More than 23,000 children in our midst do not get enough to eat. And as food prices continue to rise, it hardly seems like this number would decrease. A family with less than $1,000 per month for all their expenses might not be able to provide their children with enough to eat.
SOME 3.4 per cent of children in Singapore are malnourished, according to political science professor Tobias Rettig of the Singapore Management University.
While this figure pales in comparison with that of many other countries, some may find it high for a country as well-off as Singapore. It means that more than 23,000 children in our midst do not get enough to eat. And as food prices continue to rise, it hardly seems like this number would decrease.
Malnourishment directly disadvantages these children. "The most evident consequences of malnourishment include impaired intellectual growth, loss of cognitive skills, weakened immune systems and increased risk of death", according to Ms Shiela Sisulu, deputy executive director of the United Nations' World Food Programme.
Children who don't have enough to eat may thus incur higher medical costs and need more support later in life if their slowed development means they do not pick up the skills required to get decent jobs.
On the contrary, others enjoy a better life. Many students have mobile phones, abundant snacks and car rides to school. Moreover, money is spent on extras such as sending an increasing number of students abroad.
"Our target is for one-third of our secondary and junior college students ... to have at least one overseas experience", said Education Minister Ng Eng Hen in a recent interview, and this was borne out at a recent secondary school assembly where students were preparing for trips to Europe, the United States, Japan and other destinations overseas during the December holidays.
While the contrast between students with plenty and those in need is not unique to Singapore, it's surprising in a country where poverty is hardly visible. And while making students "world-ready" to compete in today's global environment is critical, it also seems important to provide for poorer students so that they too gain the ability to succeed and so that society avoids costs in the future.
Just as underfed children can be hard to locate, research on malnourishment in Singapore can also be hard to find. One likely cause, though, is low income.
Last year, 5.4 per cent of households in Singapore had an income less than $1,000 per month and another 11.9 per cent had an income between $1,000 and $2,000 per month. A family with less than $1,000 per month for all their expenses might not be able to provide their children with enough to eat.
The Government has recognised the issue and is providing more support. The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports has increased the amount it provides under Public Assistance schemes. MCYS data also showed fewer than 500 cases of public assistance cases last year that were not "aged destitutes", perhaps supporting some such as MP Lily Neo who have asked whether the current levels of support are enough. The Ministry of Education also provides help for children who have difficulty paying school fees.
Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) are also working to help the needy. Food from the Heart, for example, expanded its original programme of picking up leftover bread from bakeries for delivery to social welfare homes and now distributes food to needy families through its Food Goodie Bag programme.
The results from even this small effort have been striking. "All the kids under the programme are back in school, the violence in the family has gone down and the attitude of the pupils has changed, grades have also improved", as Food from the Heart puts it.
There are other programmes for children as well, such as the YWCA's Meals-on-Wheels for Children programme and Jamiyah's Food Ration Assistance programme. And there are cash donation schemes too, such as the School Pocket Money Fund that provides money to over 5,000 children to buy food during recess.
Even with these programmes, though, the data shows that malnutrition persists and more help seems necessary.
The first step is to identify families and children who need assistance. Many may remain hidden, and it is easy to see why. If you're a 10-year-old who hasn't had breakfast, you understandably don't want to tell your friends and neighbours that you're hungry.
Some volunteers say that teachers are among the best able to identify students who need help, and other caregivers or community workers can also play a part.
The second step is to give more resources to the right organisations to help out. That's not to say Singaporeans are not generous. Whether for Flag Day on the streets or charity shows on television, people are big-hearted and donations flow in. When disasters struck overseas, millions of dollars of donations poured in to help survivors from the earthquake in China, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the tsunami in 2004 and other calamities.
Yet, when asked what they need most, organisations like the YWCA and Food from the Heart say they still need more funding and food for distribution to families or for making meals. Donations and food drives can indeed help to alleviate hunger here at home.
While Singaporeans still need to help alleviate malnourishment abroad, it's important to remember that reaching out and doing more for children here in our country can also have a positive impact that reduces the costs to individuals and society.
Sources and Relevant Links:
Today kids who need more help 5 July 2008
The Star Poverty looms in Isle of Riches 5 July 2008
The Star Income Gap: The different faces of Singapore 12 April 2008
Think Centre Listen to the voice of 300,000 "vulnerable poor" 30 April 2007
Think Centre Is Singapore an inclusive society?06 December 2006
Think Centre Industrial peace must be achieved with justice! 01 December 2003