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Singapore's poor turn to temples to fill bellies

By Melanie Lee, Reuters, June 10, 2008

Singapore -- Wearing a pair of worn grey slippers and dirty Bermuda shorts, Quek hungrily chews mouthfuls of free vegetarian noodles on the second-level canteen of a Singapore temple.

The unemployed 31-year-old is one of many Singaporeans increasingly turning to free meals at temples to fill their stomachs, as surging global commodity prices hurt even in a country that is one of the richest in Asia. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge, where Quek eats every day, is now serving up to 5,000 people on weekends.

It has seen a 30 percent rise this year in the number of people coming for meals, as well as a rise in donations. "We saw the increase happen when the markets started to go bad and inflation started rising," said Lee Bock Guan, the temple's president. The Buddhist Lodge cooks about 400 kg of rice every day and up to 10 vegetarian dishes to serve to the masses.

Long lines of strained faces wait inside to scoop up ladles of rice, noodles and stir-fries. They then stand next to walls to shovel in the food if they can't find a spot at packed tables. Most are elderly or laborers, in a country that has the second highest GDP per capita in Asia after Japan but ranks alongside the Philippines and Guatemala for income disparity. Singapore says combating inflation, at a 26-year high, is a priority and the government is worried about a widening income gap.

A dozen opposition party members were arrested earlier this year for protesting about rising prices. The government says welfare should not be a crutch and there are no food subsidies, unemployment benefit or minimum wage. Buddhist, Christian, Taoist and Sikh organizations in Singapore give out free food to help the poor. The country is 54 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim.

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, which gives free meals to about 200 people daily, has also seen a rise in numbers. "We don't count how much it has gone up, we just keep cooking. Once one batch is finished, we keep refilling," said Sheng Hua, spokesman for the monastery. Food prices have been a key driver of Singapore's annual inflation hitting 7.5 percent, the highest since 1982. Global rice, corn and wheat prices have all hit records this year.

I have no choice. You go outside and eat, food now is very expensive. Here it's free so I can save a bit of money," Quek told Reuters. At the Central Sikh Temple, which serves free vegetarian Indian meals to 600 daily, the rising cost of food is affecting handouts. "Our costs have doubled since last year. We are already curtailing the number of hours we give away food. We will have to be more prudent-if it really gets out of hand, we may have to reduce further," said Dilbagh Singh, vice president of Central Sikh Gurdwara Board.


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