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Why it is important to understand how Singaporeans spend their time 

Covid-19 and the ensuing new normal have amplified our starvation for time, especially in juggling work, education, caregiving and quality of life.

Why it is important to understand how Singaporeans spend their time 
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We live in interesting times.

Global sentiment has not been so fluid, malign and unpredictable since World War II.

In a world besieged by a pandemic that has no end in sight, many of us feel helpless and despairing in facing the new avalanche of protocols. Work from home, social distancing, staggered hours, and Zoom meetings are all concepts introduced to us in the last 18 months.  


As the world goes through a digital transformation in work and leisure, so do our lives. 

There is a proliferation of both online and offline activities. We are spending more time pursuing a wider and potentially unlimited range of tasks. Our work and social lives have never been so densely compressed. 

Global data shows that in Singapore we work an average of 45 hours a week — the second highest in the world after people in Tokyo; and we are also one of the most sleep deprived nations — clocking just 6.8 hours a night in 2021, down from seven hours in the year before.

The 2020 population census data show that the median travelling time on our public transport system has increased to 60 minutes from 50 minutes a decade earlier. More students require transportation to school than before, at 77 per cent, up 3 percentage points from a decade ago. 

On the digital front, publicly available data from the Infocomm Media Development Authority for 2011 to 2015 suggests that we have immersed ourselves in cyberspace in our daily rituals.  

In 2015, Singaporeans spent an average of 11.77 hours a week on news-related media websites and applications — doubling from the 5.75 hours in 2011.

Younger Singaporeans aged between 15 and 19 devoted an average of 18.7 hours a week in 2015 on similar news related content, and another 26.5 hours on non-media websites and applications. This is on top of their 8.4 hours of online gaming, which had more than quadrupled since 2011.  

It is safe to assume that the figures would have gone up even more since 2015.


Covid-19 and the ensuing new normal have amplified our starvation for time, especially in juggling work, education, caregiving and quality of life.

Working from home was said to be the panacea for our social ills. It was meant to give us the flexibility we need to juggle commitments at home and work, like responding to emails and sending our children to school simultaneously. 

Ironically, instead of delivering the promised work-life balance, working from home has blurred the boundaries between the two as we pack in more assignments a day than one could accomplish. Multi-tasking becomes the euphemism for working harder.

Our children and young adults have not been spared. According to a recent study by the National Institute of Education, home-based learning has resulted in children as young as pre-schoolers spending more screen time on electronic devices and less on physical activities and sleep compared to pre-Covid times.


Beyond the pandemic, our personal habits, social network patterns, and household rituals are not well understood. 

With Covid-19 movement restrictions in place, what activities do we pursue on a typical day and with whom? Within the household, how often do we interact with each other? 

Covid-19 has dampened our economic development, and in some cases, it amplifies some of our faultlines, particularly in terms of the disparity of resources such as income, occupation, and education. 

These economic factors determine our access to opportunities in life.

The inequality in resources, however, is less obvious in the context of time use. Regardless of economic background, every one has 24 hours a day. It is nature’s equaliser of wealth.

How we allocate time therefore reflects a matter of priority, which in turn informs our lifestyle, job constraints, caregiving obligations, motivations, and, at a national level, the types of intervention and policy calibration.  

For instance, well educated, middle-aged professionals may have deep financial pockets to ride out the pandemic.  

But this group may also be most time deprived, working 16 hours a day compared to blue collar workers while young adults from underprivileged families may encounter significant headwinds in achieving upward mobility if they have to juggle part-time jobs to make ends meet.

What are the changes at a personal or family level, or through the use of policy levers at the national level, that could make a difference to maintain a sensible work-life balance under the new normal?

While certain policy interventions may be useful to help the underprivileged break out of a vicious circle, we do not know why some continue to languish.  

The time-use profile of disadvantaged youth and their family network will provide policymakers and academics a prism through which to understand their needs and priorities. 

The data include the kind of activities undertaken, with whom, and the location of where these activities are carried out.

These are just some examples of what time use can reflect. Its potentials are significant.

The Singapore University of Social Science will partner with the National Council of Social Service and The Ngee Ann Kongsi to study how time is utilised in all household members, and measure their mental, physical, and social wellbeing.  

No study has been done using this 360 degree, time-use perspective in Singapore.

A national representative sample of 1,000 households will be invited to take part in a survey on time use. Every household member aged 10 and above will be invited to take part in the study. 

Findings from the S$2.2 million, five-year longitudinal tracking study will help inform policymakers on how time is used among all age groups.

This includes the frequency and duration of caregiving, work, education, and family obligations, types of activity that are considered challenging, and the network of people participating in these events.

The findings will guide social service delivery and policies that hopefully can improve work-life balance.



Leong Chan-Hoong is an associate professor at the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). Seng Boon Kheng is a professor at the SR Nathan School of Human Development and head of programme for social work at SUSS. They are principal investigator and deputy principal investigator respectively for the National Council of Social Service-The Ngee Ann Kongsi 360 Panel Research.

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