Ng Kok Hoe on Money FM

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’.

Focus group participants talked about participation in social, cultural and religious activities as part of a basic standard of living.

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.

ED: Yeah.

The 2019 MIS report addressed budgets for elderly households. See also Ng Kok Hoe’s op-ed on retirement adequacy at AcademiaSG.

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.

ED: Yeah.

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.

ED: Yeah.

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.

KH: Thank you.

MIS in the news (5)

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.

The Straits Times has carried two op-eds (behind paywall) on the study. ‘What it means to live well in Singapore‘, by Terence Ho, reflects on the concepts of absolute and relative poverty:

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?

More media:

An adult and a child need $3,218 a month to meet basic needs, according to study

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.

Illustration: Jolene Tan

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.

Key findings

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. In calculating a budget for housing, the researchers found that current public housing policies effectively double housing 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.”

Illustration: Jolene Tan

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.”

Find out more about MIS and the latest report.

Launch of our 2021 report

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.

To Tackle Inequality, Stop Expecting The Same Rules To Make A Difference

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?

Read the full interview at RICE Media.

Security and independence are basic needs

This article by Teo You Yenn, Ng Kok Hoe, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod and Stephanie Chok was first published on

Political parties contesting in the 2020 General Election have pledged to address inequality and poverty. During campaigning as well as after the new government forms, the policy question on the table will not be whether, but how, we should address this. For a start, how should we define the basic standard of living that political candidates say Singaporeans deserve?

“A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices.”

What older people need in Singapore: A households budgets study (May 2019)

This definition  was crafted through data generated from focus group discussions, and then used in multiple rounds of discussions with ordinary Singaporeans over the past two years. It includes things that are concrete—housing, food, clothing—as well as things that are abstract—belonging, respect, security, independence. It is a definition that reflects people’s shared sense of basic needs in its multiple facets.

We expect this definition to be robust and stand the test of time, but COVID-19 is a crisis on an unprecedented scale. So we have to wonder: have certain needs become more urgent, and others less so? Are people shifting their expectations of what ‘basic’ means? Are they meeting basic needs in new ways? We convened two special focus group discussions over Zoom to investigate these questions.

We saw in our participants’ lives many things we have experienced in our own: the challenge of ensuring every member of a family has a device for work or study; the struggle for private and quiet space at home; changes in grocery shopping and food consumption patterns; the drastic reduction in social encounters—whether with friends and family, or teachers, classmates, and co-workers. 

The challenges of managing the needs of all family members at home have been acute for many. Illustration by Jolene Tan

Mostly our participants seem to have adjusted well—they did not express resentment, impatience, or skepticism at the necessity of these shifts. In several instances, they talked about positive aspects of the past months at home—the opportunity to spend more time with family, or healthier eating habits, for example. One very perceptive young person pointed out that suspending some of one’s own needs for things like social participation is important at a time like this, because the health and wellbeing of the whole community is at stake. Human needs, as we have often emphasized, are not generated and experienced individually, but collectively in society.

Of all the needs captured in the definition of a basic standard of living, two stand out as particularly relevant: security and independence. Security refers to financial stability and freedom from worry, so that life goes beyond basic subsistence and people can access things and experiences that bring pride, pleasure, and joy. Independence is about being able to take care of oneself and not rely on others, and having autonomy to make choices.

Pre-crisis, the needs for security and independence were somewhat met by reasonable expectations of employment opportunity and continuity during one’s working age. But even then, older people expressed a lot of anxiety about falling sick and losing mobility. They were concerned about the cost of healthcare and becoming a source of financial burden for their children. Many worried that the younger generation may find it hard to cope or ever achieve their aspirations. In a poll conducted by the Straits Times after our study was released, working-age people reported worry that they may not be able to provide for their own families and support their retired parents at the same time. The participants in our study rarely mentioned any sort of collective ‘safety net’ provided by society–it did not seem to be something people could count on.

Although our participants seemed to have adapted reasonably well since COVID-19 struck, there was a stronger and more palpable anxiety in  recent conversations. It appears that needs for security and independence may be increasingly difficult to meet. There was much talk about how things will look in the next few years, and what the pandemic’s effects will be for livelihoods in the longer-term. Older participants, in their 40s and with children, worried openly about  losing jobs and income; they do not have security because they know their savings will not last long. Still in their prime working age, with children to support, these people count on continuing employment to meet their and their young families’ needs. 

Younger respondents, in their 20s, still studying or just beginning careers, are finding it hard to hold on to the independence they were beginning to carve out. With the crisis, many lost part-time jobs they had depended on to support themselves. Indeed, contrary to stereotypes of ‘soft’ or irresponsible young people, many were cognizant of their parents’ financial circumstances and contributed financially to their households. For them, the need for independence, once on the cusp of realisation, now looks more elusive.

Security and independence have both tangible and intangible dimensions. Respondents are very clear that this is not merely an abstract feeling—it requires money to buy all the things that one needs to live. But they are also feelings. A sense of security and a sense of independence are things people need. They are important for people to attain wellbeing. Younger participants were especially articulate about this—pointing out that mental health is deeply and negatively affected when people lose their senses of security and independence. One shared that when she thought she would be fired, she could not eat or sleep for weeks.

Psychological well-being has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Illustration by Jolene Tan.

How people feel about their futures has important consequences for their current actions.  This in turn has deep and significant implications for society. For example, when young people experience insecurity and a lack of independence, they put longer-term plans—buying a flat, getting married, having children—on hold. When people tighten their expenditures in anticipation of harder times, as our respondents have, it affects overall consumption in the economy and therefore businesses and jobs.

The sense of insecurity we witnessed in our focus group discussions may be a direct reflection of these extraordinary times. But it is also a reminder that the role of social policies is to provide assurance that people will not, as one participant put it, “fall through the bottom” precisely when times are hard. 

How people view the future depends on how they weigh their capacities and potential against the demands and risks in the environment. Individual capacities depend not just on personal and family resources, but also on collective commitments to ensure  basic living standards in society. Policy arrangements express these collective commitments. Indeed, security has always been one of the main purposes of social policies globally. Modern social welfare is geared towards providing protection during non-income-generating stages in the life cycle (such as care, education, and pensions for children and elderly people), as well as buffer against contingencies (such as income protection during sickness, disability and unemployment).

From our research over the years, we have learnt that unequivocal, scientifically-derived standards are critical for rational, transparent policymaking that will give people a sense of assurance and confidence about their futures. If policies are not based on principles and benchmarks that people understand and accept, they will always feel like they can be suddenly taken away. We know too that having a policy in place is only the first step. How it is designed and operated will determine people’s actual experiences. When social assistance is difficult to qualify for, onerous to access, insufficiently generous to meet basic needs, and come attached with social judgement, they add to people’s sense that they have to manage on their own, regardless of their difficulties. 

Whether people understand and accept the basis for policies is relevant to their sense of security. Illustration by Jolene Tan.

The fallout of the pandemic will be long and protracted. Struggles to meet basic needs, both tangible and intangible, material and abstract, will likely intensify. Ordinary people are now more conscious than ever of how all our fates are shared. We have seen in the past few months that people mobilise and find affirmative meaning in community and sharing, numerous donation and volunteer drives demonstrating solidarity. They cast doubt on arguments that Singaporeans will not support measures to redistribute income more fairly, or that older and younger generations are in competition for resources they would each rather keep for themselves.

The pandemic has revealed, in Singapore and elsewhere, the deep costs of inequality. Solutions have to be bolder. There is no sidestepping the need for redistribution to adequately protect those not adequately rewarded by market mechanisms. Security and independence are basic needs—necessary to everyone’s well-being, and consequential to the collective wellbeing of society—and social policy must address these in the recovery. 

Political leaders and policy makers now have the extraordinary opportunity to create the conditions for greater solidarity. We urge them to forge a social policy regime that is transparent and consistent in its rationales, systematic and fair in its consideration of diverse interests, and oriented toward ensuring that everyone in society is able to meet basic needs.

Impact of coronavirus on families

A report in The Straits Times today looks at the impact of the coronavirus crisis on low-income families in Singapore:

Adam’s situation is not unique. Many of some 300,000 Singapore residents who earn below $2,000 have seen sudden dips in their income during the pandemic, especially after new measures on April 7 restricted businesses deemed non-essential, among other things.

Beyond Social Services helped 84 families financially in the whole of last month. But just five days into the circuit breaker, it received 123 applications for such help.

The charity contacted 300 families it is helping, and three in four said they needed more financial aid.


Dr Ng Kok Hoe, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the “stark policy lesson” is that cracks that are present in normal times will only widen during a crisis. “Problems with food security among poor households, educational inequality, overcrowded housing in the public rental scheme, inadequate social security outside the wage economy… these are the challenges we must tackle with more resolve when the crisis lifts.”

Coronavirus: Families scraping by in tougher spot now

(Note: the article is not paywalled; it can be read without paying for a prescription. But it is necessary to register with the website and sign in with your email address to read it.)

Basic needs and the COVID-19 crisis

By Ng Kok Hoe, Teo You Yenn, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod and Stephanie Chok

For people living in Singapore today, how will the ongoing COVID-19 crisis affect their capacity to meet basic needs?

In our research, through focus group discussions, we crafted this definition of basic standards of living in Singapore:

A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices. 

While the crisis is unfolding, it is premature to predict its long-term consequences, and the specifics of how various social groups–separated by income and wealth, age, or household type–will be differently affected. But reflecting on specific components of this definition now can still shed light on the profound impact of this public health crisis on various members of our society.

Food insecurity

The issue of food insecurity in Singapore has taken on greater urgency.

We have already seen the crisis affect patterns in the purchase, consumption, availability and prices of food. Depending on when and where one shops, supermarkets sometimes run out of lower-priced staples, and only ‘healthier’, pricier options are left on the shelves. Because lower-income families do not have the means to stock up on food supplies, they have to make daily trips to shops. This adds to time pressures that have intensified as children require more supervision at home due to school closures.

Illustration by Jolene Tan

Groups who work with low-income groups have seen a rise in requests for food rations. At the same time, food ration distributions, typically done through collection points at social service agencies and HDB void decks, have been thrown into uncertainty with new restrictions on gatherings and anxiety about face-to-face interactions. 

Housing: space, privacy, safety, security

Our appreciation of housing and, in particular, living space, will not be the same again after this. Public health directives for people to stay home and avoid contact across households raises the question of whether home is equally safe for everyone. They put under the spotlight overcrowded living conditions in the public rental housing system, where even large families are housed in small two-room flats, unrelated elderly tenants are required to share one-room flats with no bedrooms, and two households are accommodated in each three-room flat in the Interim Rental Housing scheme. Social workers as well as medical practitioners working in rental housing neighbourhoods have long observed that sickness tends to spread more easily among the children of large families who live in small flats. 

Living in close quarters, intensified in this time of business and school closures, also increases friction and conflict. Domestic violence is on the rise. Families already struggling with rental and other arrears will find their debt burdens worsened by this crisis. 

One pressing concern is how much of this impact will translate into homelessness. One outreach group has issued a call for individuals and organisations to offer temporary shelter, because of fears that homelessness shelters may be full.


In our ongoing research on basic needs for households with children, we conducted focus group discussions with parents. Discussions about education needs were often the most energetic part of the sessions, as parents expressed strongly that education is of highest priority. Participants told us that tuition is a basic need in Singapore today, because many if not most children need tuition to keep up in school. They openly voiced doubts that ‘every school is a good school’ and talked knowledgeably about the different types of tuition services at different price points and quality. 

This week, as schools close and learning moves online, inequalities have surfaced in new forms. Efforts to bridge the digital divide through the distribution of laptops and ensuring internet access is ongoing. But the divide extends beyond devices: the sudden shift to home-based learning (HBL) aggravates an already unlevel playing field, in terms of how children’s educational as well as leisure needs are supported at home, and how parents (especially women) negotiate work-life conflicts and the increased caregiving needs presented by HBL. 

Social participation

Illustration by Jolene Tan

In fulfilling the need for social participation–which our research shows is a basic need for human wellbeing–the new conditions in which we all find ourselves means we all take a hit. Yet, where some may find alternatives in Netflix and Zoom gatherings, others will find this need especially difficult to meet. 

The focus groups with older people in our first study alert us to the losses some groups will face. Older people talked about the importance of keeping in touch with family members over meals or festivities. They spoke of habits such as meeting friends at the coffee-shop; stopping for a drink and a chat at the hawker centre after shopping at the market; visiting the public library; attending courses at the community club; and travelling with family or friends to countries in the region. These were important for allowing them to feel a sense of belonging in society. Such activities have now been suspended. With friends and family also forbidden to visit, this will be an especially trying time for older members of society who live on their own

During this research, we have often been reminded that while ordinary Singaporeans can come to consensus about a baseline below which no one should fall, many in our society do indeed fail to meet those basic standards of living. 

In this time of a crisis that ostensibly affects every person in society, we must continually pay attention to the ways in which it affects different groups unequally, particularly when it comes to the meeting of basic needs.