Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Please Stop Romanticising Poverty – Vanessa Tai

Living in a first world country means most of us — thankfully — are sheltered from the misery of poverty. This is precisely why Vanessa Tai reckons we have no right to make assumptions about people who are living with poverty.

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The poor are not one homogenous group. They are made up of individuals with their own stories, hopes, fears, and dreams. Just like you and me.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for the longest time, but I could never quite find the words to elucidate my thoughts. However, a conversation I had with my mum last week changed that.

Back story: My mum is currently doing volunteer work with underprivileged communities in North Thailand. Apart from helping out at the welfare organisations there, she also tries to rally support from her social network in Singapore. What she usually does is to try and match Singaporean benefactors with the needy from these communities, such as single mums or abandoned children. While most Singaporeans have been especially generous with their support, there were several people with attitudes I simply can’t understand. There was one person who — upon seeing a picture of my mum with several of the beneficiaries at a rambutan farm — commented, “If they have rambutans, they can’t be that poor. There’s really no need to donate any money.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a post about how we should all dig deep into our pockets and give money to the poor. No, not at all. What I’m trying to say is we need to stop objectifying the poor and expect them to behave or think in a certain way. This objectification is probably in part due to pop culture where the working poor are often depicted as “uncomplicated, stress-free, pure, and moral.” Just think of movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Help or Good Will Hunting, where the poor are portrayed to have triumphed over their struggles through sheer hard work and grit.

But the truth is, poverty is such a blanket word that covers uncountable lives and stories beneath it. It’s not fair to pigeonhole the poor and assume everybody is going through the same experience.

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Recently, there was a piece of news that was making its rounds on social media. Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC Mr Ang Wei Neng suggested sending Singaporean students for field trips to rural villages in neighbouring countries so as to “better appreciate our success.” In his speech, he said, “Instead of city lights, the students would enjoy a beautiful sky full of stars. Instead of air-conditioning, students would enjoy the fresh morning dew. Instead of morning traffic noise, the students would enjoy the sound of singing birds. After going through the relatively tough field trip, the students will hopefully appreciate the infrastructure in Singapore better.”

While I understand the intentions behind MP Ang’s suggestion, I can’t help but feel more than slightly annoyed. To me, this mindset reeks of condescension and self-righteousness. The poor are not fodder for us (from privileged countries) to gawk at, or “learn from”. To me, his speech reveals his romanticised view of poverty, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Numerous studies have shown that people who live with poverty have the highest chance of coming from broken homes, developing substance abuse, and suffering from violence. In addition, the chronic stress of living in abject poverty actually shrinks one’s brain, which affects powers of reasoning, decision-making, and self-control.

Nothing pretty about that, is there?

By romanticising poverty and expecting the poor to think or act a certain way, we are trivialising a very real problem. If we sincerely want to cultivate an attitude of compassion and gratitude, it should not stem from comparing ourselves to others. If we want to help, we help because we feel a genuine compassion to help someone get back on their feet, not because we want to massage our egos or because we feel guilty for being privileged. I get it, sometimes our purely altruistic intentions get mixed in with thoughts of how we are “doing a good deed”. And that’s normal. What’s more important is that we always catch ourselves and re-examine our intentions of wanting to help someone out.

We didn’t choose our lot in life, and we certainly didn’t choose the families we were born into. Whenever I encounter someone with less privileged circumstances than mine, I pause and think, “It could easily have been me in that position.” This thought usually helps reframe how I choose to behave towards that person. That way, I no longer just see them as a needy “money receptacle” but as an equal human being who’s deserving of my empathy, respect, and concern.

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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