Feature

Is Singapore Addicted to Poverty Porn?

When you mindlessly scroll through the Internet, you would have probably seen advertisements featuring hungry children crying with pleas for donations. These kinds of advertisements — termed poverty porn — are a common sight here in Singapore, be it for attracting donations or calling for volunteers. While we are accustomed to it, why do we need poverty porn to encourage us to act? And what does this say about our culture?

[Ph[Photo: RODNAE Productions from Pexels]

By Sorfina

When you read the word ‘poverty’, what is the first image that comes to mind? For most, it would be of an impoverished child living in the slums. 

However, why do we all have the same image of what poverty looks like?

After all, poverty differs across country lines. Yet, this image is one curated in our unconscious throughout the years.

This mental image can be characterised as poverty porn — a form of media that exploits the living conditions of the poor to generate sympathy and attract donations.

The phrase “poverty porn” was first coined in the 1980s when images of malnourished African children were used by international aid organisations to encourage donations. International aid organisations and charities often adopt poverty porn as a marketing tool because it is extremely effective in compelling people to donate. For example, when the images of starving Ethiopian children appeared in Western media, these images helped attract $23 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. 

Why is poverty porn so effective?

The power of poverty porn is that it can trigger feelings of guilt in the viewer and translate that feeling into tangible action such as donations. As this study in 2017 shows, guilt-based poverty advertisements attract higher donations from viewers than ads that used other kinds of images. As a charity struggling to find resources, poverty porn would almost be a necessity for them to keep afloat.

However, poverty porn does not just simply gain sympathy and garner donations, it alters your perception of poverty. In Singapore, poverty porn is no stranger to us.

Singapore’s poverty porn

An image of an old woman selling used cardboard as part of a fundraiser for the operations of Happy People Help People, an organisation that aims to help the poor elderly in Singapore. [Photo: give.asia]

A well-known example would be the use of images depicting a typically hunch-backed elderly person pushing a trolley full of used cardboard to sell, often plastered in newspapers and charities trying to garner donations. As these images feature vulnerable individuals who often look fragile, they are effective in grabbing the reader’s attention while triggering feelings of pity. 

However, it is not clear whether these images are taken with the consent of the elderly and plastered over major media outlets without their knowledge. Furthermore, these images often do not present the full reality of what poverty looks like in Singapore. 

Why do we use poverty porn, then?

In our little city-state, poverty porn is a symptom of our culture.

A culture bent on meritocracy

In Singapore, the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) has developed a welfare-averse approach towards social policies and promotes self-reliance in its stead. As then acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan noted in 2005, the Government does not want Singaporeans to feel entitled to welfare

With less than 20 per cent of Singapore’s GDP spent on social services programmes, social services are often limited in funding. The competition for funds between different charities also leads them to hyper-focus on extreme cases to gain sympathy for their cause. With our welfare-averse nation, poverty porn has become a necessity for organisations to garner support for them to function.

The PAP’s emphasis on self-reliance can be seen in almost any of their social policies such as the Central Provident Fund, a retirement pension fund, and Medisave, a form of healthcare subsidy — both of which rely on one’s employment. True to the PAP’s aversion to hand-outs, Singapore’s social policies uplift those who are productive to society and are usually limited for those who are not. 

Another keystone of self-reliance can be seen in the PAP’s emphasis on meritocracy. The political system, which rewards people based on talent and hard work, was adopted by the party to encourage equality of opportunity — regardless of race, language or religion. This concept has creeped into our minds as a personal belief and influenced our image of poverty. 

As sociologist Teo You Yenn wrote in her book This is What Inequality Looks Like, “Inequality, in fact, is a logical outcome of meritocracy. What the education system does when it selects, sorts, and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top,’ is that it renders those who succeed through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.”

Therefore, the instillment of meritocracy in our culture may encourage suspicion towards the choices and work ethic of the poor. The meritocratic culture results in a belief that one has to be in extreme suffering for governmental help — if not, look for a job or fix it yourself. 

Poverty porn is a result of a belief system sunk deeply in an ocean of self-reliance, carved out by the knife of meritocracy. 

In Singapore, we can see this extend beyond simply representations of poverty in media — through a shift towards experiential activities to understand the poor while unknowingly exploiting their plight.

Cosplaying poverty — A new form of poverty porn

A group of participants during a prejudice trail held by Migrant x Me in 2019. [Photo: @migrantxme via Instagram]

A notable example would be the controversial social enterprise Migrant x Me which attracted animosity due to their ‘prejudice trails’ conducted in 2020. During these trails led by Singaporean guides, attendees were given insight into the daily lives of migrant workers by visiting places they frequented.

The Singaporean-guided trail with little interaction with migrant workers leaves participants with a cursory understanding of the lives of migrant workers. Thus, on social media, a few activists have questioned the effectiveness of the trail and referred to it as exploiting the plight of migrant workers to garner sympathy for their cause.

Role-play activities during a poverty simulation workshop [Photo: Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre Community Services]

Another example would be poverty simulation workshops, which are still being conducted today, that are supposed to give participants an insight into the lives of low-income Singaporeans through role-playing as the poor.

However, by turning the life-long plight of the poor into a short one-hour simulation, the workshops are seen as a form of misery tourism — where wealthy people collect experiences of being poor temporarily and patting themselves on the back for doing their part. 

This was especially so in the case of Singapore Island Country Club, which charges a S$21,000 annual membership, planning to hold a poverty simulation workshop in 2016 with their affluent members, seemingly making light of the heavy experiences of the poor. 

Whether it be simulation workshops or ‘prejudice trails’, they both share a striking similarity — experiencing poverty. 

While poverty porn is not limited to such examples in Singapore, it is interesting to note that for many wealthy or even middle-class Singaporeans, experience is believed (by the organisers or charities) to be a need for compassion for the poor.

What needs to be changed?

While criticisms for poverty porn are not a rarity, solutions for them are. What’s worse, many of those solutions are directed towards photographers or charities instead of the underlying causes for their production. As mentioned, the ingrained notions of self-reliance and meritocracy has contributed to poverty porn. Can such instilled values be changed?    

In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of Singaporeans challenge the enshrined meritocratic system. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, has called for a move to a more “compassionate meritocracy”. Goh believes that while meritocracy is important, there is a need to ensure that Singaporeans acknowledge the challenges faced by the financially disadvantaged in the education system and to ensure equal opportunities for all so that Singapore can move away from elitist ideals.

An example of an increasing number of compassionate Singaporeans can be seen in the creation of a Mutual Aid Fund by wares during circuit breaker which allows anonymous requests for financial aid. With virtually no roadblocks in the application process, the fund acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of poverty while also staying away from using poverty porn to attract sympathy. This might be a positive sign that poverty porn would no longer be seen as a necessity to generate funds for the financially disadvantaged in Singapore.

An introduction to wares’ Mutual Aid Fund [Photo: @waresinfoshop via Instagram]

For many of us, poverty porn seems like a fact of life. It is an effective way to gain sympathy and draw donations. Why would charities or organisations avoid adopting it? Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge how harmful poverty porn can be. Poverty porn is exploitative and severely limits the average Singaporean’s understanding of the financially disadvantaged.

If we want to truly help the poor, it is imperative that we move away from poverty porn.


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