This video describes a narrative collective practice project in a community in Singapore that experiences financial difficulties and other complex issues. Conversations with the families set out to allow rich description of their experiences of ‘Pocket Kering’, or ‘no money’. Conversations with children involved engaging with the personified ‘Pocket Kering’ monster and retelling of their Superpowers – the skills, values and knowledges that children use to shrink this monster. The League of Parents and Small People against Pocket Kering was formed and children were employed to plan and run a small economic project using their skills, values and knowledges. Finally, a definitional ceremony was held in which the League’s stories were retold and preferred identities acknowledged to an audience of community members and parents.
Elizabeth Quek is a social worker who currently works with families in central Singapore, at the THK Family Service Centre @ Tanjong Pagar. Elizabeth may be contacted via email. Rose is an active community member in Bukit Merah, who believes strongly in supporting community and social change. She invests much of her time at the Family Service Centre as an active volunteer committed to the well-being of her community. She has two beautiful and boisterous young children.
Persons with low income in Singapore are often socially excluded, have poor access to affordable healthcare services, proper nutrition, education, employment and financial support. Another obstacle to improving their situation is dominant beliefs about low income families. The families that consult with us live in the Jalan Minyak and Jalan Bukit Merah area; most live in one of the 28 blocks of public rental housing flats. This section explains more about the context of the experiences of the families these and the work we do.
The colonial mode of governance in 1819 possibly started the process of racialised thinking in modern Singapore that sought to:
Introduce the notion of ‘racial differences…to keep the Malays, Chinese and Indians apart; create and perpetuate these differences according to an ordered hierarchy (Noor, 2009, p. 72)
Many people associate the phrases “low income” and “non-progressive” to the Malay culture. Malays from high to middle classes, including prominent leaders often talk about the race needing to “catch up” and “progress”, implicitly saying something about internal deficits of the people. In addition, the nation attempts to maintain homogenous ways of living and expectations of success to every citizen. It is not dissimilar to what the Maori are experiencing. Talking about one of the effects of colonisation, Tapping (2003) states:
The only criteria of success and worth are judged by white cultural standards, and Maoris have received powerful messages for decades that they do not measure up. (p.58)
In a Singapore which employs rigid social engineering and embraces meritocratic ideas, there are colonising ideas and imposed societal norms that mothers must work to earn money, place children in full time childcare, place elderly family members in institutions, family mediation to agree upon elderly parents’ allowance. Most of the time, if these families do not conform to the above, despite their reasons; financial subsidies for education, financial assistance and even housing would be withheld from these families. Cultural differences can also play an influential role in our perceptions of parents. It is unreasonable to assume that we completely understand the diverse sociocultural and economic influences that shape parental attitudes and behaviour. This is especially true when a family from a different class or cultural group comes to us for help. Families have an existing ecology of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, based on their unique history and traditions. Assuming that we automatically know what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting in a family from a different culture that our own shows disrespect for these ecologies and can do more harm than good. (Freeman, Epston & Lobovits, 2010,p.73)
The percentage of ethnic Malays in the prison, welfare system, government rental flats, low wage earners and school dropouts is over represented and often the public discourse is about how they need to work harder and have fewer children. For many seeking employment is very difficult, and are discriminated on the basis of their inability to speak mandarin. There is an inequity in terms of accessibility for support in education. My colleague said about a teacher who pointed out to her about this child who faced financial difficulties was “late again, and look at his race?” implying that his malayness had something to do with his being late.
Another idea linked to meritocracy is the idea of equal opportunity and the myth of social mobility and ideas of colour-blindness. This societal discourse often blames families especially fathers and mothers as “having crutch mentality”, “lazy” and generally making bad choices for their family. Consequently, according to this discourse, social workers are here to equip these families with skills – parenting, budgeting, stress management, planning, decision making. This dismisses the societal and political structures that maintain the status quo and the injustices and circumstances that families experience.
Guilt, shame and spoiled identities
At many organisations, whether government or voluntary welfare organisations, the authoritarian style are replicated – after listening to the problem saturated story, where evidence of poor health, dysfunction, deprivation and confict are sought out and documented and passed on, solutions are suggested to the families ,and compliance is demanded. A family’s access to basic needs will be withheld if there is no agreement. Additionally, their actions are questioned according to colonizing family norms. Our clients are strongly impacted by accusatory and patronising questions by government agencies, and usually object to suggestions to seek help from them at times to protect their dignity. Many have shared the shame and guilt that comes with losing a job or seeking help.
For children, they are termed as “beneficiaries”,”needy” or “vulnerable”: recipients of charity and requiring public’s compassion to provide School Pocket Money Fund. Parties and budgeting classes still organized for low income children by well-intentioned people; who want them to feel happy at these one off parties, or impart budgeting skills without recognizing their implicit messages of judgements on these families or understanding their realities. In school, they may be silenced by teachers’ words and treatment. This stems from negative attributes given to them when they are late, unable to do their homework, poor attendance or academic performance. Additionally, Singapore society measures student’s worth according to academic performance. These approaches do not take into account the effect of poverty on the child’s performance at school.
I invited people to join the League of Parents and Small People against Pocket Kering, as experts of this issue, and to contribute to its archives. Pocket Kering is a Malay colloquial description of having no money. In direct translation, it means that the “pocket is dry”. Externalisation of poverty like how Aids was externalised and personified in Malawi (Slliep, Y. & CARE Counsellors, 1996) could be very powerful and open up a variety of conversations for the community, regardless of its controversial nature. I hoped to transform the prevailing view of poverty as a consequence of internalised defects of each individual to an issue that has a large impact on the community. This would create a safe space for discussions that could lead to development of concrete solutions. I hope that building this community of support and solidarity would be a powerful weapon to reduce the effects of institutionalized racism, self-blame, and shame – and allow people to be free of this burden and isolation.
Our families have low income and small wages despite long hours and poor work conditions. The country steers away from being a “welfare state”, and emphasizes a “many helping hands approach” which translates into a family needing to approach various places for different needs. These assistances usually last from one to three months, requiring much effort, processing time and documentation to apply and renew. Usually, these forms of assistance are deliberately inadequate and families find themselves stuck in a downwards spiral. Healthcare can be inaccessible and because of their lack of income, families often have poor diets. According to Wilkinson & Pickett (2009), Singapore’s rate of imprisonment and income equality is much higher than other developed countries. (Appendix A)
As described by the earlier points, many of “their problems were actually symptoms of poverty, unjust economic planning, of racism, sexism, and heterosexism”, like events of “bad housing, homelessness, racist, sexist or heterosexist experiences”, and not a “result of internal family dysfunction.” (Waldergrave, Tamasese, Tuhaka and Campbell, 2003) We as social workers need to be aware, just as the Just Therapy team has strived: to not be simply,
adjusting people to poverty…and by implication… encouraging in the families, the belief that they, rather than the unjust structures, were the authors of their problems and failures. (Waldergrave, Tamasese, Tuhaka and Campbell, 2003, p.66)
This project thus sought to provide a space of empowerment and collective response to the social injustice.
 I would like to acknowledge that “Malay” is a generic racial grouping of diverse communities that started in the colonial times, and because of this all-encompassing and abstract term, and including the “Banjarese, Bugis, Javanese and others as part of the Malay race thus had the negative effect of allowing the myth of the lazy native to be applied to all those racial groupings as well. “(Noor, 2009)
Here is the draft collective document we have created, entitled, ‘Our stories of dealing with Pocket Kering’
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