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

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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. 

COVID-19: Temporary suspension of focus groups

In light of the new social distancing measures announced by the government and the recent increase in cases of COVID-19, our team is temporarily suspending all focus groups.

We are very grateful for the interest shown to date by potential participants in our research. Those interested are still welcome to register. We will get in touch when we re-start the groups. Thank you for your patience and support.

Gaps in retirement income system cannot be fixed with small tweaks

Ng Kok Hoe of our research team is over at with a new post on Budget 2020. Drawing on the insights of last year’s MIS report, he asks, how well do recently announced measures address gaps in the retirement income system?

The MRSS signals a continuation in the prevailing thinking: that retirement income should come mainly from individual savings. The design of the scheme reflects an implicit diagnosis that CPF payouts are inadequate because people have the means but are choosing to save or spend their money in other ways than retirement planning.

In fact the challenges go much further than that.

For older people who are lifetime low-wage workers, there will be no spare resources for voluntary CPF savings and so no opportunity to benefit from the MRSS. Instead, they face a stark choice between planning for retirement and meeting current basic needs like housing, healthcare and food.

Head over to read the full post!

What is enough: food

A 2018 report by the SMU Lien Centre for Social Innovation, and a recent two-part series by Channel News Asia, have put food insecurity in Singapore under the spotlight. Food is undeniably a basic need—and how it ties into other needs, such as those for social participation, were extensively discussed by participants in the first MIS research project. The MIS team reflects further on the implications of recent discussions.

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.‘ – Definition of a basic standard of living, arrived at through consensual discussion among MIS research participants (see report findings)

In defining a basic standard of living, our research participants did not dwell on certain ‘survival’ needs–housing, food, and clothing. The definition merely mentions these briefly, before focusing on other aspects of human needs, precisely because they are seen as bare survival needs and presumed to be universally met in Singapore today. 

The lack of food, in the context of a wealthy city-state, implies a very high level of deprivation: a person who is unable to meet food needs is likely also unable to access other things that our research participants see as basic and necessary for living in contemporary Singapore. 

Consequently, the recent CNA two-part series highlighting food insecurity, drawing on a report by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, is extremely troubling. An alarming number of charities and volunteers have identified food deprivation as a gap they are trying to plug.  

“What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

What is “enough” in meeting food needs? 

Over a decade ago, in Parliament, MP Lily Neo questioned Minister Vivian Balakrishnan about public assistance (PA) for the most vulnerable. Pressed on the insufficiency of PA to ensure “just three meals a day as an entitlement”, the Minister famously countered, “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?” This response implied strongly that people are just unreasonably choosy and that everyone does have enough to “live with dignity” in Singapore. (download full exchange here)

Underlying the MIS project is this idea: “What is enough?” is an important question to answer empirically rather than through mere belief or ideology. 

Anyone looking to ensure that people are meeting their needs—whether from the state or civil society—should try to answer this question with data. People with very limited income will first try to eat before allocating money elsewhere; thus, failure to eat enough likely signals failure to access other needs. The food insecurity situation among some people in our country therefore alerts us to the likely existence of many other unmet needs. 

So, again, what is enough when it comes to food? 

Details of food items, menus, and prices can be found in our report. Here, a few significant features to highlight:

Illustration by Jolene Tan
  • The total food budget for single elderly households comes up to S$92.07 per week, and that for coupled elderly households is S$189.77. This represents 29% and 35% of the weekly household budgets respectively. Food accounts for the largest share of the household budget. 
  • While the bulk of the food budget reflects an expectation of eating in, it does include some provision for eating out. Eating out primarily means hawker centres and coffee-shops, with occasional outings to restaurants. For the single elderly households, there are two days per week of eating out for breakfast, and three days per week of eating out for lunch and dinner. The elderly couples eat out twice a week for all meals.
  • The food budgets combine participants’ views with dieticians’ input in an iterative back-and-forth process. Across the groups, participants frequently mentioned “healthy” and “unhealthy” options. While they were aware of the health implications of food intake, the food options they suggested also reflected that choice and enjoyment are important. They acknowledged that meals sold outside tend to be less healthy, but also said that eating out is cheap, convenient, and a way to meet friends (enabling social belonging and connection).

We are currently conducting research to understand basic needs for households with younger persons. Their specific food needs will certainly be slightly different. Infants and toddlers need milk and some solid foods; kids in secondary school may have needs for food relating to their extra-curricular activities and more time spent with friends away from home; and working parents have an entire set of constraints when it comes to cooking versus eating out, as well as meeting the needs of multiple children who have different preferences. 

The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

When determining what is enough, apart from specific menus and budgets, these are our key findings:

  • What is enough is partly about meeting dietary requirements and partly about other personal and social needs.
  • Dietary requirements change with age and activity, and are also variant due to health conditions. 
  • In order to achieve and maintain good health, food needs to not only be filling but also nutritious. This is not just dieticians’ view but also what participants see as a basic standard of living in Singapore today. Another way of appreciating this insight is to say that participants saw food as a need which is both immediate and recurring, but also long-term in that it meets needs for health and wellbeing. 
  • Significantly, in Singapore today, food is imbued with extraordinary personal significance and social meaning. This was strongly demonstrated by our participants’ discussion of actual food items and eating patterns, and the enthusiasm and joy they brought to discussing food. The way people eat–what, where, and with whom–matters. Humans have needs for choice and autonomy, and these are met when they can buy the food they want when they want it. We have needs for variation and pleasure, and that’s why our participants insist that food items must change; where people eat must also vary in a given day, week, and month. Humans have needs for social participation; in the Singapore context, such needs are met when we catch up with our friends at hawker centres, or gather to celebrate special occasions in restaurants with our families. 

Given what we have found, it is a very profound deprivation to be deprived of food–not just food as filling stomachs, but also the purchase and consumption of food as an act of autonomy, and the eating and enjoyment of food as an act of social participation. 

The CNA and Lien Centre reports indicate a range in the people who face food scarcity. Some are old but others young, some immobile but many mobile, some with families and others single, some unable to work and others working. What they have in common, regardless of these other variations, is income inadequacy. This, in our view, should be the focus of solutions. 

We have learnt through our research that needs encompass not just material things themselves, but also how they are accessed. Choice, autonomy, independence, social participation–these too are basic needs. To live a dignified life, we have to care not just about eating, but how we eat, where, with whom, and on whose terms. In a small city such as Singapore, where food can be bought everywhere, most people are able to physically reach places where food is sold. The meeting of food needs, then, is primarily about income. It may not need to entail coordination and delivery to the extent that charities now carry out. Low wages need to be raised, wages for caregivers needs to be considered, unconditional basic income needs to be seriously discussed. 

In a city as wealthy as Singapore, food needs can and should be universally met.