has been often hailed as one of the richest in the world.

But Teo’s claim is not without basis. It is made, she notes, in accordance with the poverty line defined by some international organisations and scholars—at the level of less than half the median household income of the population.

Whether the poverty line adopted by Teo is too high or too low is a question which is best left to the social scientists, economists, policymakers, and other experts. A related and perhaps more basic question to ask would be whether a poverty line is needed, and it is with this that I wish to begin.

Some people may find it surprising that Singapore is among the few developed countries in the world in which there is no officially agreed upon poverty line. Renewed calls to establish one have been rejected by the government. Explaining the stance taken, the then Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Chan Chun Sing writes,

‘A poverty line does not fully reflect the severity and complexity of the issues faced by poor families, which could include ill health, lack of housing or weak family relationships. If we use a single poverty line to assess the family, we also risk a “cliff effect”, where those below the poverty line receive all forms of assistance, while other genuinely needy citizens outside the poverty line are excluded.’

That seems to me plain and satisfactory enough. Even so, one must take seriously the counterpoint that if poverty is not measured, the poor may be inadvertently misrecognised or swept under the carpet. To quote from a study by Irene Y H Ng entitled ‘Definitions and Measurements of Poverty’, the ‘problem of not recognising poverty as poverty is that less societal redistribution is channelled to them than is needed.’

In hindsight and in light of the foregoing discussion, is it not prudent of the early church in Jerusalem to require of Paul and Barnabas only one thing for going forth to preach the good news to the Gentiles—that they ‘remember the poor’? (Gal 2:10). That obligation, we read, was also the very thing the apostle and his associate were eager to do.

Remembering the poor goes beyond merely thinking about the poor or having sympathy for their plight. The kind of remembering upon which the Bible lays stress, involves social engagement and practical action on the part of the believers.

Throughout the Bible, we find an entrenched tradition of upholding the poor as deserving of special care, attention and solicitude. Indeed, the rights of the poor are viewed as divinely sanctioned. Hence the assertion, ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.’ (Prov 14:31; see also 17:5).

Recall also how Jesus famously taught that whatever we do for the poor we do it for him; and conversely, that if we fail to help the poor we are deemed to have been derelict in the duty of love we owe to him. (Matt 25:40, 45). Even more significantly, in Jesus’ proclamation of the good news, the poor are mentioned as the ones to whom his life-giving message is specifically directed. (Luke 4:18; 6:20; see also Isaiah 61:1).

To be sure, the concept of poverty in the Bible has been treated in a variety of ways and from different perspectives. Different words with a range of meanings and nuances are used to describe the poor and their situation. Being poor is sometimes praised or considered a virtue, but at other times, regarded as a disgrace or even a curse.

All this makes for a confusing or contradictory account of poverty. As a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics states, ‘It would be seriously misleading… to suggest that there is either a single or a simple Christian understanding of “poverty.”’

It does not help that certain oft-remembered words of Jesus Christ have been often misread. When Jesus says, ’The poor you will always have with you’ (Matt 26:11; John 12:8), he is not expressing an attitude of resignation to the persistence of poverty, as though poverty is something about which one can do nothing or very little. Nor is he suggesting a shoulder-shrugging apathy towards the poor.

Those words of Jesus were derived from Deuteronomy 15, one of the most loaded ‘Jubilee’ texts in the Bible. In that chapter, two important aspects of poverty are embodied.

The first is a promise that if the people were to fully obey God and keep God’s commands, poverty will be done away with: ‘[T]here need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.’ (verse 4). The second is a command, namely, that since ‘there will always be poor people in the land’ we are to be ‘open-handed’ towards our fellow citizens who are poor and needy. (verse 11).

Both the aspiration that there will be no more poverty, and the instruction to help the poor and the needy constitute the core of a Christian understanding of poverty. So the words, ‘The poor you will always have with you’, I suggest, are to be understood with reference to and against the context of that Deuteronomic source.

This would be good place to point out that the passages in the Bible which deal with poverty can be differentiated between those which have a spiritual significance, and those which refer to a particular social situation.

‘Blessed are you poor’ (Luke 6:20) is clearly concerned with the former. Other texts, especially those found in the prophets, are about material poverty. A single example among many must suffice here: ‘The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst.’ (Is 41:17).

The failure to appreciate such nuances has led some to make light of real poverty, mistaking being poor for a spiritual problem. Some people, on the other hand, have pressed into service materialistic solutions to questions which arise from spiritual poverty.

In discussions about poverty in Singapore, one is often first disabused of the notion that there is no poverty in the city-state, or of the notion that the poor comprise only a very small proportion of the population.

Teo, whom we have cited, sought to do that by her estimation that ‘roughly’ a fifth of the residents live in poverty. Irene Y H Ng whose study was quoted earlier, skilfully begins in the following vein, ‘Many Singaporeans do not think that poverty exists in Singapore. This might be because Singaporeans think of poverty as extreme deprivation experienced by malnourished and dying children in poor countries.’

In reality, manifestations of poverty are all around us; the most disconcerting are the images of elderly men and women eking out a living as cleaners, security guards, tissue-paper sellers, or as collectors of recyclable cardboard. These images can of course be variously interpreted.

What we must not fall for is take poverty for granted or as divinely given. Such a mindset encourages token alms giving while leaving unattended the root causes of poverty.

We have been reflecting on the issue of poverty and attempting to delineate a biblical or Christian perspective within which it may be helpfully understood. I realise I may have treated poverty as if it were a problem that beset only the ‘other,’ within a ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic—between those who are rich and can render help and those who are poor and in receipt of assistance.

Such an opposition is furthest from my mind, for the obvious reason that the Christian readers I have in mind can be either rich or poor, even of anything in-between!

To my mind, all are called upon to help check the mechanisms and systems by which so much poverty is caused. The rich can take up the cause of the poor while the poor can do the same for those even poorer. At all events, the manner in which we deal with the poor will reflect whether we are in the good graces of God, or not.

Dr Lim K Tham, PhD (University of Edinburgh) is the dean of Discipleship Training Centre, Singapore. He has served as general secretary of the Bible Society of Singapore and the National Council of Churches of Singapore, and as a member of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.