How were participants selected for the study?
Participants were openly recruited through advertisements placed on Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp. We ensured that participants were diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background (i.e. education and housing type). Socioeconomic diversity is important for avoiding final budgets that are either extravagant or inadequate. Variations in ethnicity help to capture needs that are broadly reflective of our diverse society.
How did the researchers keep participants with particularly high or low incomes, who may have skewed expectations, from affecting the results?
How people see needs are of course affected by personal experiences, but people can apply themselves to the conceptual question of a minimum regardless of their own income situations. This has been observed in MIS research across different countries and cultural settings. The MIS methodology emphasises having a mixed group in terms of economic background, who must come to consensus, precisely to ensure that we do not end up with very high or very low budgets. Facilitation technique is crucial, to create space for all participants to speak. Case studies of hypothetical households help participants to focus on creating a baseline for everyone instead of their personal lifestyles or preferences.
In the 2021 MIS study, most participants had post-secondary education and 15% lived in private properties. Did they dominate the discussion and push the budgets up?
Among the participants in the 2021 study, 15% lived in private properties but 18% lived in public rental flats (provided by the HDB for lower-income households). In practice, this meant that each focus group had only 1 or 2 persons from either private housing or rental flats, out of an average total group size of 8 persons. As for educational profile, 82% of our participants aged 25-54 years old had post-secondary education, comparable to 79% of all Singapore residents in the same age group in 2020. Although qualitative methods like focus groups aim for diversity rather than numerical representativeness when sampling, the educational profile of our participants was closely reflective of the general population.
How did the participants feel about the process?
They generally enjoyed it! They were some of the most cheerful and conscientious participants we have seen in research projects. They seemed to relish the opportunity for their views to be heard and respected. Participants saw their collective wisdom translate into research findings. At the end of the sessions, they asked whether they could read our report after we completed the study. They sometimes stayed back to chat after we finished; a few wrote to us to share further thoughts.
How did participants decide what items to include?
We started with a definition of a basic standard of living, that came from participants in the previous MIS study. We then asked participants to discuss the things needed inside each room of the flat, before talking about the activities people would do outside and the services needed. Every item in the budget is based on consensus among the participants—things they could not all agree were needs were left out of the budget. Discussion and debate were encouraged, so participants could explain the rationales for including items. We checked the lists of items with multiple rounds of focus groups to ensure the final budgets are robust and not driven by any one group of participants or unusual discussion dynamics.
How did the researchers determine the prices of items and services?
Participants were asked to provide detailed information so we could price the items they decided on, such as quantity, quality (i.e. brand, model/specifications, shop, price range) and lifespan. We then went to the shops that participants agreed on (e.g. Fairprice, Uniqlo, Harvey Norman, neighbourhood shops) and recorded the prices of items that met their specifications. We were careful to price only items from shops that participants agreed were easily accessible to most people.
How does the study distinguish needs from wants?
At the outset, we explained to participants that the study is about needs, not wants. The final budgets should ensure a basic standard of living and not be a wish list of things that would be good to have. In the discussions, we used case studies of hypothetical households so participants would focus on universal needs rather than their own lifestyles and preferences. We frequently referred participants to the definition of a basic standard of living in Singapore, that came from participants in the previous MIS study. We asked them how items would help to achieve that definition, and what would happen if Mr K or Mrs K or child Z did not have those items.
There are cheaper alternatives to some of the items in the list. Why were these not adopted instead?
In the discussions, participants often considered the trade-off between the quality and lifespan of items. More expensive things may be more durable (e.g. electrical appliances) and may result in savings in the long run. In other instances, parents insisted on higher quality or specialised items for the children out of safety concerns. Moreover, to ensure the budgets are applicable to all Singaporean households, we priced only things that participants agreed were easily accessible. Free or low-cost options that may not be accessible to everyone are not adopted (e.g. services with eligibility criteria).
As a minimum income standard, why did the budgets cater for “discretionary” items like jewellery, holidays and private enrichment classes?
All the items in the budgets were based on consensus among the focus group participants. The central principle of the MIS method is that ordinary citizens, drawing on their lived experiences, are in the best position to discuss and define basic living standards. It intentionally avoids pre-conceived assumptions about needs, and provides an alternative to technical experts such as researchers or policymakers declaring what are discretionary.
In our study, a mother has an annual budget of $50 for jewellery, or just around $4 per month. Its contribution to the total budget is negligible. Participants said it is for things like earrings, hair clips and brooches, because it is important to look presentable at work. There was no contention in any of the groups about enrichment for children. Participants said it will be a need as long as our society is based on “meritocracy”. Holidays have never been controversial since we started this research in 2017 and have consistently featured in MIS research in other places. Participants agreed on holidays like a 4-day-3-night trip to Ipoh and Port Dickson by coach. If this holiday is not catered for in the budget, it would mean that families on a basic standard of living will never be able to travel outside of Singapore in their lifetimes. No participant suggested this was a reasonable minimum.
Are there differences between the budgets required to meet needs depending on the specific religious or cultural context of the individual?
Participants were very sensitive to the fact that Singapore is a multicultural, religiously diverse society. They valued choice in cultural and religious activities: there were discussions of different wedding formats, food and diet (e.g. halal food might be more expensive), and clothing needs. The final budgets will allow diverse groups with different practices to meet basic standards of living regardless of cultural variations.
Can the findings be adjusted for chronic illnesses, disabilities, and care needs at different life stages?
In our study, we assumed good health because we wanted to establish the ‘base case’ budgets. This means that the budget only includes healthcare services that even generally healthy people need, like GP and dentist visits, health screening, vaccinations, and selected one-off medical procedures. If there are additional health and care needs, the budgets can only increase, not decrease. Research in the UK has studied the needs of people with specific conditions, such as visual impairment, through additional focus groups. This is one possible direction for future research in Singapore.
Are the researchers confident that if they did this research again, they would get similar results?
Researchers in other contexts have found stability in their lists of items as they repeated the study over time, showing that the research process is reliable. In Singapore, we have also checked and confirmed the items across multiple rounds of focus groups, and there was no contention on the vast majority of items.
How did COVID-19 affect the 2021 study?
We temporarily stopped our fieldwork when physical gatherings were suspended during the Circuit Breaker in April 2020. We then switched to online focus groups for a short period before resuming physical groups once that was allowed. During the Circuit Breaker period, we conducted two special focus groups via Zoom to explore how people’s lives had been affected by COVID-19. We found that how they thought about needs had not been immediately or profoundly transformed. In fact, some needs were felt more strongly during the pandemic, such as holidays and access to a laptop for every household member who is working or schooling. We also monitored the prices of a basket of grocery and household items for a few months. There was some volatility in supply and prices in the early stages of the Circuit Breaker but the situation soon stabilised. Still, this is something that needs to be closely watched.
What types of households are covered in the study?
Our study focuses on households of single or partnered parents (aged 26 to 54 years old) with children across various age groups—below 2 years old; 2–6; 7–12; 13–18; and 19–25. These are households not living with other family members or domestic workers.
My family does not belong to any of the household types covered in the report. How do I know the budget my family needs?
The study website provides a budget calculator that can generate the MIS budgets for any configuration of household comprising single or partnered parents (aged 26 to 54 years old) with one to three children up to 25 years old.
Did the study consider the needs of single adults and couples without children?
Our research does not currently cover these groups. This is one of the possible directions for future MIS research.
Do the budgets reflect the needs of youths in national service?
The budgets reflect the needs of youths between the ages of 19 and 25. As these are baseline budgets for youths across the entire age group, they do not cater for the special situations of youths in national service, who have very different lifestyles and therefore different needs for things and services.
How are housing costs determined?
Housing costs are calculated based on a set of assumptions regarding homeownership, housing trajectories, and housing size.
First, we assumed that people purchase HDB (Housing and Development Board) flats as long as they are eligible, as this is common practice in Singapore.
Second, we identified distinct housing trajectories for single and partnered parents that align with housing policies. These policies currently discriminate between different types of households based on partnership history. We assumed that (i) partnered parents and (ii) single parents who are widowed or divorced purchase a new, subsidised flat (also known as Build-To-Order or BTO flat) at 26 years old. But for single parents who are “never married”, we assumed they rent a flat from the open market from 26 to 34 years old, and then buy a resale flat at 35 years old. “Never married” single parents and their children are not considered a “family nucleus” in housing policy. They are only eligible to buy a flat from 35 years old—either new 1-bedroom flats in non-mature estates, or resale flats which are usually more expensive than new flats.
Third, the housing sizes for different household types are based on the space standards decided by participants. We held a special focus group to understand the space needs of families with children, where participants agreed on a set of principles regarding the number of bedrooms required depending on the number of children and their gender.
Finally, we referred to actual housing prices in recent years, taking in account flat prices; additional fees; mortgage payments; housing grants; cash top-ups; and open market rental costs. Full details can be found in the report (pp. 47-50).
Larger housing subsidies are available for persons with lower incomes. Were these included?
Where the costs of items are affected by a person’s income, we assumed the national median work income in 2020. Housing is one such item, where the amount of housing grant is graduated according to the flat buyer’s income, with lower-income buyers getting larger subsidies. We did not adopt the subsidy levels for lower-income persons because that is not a typical scenario.
Subsidised public rental housing is available for low-income persons. Why was it not chosen?
Subsidised public rental housing offers only studio or 1-bedroom flats, which the participants agreed would not meet the space needs of families with children. Such housing is not universally accessible – there are strict eligibility criteria and applicants must pass a means test. The housing stock is also limited – only 5-6% of public housing are subsidized rental units. It cannot therefore be assumed to be part of a universal minimum income standard.
Single “never married” parents may appeal to the HDB for permission to purchase a flat before 35 years old. Was this considered?
This discretionary “case-by-case” approach to exempt some “never married” parents from the restrictions in housing policy creates exceptions but does not change the norm. As such, it cannot be assumed in a universal minimum income standard.
Since housing can be an asset with resale value, shouldn’t it be excluded as a cost in the budgets?
Methodologically, MIS is concerned with measuring needs (i.e. the costs of things and how much money people require), not means (i.e. incomes and how to pay for things). It is true that housing assets may eventually contribute towards income, especially in the decumulation phase of a person’s life. But future asset value does not change the current housing expenditure that families have to incur in order to meet their housing needs.
Are savings for retirement, healthcare and other needs included?
Methodologically, MIS does not include savings for future needs because it already takes into account all the needs in each stage of life. Adding savings would be to duplicate the costs of those needs. An exception is made for basic life insurance, which addresses participants’ concern that children have financial protection in the event that their parents are incapacitated or pass away while they are still dependent.
Are savings for shock events like accidents and economic recessions included?
The minimum income standards are baseline budgets that households need under normal circumstances, so major personal and environmental shocks are not taken into account. In practice, we expect that such events may not affect the types of items that people need, but may impact on general price levels (and hence the budgets required) as well as incomes.
What is a living wage? Is it the same as a minimum wage?
A living wage is a level of wage that affords workers a decent standard of living, relative to contemporary norms in their society. A living wage focuses solely on the costs of meeting basic needs, making it different from a minimum wage, which normally aims to boost the incomes of the lowest-paid workers without adversely affecting employment levels. In places where both standards exist, the living wage is usually voluntary, whereas the minimum wage is statutory.
Is the living wage proposed in the study reasonable?
Based on the household budgets for partnered parents with two children, we propose $2,990 per month as a starting point for deliberating a living wage in Singapore. This is reasonable considering that the national median work income in 2022 was already $5,070, or 1.7 times of this amount.
Does the proposed living wage include employer CPF contributions?
Yes, the proposed living wage includes employer CPF contributions because MIS budgets also include housing costs, which tend to be financed mainly through CPF savings. The study also includes employer CPF contributions in other wage-related analyses, such as the comparison of work incomes to MIS budgets.
What are the implications of the research? Who should pay for a basic standard of living?
Once we have established the budgets that households need, we can then look at the question of how to meet them. The answers will not come from this study alone, but require conversations regarding the roles of the state, companies, and the community. In general, incomes may come from public sources (e.g. transfers, subsidies), market sources (e.g. employment, investments), and informal sources (e.g. family contributions, support from charities).
Currently, in Singapore, elderly households depend heavily on family support. The major public transfer schemes are means-tested and modest. There is also a problem of low wages among some older workers. As family support declines with population ageing, income security can be strengthened by ensuring sufficient state support and adequate wages.
For working-age households, existing wage measures are not sufficient to overcome wage inequality and ensure adequate incomes across the workforce, while public financial assistance is limited in terms of accessibility and adequacy. Meeting basic living standards will depend on improvements to wage interventions and public provision.
What about government assistance for low-income families? How does the study account for such public subsidies and cash support?
Although MIS research is primarily interested in what a basic standard of living costs, we account for government assistance in several ways. First, where subsidies for public services are applied universally (i.e. everybody receives the same amount) and automatically (i.e. application is not necessary), these are deducted from the item prices during the budget calculations. Polyclinic services are an example.
Second, where subsidies are income-tested (i.e. whether and how much support there is depends on individual or household income), we assume median income so that the budgets are applicable to most of society. We take this approach when calculating housing costs. To assume maximum rates of subsidies that are in fact only received by a small number of very low-income families would underestimate the household budgets and create a misleading picture of living costs for the typical household.
Third, having calculated the budgets, we then use them as benchmarks to assess the adequacy of major policy provisions, including universal schemes (e.g. Baby Bonus and CPF) and the most important means-tested programmes (e.g. ComCare and the Silver Support Scheme). Our analysis has found that government support tends to be patchy, may be difficult to qualify for or provides inadequate amounts. See details in our research reports.
Has this sort of research been used in policy elsewhere?
In Japan, budgets produced through this method provide a reference in reviews of social assistance and child benefits. In the UK, various non-profits have adopted the budgets as benchmarks when determining the eligibility requirements or generosity of their benefit schemes, or when setting the fees for their services. The Living Wage Foundation also uses it to recommend wage levels for companies which pledge to be living wage employers.