A living wage is a matter of justice. Is it time for us to consider this seriously in Singapore? If so, how much should a living wage be?
Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn
In this article in the Singapore Institute of Directors’ Directors Bulletin, Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn discussed the possible living wage for Singapore. A living wage is a level of wage that affords workers a decent standard of living, relative to contemporary norms in their society. Based on the household budgets reported in our 2021 study, the research team comes up with a starting point and a reasonable target for considering a living wage for Singapore. To read more, please refer to the document below.
We have a new commentary in The Karyawan, by research team members Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe, examining what the 2021 study reveals about how people think about needs, and in particular how they think about the needs of children.
As the year winds down, Ng Kok Hoe (KH) discussed several major policy developments in 2021 with Shailey Hingorani (Head of Advocacy, Research, and Communications at AWARE), in a podcast for LKYSPP’s 17th anniversary. They spoke about the government’s plans to develop new public housing in prime locations, enshrine into law workplace anti-discrimination guidelines and extend the Progressive Wage Model. Kok Hoe also drew from MIS findings to reflect on the implications for social inclusion. With the new year round the corner, the speakers shared their wishes for 2022:
KH: One of the key findings that came out of our Minimum Income Standard study was, we calculated and we proposed a living wage level. It’s $2906. We proposed this as a starting point for a discussion about living wage. Now the Progressive Wage Model, I mean, we celebrated the extension, right, as a good thing. But its wage levels are way too low based on our calculations of what households need.
So, in our calculation, $2906, we think it’s a very reasonable level. In fact, last month it was also announced that the lowest rung of the wage ladder for security sector workers will be increased steadily until it hits $3500 in 2028. $3500 in 2028, even with 2% annual inflation, which we often do not hit, that is higher than the $2906 we propose.
So, if I have a wish for, for next year and of course beyond, I know this is not work that can be done in a year or two, it is to have a greater conversation around wages and people’s living standards that are based on principles like these – people’s needs, what is decent, what is basic, and what will allow people to not feel excluded from society.
Is MIS a rigorous research method? What does “basic standard of living” mean in the study? How did the participants differentiate needs from wants? How do the budgets capture universal needs rather than participants’ lifestyles and preferences? Does talking about material needs encourage consumerism? What can we learn about public policy by studying what people need? Why do we make the MIS research report publicly accessible? Two members of the MIS team, Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn, spoke to socialservice.sg about all these and more. Listen to the full podcast episode here.
Ng Kok Hoe (KH) was on Money FM 89.3 on 15 October to discuss the new MIS report with radio hosts Elliott Danker (ED) and Bharati Jagdish (BJ). We have transcribed the discussion for those who prefer reading to listening. [Edited on 5 November 2021: Some of this post has been edited to improve the earlier transcription, including clarifying parts that were previously inaudible.]
ED: Time to talk about the most talked about headline this week.
BJ: It’s all about how much one would need to support a basic standard of living in Singapore. Apparently, a family of four, for instance, needs $6,426 a month for a basic standard of living. Now, if you haven’t looked at the study yet and you want to, in order to assess whether or not those numbers are accurate by your own measurement, you should pick it up. It’s called ‘What People Need in Singapore: A Household Budget Study’, this year, of course, 2021.
ED: Lots of people are running their own polls based on this study on platforms like Facebook or even Instagram. I’m sure you have your thoughts about how much you really need to meet that basic standard of living in Singapore. But let’s find out more about the findings from one of the six authors of this study, Dr Ng Kok Hoe, Senior Research Fellow, Head, Case Study Unit and Social Inclusion Project, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Dr Ng, a good morning to you. How are you?
KH: Good morning, Elliott and Bharati. Very happy to join your show.
ED: So, the study is called ‘What People Need in Singapore: A Household Budget Study’, you guys used the ‘minimum income standard’ research method. This originated in the United Kingdom. What else can you tell us about the methodology of this study?
KH: This is a reliable method, that’s what I’d say. The team assessed it very carefully before we started. We took into account that the method travels well across different countries and cultural contexts. So, apart from the UK, it’s also used in France, Portugal, South Africa, Mexico and, closer to home, Japan and Thailand. In the UK, we noticed that it has been used to set a living wage for UK employees. And it’s also incorporated in a new measure of poverty that the UK government has said they’ll start to monitor. We visited researchers using this method in the UK. We observed them at work. We flew them over, and they observed us and gave guidance. We piloted and adapted the method. So we did consider it very carefully before starting.
BJ: However, Dr Ng, the Ministry of Finance has flagged issues with your report. It says that those of us reading it should bear in mind the limitations of the approach you used. I am sure that you are aware of some of the issues they brought up. For instance, they said that you considered mortgage payments for flats an expenditure item while playing down the point that the non-interest parts of the payments can be seen as savings actually, that can help households build housing equity. Of course, they also raised several other points. What do you have to say to that? I mean, the fact that, also there are errors in certain assumptions which understate the amount of government subsidies and financial support that is given to low-income families.
…when it comes to more social aspects of spending, I am not sure whether there is an expert on whether people should be allowed to wear perfume and how much budget is reasonable to put in angbaos or festivals. There are no experts in these domains. So this method says, let’s talk to ordinary members of public, have them agree, have them debate, and then we challenge them for the rationales.
KH: So we are aware of the statement. And I think a number of the points stem from misunderstanding of the method. So some of the things they flagged, for example, as Bharati, you mentioned, was that we downplayed the kind of saving aspect of housing that is in fact an asset. Actually, we don’t downplay it, we completely disregarded it, because the study doesn’t measure income and saving. The study is about what people need, it’s not about how they will pay for them. So housing as an asset will become an income source later in life, and that’s great, but it doesn’t change the amount that people have to pay for housing currently. Something else they flagged was the diversity of the focus groups. So they mentioned, for example, that 15% of our participants were from private housing. Well actually, in Singapore’s general population, about 21% of Singaporeans are in private housing. So we are under-represented in that segment. And they also omitted to mention that 18% of our participants were in fact from HDB rental housing, more than participants from private housing. So in fact, lower-income participants from HDB public rental housing were the ones who were over-represented in our study. And that’s because our average group size is eight persons, so we have to have one to two participants from either private housing or HDB public rental housing, it would already be in excess of 10%.
ED: Mmm, all fair points, Dr Ng. Yeah, they are fair enough. And as I said, I have friends who are running their own polls based on your research paper on their Instagram page. And we see, in a sense, a very negative, if you don’t mind me saying, a very negative receiving of these numbers, $6,000 plus, right? I do want to dial things really far back, and talk simply about what constitutes a basic standard of living when we look at these?
KH: Our discussions all began from a definition of basic standard of living. And this definition was produced by earlier focus groups. And in those earlier focus groups, participants agreed… there were no controversies among participants that, in Singapore today, a basic standard ofOur discussions all begin from a definition of basic standard of living. And this definition itself was produced by earlier focus groups. And in those earlier focus groups, participants agreed, it was not controversial among participants, that in Singapore today, a basic standard of living must go beyond subsistence, it must go beyond survival. People said obviously housing, food and clothing; but we are a wealthy society, it’s not acceptable to stop at there. But that a more reasonable definition of ‘basic’ must include things like opportunity to work, to education. And they also stressed intangible aspects of a basic standard of living. They talked about belonging, respect, security and independence. They talked about the ability to take part in social, cultural and religious activities. And all of these things, so these wordings and language, came from earlier focus groups. They stressed these must, today in Singapore, go into a definition of ‘basic’.
BJ: Some may say, you know, this is an argument between those who are ideological and the others who prefer to take a technocratic approach to determining what is basic and how much do you really need in order to thrive, not just survive in a country. What’s your argument to that? I mean, which is the better approach? What is the balance?
KH: We are of course very glad that people are paying so much attention to this study. I didn’t know there were polls happening online, so Elliot is more up-to-date than I am. We do want this study to generate discussion and for people to think about their own circumstances and situations through it. We don’t think of this approach as ideological. Maybe to some extent it is conceptual because, as I said, it starts from a definition. But if by technocratic you mean having experts decide what people need, then I do agree that’s what we consciously want to avoid. In fact, this method, when it was first pioneered in the UK more than a decade ago, it is to precisely provide an alternative to having experts say “you need this, you don’t need that, so this is the basket of basic needs because I, expert, say so, and this is how much the basket costs, and so this is what we use”. I mean experts are fine maybe in areas like nutrition and vaccination and so on. But when it comes to more social aspects of spending, I don’t know if there is an expert on whether people should be allowed to wear perfume and how much is reasonable to put in an angbao or spend for festivals. There are no experts in these domains. So this method says, let’s talk to ordinary members of public, have them agree, have them debate, and then we challenge them for these rationales. I mean, if they can agree, then that goes into the basket.
ED: Okay, okay. I think a fair point you bring up, Dr Ng. And I like how you have helped to sort of align how you should receive these, by saying it’s being very conceptual. One thing that stood out to me is that, a single elderly person needs $1,421 a month to meet basic standard of living. I wanna expand on this, or if you can help me out here. I mean, what does it mean for a lot of people in the sandwich group, with an ageing population and there’s a worry that this number could increase. What did the findings say?
KH: So this number is in fact an update from the previous edition of the study that we published in 2019. This time round for the elderly budget, we updated it based on price inflation. So it went up slightly. The concern with the elderly generation is always demography, right? So we know that the CPF produces an amount that is not enough for them to meet their basic needs.
KH: So the strategy has long been, for elderly people, adult children to provide for their needs. I mean, I have been studying this area, CPF income, for some time. And in fact the pillar of retirement income security in Singapore is not the CPF but adult children.
KH: The concern here is very much, as you have put it, with the sandwich generation. Because elderly people in future are going to have fewer adult children, and many of them will not have any children.
KH: So the report flags this concern that we do need to reinforce our retirement income system. And in fact go back even earlier, make sure wages are adequate, make sure people are paid decently, so that they are able to save for retirement.
BJ: Speaking of wages, I mean, recently several measures have been taSpeaking of wages, I mean, recently several measures have been taken to help with social spending in order to help those who need help, financial help, as well as wages with the Progressive Wage Model being enhanced and widened as well. To what extent are these measures enough? Are they at least a good beginning? And how do they need to be developed further in order to make a real dent here?
KH: Wages is really key. So in our report, we flag that, I mean, we say that money must come from somewhere, so it’s either wages or state support. So, even if we say family, their money must come from somewhere, the state or the market. So wages is key. I know the figure of $6,000-odd has been highlighted in headlines, so it’s a distracting one. But the study produced many different calculations. About 70% of households have work incomes above the level that they need, already. And when we look at households with children at different ages, and then deduct government subsidies, the average that two-children households need for a basic standard of living actually falls below $6,000. And if we divide that between two earners, then each earner must earn $2,906. That’s for us a much important figure. And that’s a starting point we recommend for talking about a living wage in Singapore. So for adults with two children, each parent must earn $2,906 for their family to be able to meet basic needs. This number, and if you take away CPF, the gross is $2,484. It’s below $2,500. The median is in fact 56% higher. I don’t know whether most Singaporeans realise how high-earning our society already is. But PWM, as Bharati highlighted, falls grossly short. It’s about 40-50% short of this amount. So this is the figure that we hope we can start discussing as a society, a decent wage that allows households to meet their basic needs.
ED: Oh yeah. That discussion is going to continue for a long time more. We are really glad that we had this conversation. We’ve been speaking with Dr Ng Kok Hoe, who is Senior Research Fellow, Head, Case Study Unit and Social Inclusion Project, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Dr Ng, thank you for your time this morning. You take care and stay safe.
We are pleased to see that our latest report has generated much interest in the week since the launch, with extensive media coverage and online discussion. Here are a few highlights.
A Channel News Asia news clip from 8 October 2021, including interviews with team member Ng Kok Hoe:
Ng Kok Hoe was also on MoneyFM to discuss what one of the radio hosts described as the “most talked about headline this week”. This includes some discussion of concerns raised by the Ministry of Finance.
Many goods and services provided by the market cater to what the bulk of the population can afford – for instance, casual restaurants have proliferated across suburban malls and residential estates, while hipster cafes are now common in many gentrified precincts in Singapore.
Social exclusion may arise when a child feels she cannot afford to join her friends for lunch at the mall after school, or when her classmates are comparing their holiday experiences abroad and she is left out of the conversation.
There are also social norms dictating the amounts people contribute to funerals or weddings, which impinge on an individual’s social respectability.
Enrichment classes speak to both social norms and social mobility. Notwithstanding the high quality of public education, many parents feel obliged to put their children through private tuition and enrichment programmes, which they view as necessary for their children to keep up or keep ahead.
The approach taken in the household budgets study, subjective as it may be, takes a crack at factoring in social norms and expectations which have a role in shaping social inclusion.
The second op-ed (paywall) was written by MIS team members Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe. In it we explore the nature of the focus group discussions in more detail, highlighting the dynamics of the deliberations and how we observed groups come to consensus despite variations in their own experiences:
Over these four years, we have learnt from our participants that everyone living in Singapore today has needs for housing, food and clothing, opportunities for education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. Everyone needs a sense of belonging, respect, security and independence. Every person needs choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.
We have learnt from them too that they know not everyone in Singapore today is meeting these needs to the same degree. This does not lead anyone to say that any of these are therefore not needs; that only those who can afford it deserve belonging, respect, security and independence; that some children should have paid tuition suited to their needs and other children will just have to accept whatever they can get from charity.
In spending time and energy to share their experiences and insights with us, our participants have put in our hands the responsibility of putting this question on the table: If ordinary people can see and express that there are universal needs, that there is a baseline below which no one should fall, what will we do collectively to make sure all members of our society meet these basic needs?
How much money does a household of parents and children in Singapore need to meet their basic needs? According to researchers, a couple with two children (aged 7-12 and 13-18) need $6,426 a month, while a single parent with one child (aged 2-6) needs $3,218 a month.
The team of researchers, led by Dr Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore, conducted 24 focus group discussions involving 196 participants from diverse backgrounds. They applied a consensus-based methodology known as Minimum Income Standards (MIS), which can be used to determine the household budgets necessary for households of various kinds to meet their basic needs.
The team’s previous study, published in 2019, investigated the budgets necessary for households of older people living alone or as couples. The updated budget for a single elderly person is $1,421 in 2021, taking price inflation into account. This new report measures the costs of basic needs for a household of parents (single or partnered) with children for the first time.
Building on a general definition of basic needs determined in the 2019 study, focus group participants generated lists of items and services related to: housing and utilities; things needed in each area in a HDB flat; personal care and clothing; food; transport; social participation; education and childcare; and healthcare. The needs of children were considered according to their gender and age group (below 2 years old; 2-6; 7-12; 13-18 or 19-25).
Each item or service was only included if participants reached a consensus that it was a basic need, and could explain why. Participants also agreed on rules for when and how an item can be shared among family members. For instance, whether children can share a bedroom depends on factors like their ages and genders, and the demands of working or schooling limit how many individuals can share a laptop.
Based on this analysis, the research team has also created an online calculator, allowing users to see breakdowns for household budgets for parents (single or partnered) living with up to three children in varying combinations of age and gender.
In 2021, the household budgets necessary to meet basic needs are:
$3,218 per month for a single parent with one child (aged 2-6).
$6,426 per month for partnered parents with two children (aged 7-12 and 13-18).
$1,421 per month for a single elderly person.
The budgets for the two working-age households are both around $1,600 per household member. As the average work income per household member for the third decile group of employed households in Singapore in 2020 is $1,609, this indicates that 30% of working households earn less than required for these two types of households to meet their basic needs.
The researchers suggest that a reasonable starting point for a living wage in Singapore is $2,906 per month. This is based on the average budget for a couple with two children, assuming two full-time earners, and adjusting for taxes as well as all universal and major means-tested benefits. The median work income among all workers in 2020 exceeded this amount by 56%, but current PWM wages fall significantly below.
The costs of education and care dominated the budgets for children’s needs, inspiring animated discussion in the focus groups. While some costs associated with children decline with age, others increase sharply. As current measures supporting education and care taper off for older children, parents are likely to face greater financial strain as their children grow up.
In calculating a budget for housing, the researchers found that current public housing policies effectively doublehousing costs for single parents who have never married, compared to partnered, widowed or divorced parents.
“These two waves of research give us a comprehensive view of basic needs across the life course,” said Dr Ng, who also leads the Social Inclusion Project at LKYSPP. “They provide a concrete benchmark and starting point for discussing how people may achieve the incomes they need, including allowing us to calculate a possible living wage.”
Said Associate Professor Teo You Yenn from Nanyang Technological University, another member of the research team and author of the best-selling This Is What Inequality Looks Like: “The focus groups were especially animated in discussing education, with participants expressing strong consensus for and yet frustration at the need for tuition and enrichment. Both parents and young people showed concern that economic barriers can prevent children from obtaining necessary qualifications.”
Asked to comment on the report, Linda Lim, Professor Emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, said, “Singaporeans agree that we need to raise the incomes of low-wage workers—but to what level? This careful and timely study provides a ground-up estimate of what it costs for families with children and elderly households to maintain a basic standard of living in our expensive city. It shows that current income-support systems are inadequate.”
MIS research was first developed by researchers at Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy in the UK. It has since been used in the UK, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, France and Ireland. Matt Padley, the Centre’s Associate Director, said, “The value of this methodology lies not in assuming that basic living standards are universal, but in the recognition that shared conceptions of living standards are shaped by specific contexts and reflect local circumstances. This report is at once rooted in the particular context of Singapore, identifying pressing economic and policy challenges, but it also alerts us to broader questions that many countries need to urgently address.”
Abigail Davis, also Associate Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy, said, “This report makes an important contribution to public policy debates spanning every aspect of citizens’ lives across the life course. Through detailed analysis of MIS for different households compared with levels of state assistance the findings make a clear and compelling case for the reassessment of current provision for parents, particularly lone parent households, and for pensioners.”
How much income do households in Singapore need to achieve a basic standard of living? In 2019, we published a report using MIS methodology to address this question in relation to older people, living alone or as couples. In our 2021 report, we discuss the incomes required by parents (single or partnered) living with children up to 25 years old.
Join us on 8 October for the Zoom launch of this report. Register here.
In connection with the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (17 October), two members of the MIS team—Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn—spoke to RICE Media about policy approaches toward poverty and inequality, including the need to define Minimum Income Standards:
YY: You might not be able to reduce the need for respect to a number, but what we are trying to show is that there are certain monetary preconditions which allow for participation and belonging and respect. Money cannot directly buy these things, but money is absolutely a precondition to achieving those needs.
KH: This is why standards are important, because until you accept that there are basic levels below which people’s lives will be affected, how can we begin to think about the generosity of social welfare schemes? How can we say that we are interested in helping people meet their needs if we are reluctant to define those needs?