By Gao Wenxin (14A03A)
What can you get for SGD$5?
Last December, I had been dared by my dear friend Chin Wee to take on the $5 Challenge. Challenge accepted, I thought, Barney Stinson-style. The premise of this activity seemed simple enough: go about your daily life with only $5 a day, including food and transport. It was a novelty initiative started by the website Singaporeans Against Poverty, to encourage people to experience the daily budget of some 387,000 Singaporeans with a household income of less than $1,500. Chin Wee had argued that since I was doing an internship in the CBD at that time, I was practically the perfect living model of a working adult. Perfect, if only it wasn’t also one of the most expensive places to work on this island.
Perhaps I should preface this by saying that my family had actually lived in similar circumstances when I was younger. Here I borrow the words of Alice Munro, when her character Edie had started work in a wealthy house: “I thought it was still a lot easier, living the way we lived at home, to picture something like this, the painted flamingos and the warmth and the soft mat, than it was anybody knowing only things like this to picture how it was the other way.” My family’s situation has improved vastly since then, but I know a number of my schoolmates who probably cannot imagine poverty and think it a far-flung third-world concept. But even if you do not find homeless beggars starving on the streets, many Singaporeans face relative poverty, when their income falls below what is needed to pay for living necessities. Poverty is not a distant concept at all.
So while everyone was stocking up on chocolate santas, I was bracing myself for this period of self-enforced austerity. And I braced myself again. And again. I could not take the plunge because it just seemed too difficult. My round-trip commute from Toa Payoh to Clarke Quay will have cost $2.42 already, if I was a paying adult. The Starbucks peppermint mocha ($7.20) I had yesterday would have busted an entire day’s budget all by itself, and the cheapest thing I could find in the CBD food market was fishball noodles ($3.30). The first thing I realised before even starting the challenge was that small daily costs add up to become expensive, and it takes someone with pinched pockets to feel the sting.
Given the odds, I figured that if I was in it to win it, I might as well take one for the team. I managed to work out a plan to take advantage of the free MRT rides in the mornings before 7.45am, and also save 10 cents in the evening by taking the MRT from City Hall (1km walk from my workplace) instead of Clarke Quay (650m). That left me with $3.89 to spend on my three meals, and I set out to the supermarket, hopeful that I will solve my personal bread-and-butter issues.
But it was depressing. Especially because the Spirit of Christmas was beckoning me with its goodies and unaffordable price-tags.
Turns out, there was little I could buy with $3.89 except maybe, bread and butter. For those of us who take Economics, you can definitely see Engel’s Law (i.e. when income decreases, the proportion of income spent on food rises) at work here in real life. Food is expensive for the low-income. Making a decision at the shopping aisle no longer involves grabbing whatever strikes your fancy, but a complicated game of mental sums. Do I buy the $2.20 loaf of average Gardenia bread, or the awful $1.70 house brand loaf with twice the amount of slices? Should I spend $0.65 on a cheap cereal bar which will fill me for breakfast, or an apple to compensate for a balanced meal but will leave me hungry? What about butter? Could I do without it? Isn’t margarine, like, the same thing?
With a limited shopping budget, taste and nutrition often gets thrown out of the window. It’s hard to think about the food pyramid when you are wondering whether you should spend the $1.70 on a celery stick, or a loaf that will give your whole family the energy to start the day. This is because supermarkets often sell items like bread below costs of production to draw customers to the store, in order to persuade them to buy mid-to-high range products with a higher profit margin. The poorer lose out because they will be falling for discounts on poor quality or unhealthy processed food, since there is almost never an offer on the celery stick. 
So, here’s the hard truth: $5 in Singapore really isn’t worth much. I left the supermarket with only four purchases to last me for the day: bread ($1.70 for 18 slices), canned soup ($1.50, but I will only need half a can for dinner, so $0.75), tom yam cup noodles ($0.80), and an apple ($0.65). The tally was $3.90, and unfortunately I have still exceeded the remaining budget by 1 cent. Unbelievable. Disastrous as it is, I decided that I will simply make it up as I go along, and went to bed.
“Wake up, Wenxin! Aren’t you supposed to be poor today, or something?” said a voice as I rolled back to sleep. No, wait. I looked at the clock. 7.07am. I was supposed to be washed, dressed, and out of the City Hall gantry in 38 minutes. No way. I dashed out of my house and on my way, but time ticked by. At 7.44am the train was just pulling into Dhoby Ghaut. A terrible idea begin forming in my head. I made a last ditch effort to salvage the situation and sprinted out of the station.
The good news was that I made the 7.45am cut. The bad news was that I was also 1.4km away from my workplace, with no money to take other forms of transport, and separated by the Fort Canning Hill.
I did not have a data plan to check my location, or any sort of plan really, and it must have been so strange to see a girl in a dress sweating it out on the steps of Fort Canning while parading a giant loaf of bread. I also got desperately lost. In fact, I made it past three museums and the treasury building before finding my way past this former graveyard, but fortunately got to the office unscathed after the longest 30 minutes of my life.
Putting away my things at the cubicle, I went to heat up my breakfast, which was essentially just 2 pieces of plain bread and free workplace coffee. Nothing to get excited about, really. It unfortunately didn’t take 2 slices for me to get sick of the sour and yeasty taste, so I stopped eating, but this decision cost me. I was hungry for the rest of the morning, unable to get out of an important meeting.
After 4 hours with a queasy stomach, however, I am ashamed to admit that I failed the challenge many times over the course of the day as my resolve wavered. We had served refreshments to some guests at the meeting, and as an intern I obviously felt it my duty to clear the leftover Swissbake pastries (into my stomach). After which we had our lunch (small restaurant, nothing remotely under $5) paid for by our colleagues because it was our last day of work, and I could not possibly refuse. I did somehow wrestle my conscience into walking to City Hall for my trip back home, but when I returned I found the dinner table set for my place because my grandfather had predicted that I would fail. I had lost the challenge, and disgracefully so.
Feeling that it was too soon for me to give up just yet, I decided to set aside the next day to repeat the feat. And I actually passably succeeded, by spending less than the allotted amount. The only questionable move I made was to avoid a rehearsal in school to save on transport (shh), but in real life unexpected costs are sometimes unavoidable. No amount of planning can prepare for uncertain illness or injury, a sudden appointment at an inconvenient location, or your classmates deciding to go for a spontaneous meal that you cannot really afford.
And here exists the real five-dollar question I should be asking: What have I learned? Beyond the challenge’s gamification of suffering underlies a message that poverty is cruel and humiliating, and that food poverty is particularly inhumane and a real public health issue. As a developed country with one of the highest rates of income inequality, we could do much better as a country to help the needy.
Harper Lee once said that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” If there is a lesson to be learned from this challenge, perhaps you should try it for yourself. But then again, the fact that we can choose to partake in this challenge and give up whenever we wish reveals the privilege that we enjoy. Have I truly experienced poverty? No. It was a sanitised version of reality, an experiment with controlled variables. Sure, I may have gained some superficial understanding by stepping into their shoes for a day. For the 387,000 Singaporeans facing this daily reality however, there is no stepping out.