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S$1,379 a month needed for basic needs? This is how Singapore's seniors agree on this baseline

Our study which found that Singapore seniors each need at least S$1,379 monthly to meet basic needs has been widely reported by the media and shared on social media.
Here, we share how we conducted the study and some findings that struck us.

S$1,379 a month needed for basic needs? This is how Singapore's seniors agree on this baseline

The authors say that while doing their research on a budget seniors need to meet basic needs, they were moved by older Singaporeans' recognition of the importance of needs for autonomy and social connection.

Our study which found that Singapore seniors each need at least S$1,379 monthly to meet basic needs has been widely reported by the media and shared on social media. This is perhaps not surprising, as retirement adequacy is an issue close to Singaporeans’ hearts.

Here, we share how we conducted the study and some findings that struck us. In addition to establishing baseline budgets, our research sheds light on our shared values as Singaporeans.

In the past year, poverty and inequality have come to the forefront of public consciousness. Much has been said about education and social mobility, social provisions and poverty alleviation, and the complex challenges of living with low income.

We think that the release of the study is therefore timely, as it can help us move the discussion toward defining what a decent life in Singapore should entail.

Where to set this baseline is by no means an easy question to resolve. What are basic needs? What does it mean to say everyone should have a basic standard of living? How will we answer these questions?

As social scientists, we think these questions must and can be systematically and empirically interrogated.

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Adopting a methodology pioneered in the United Kingdom, called the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) approach, we conducted research in 2017-18 to find out what ordinary elderly Singaporeans think basic needs should encompass.

Our study resulted in two sets of findings: first, qualitative data that tell us how ordinary people think about the notion of “basic”; second, a list of goods and services, with accompanying budgets, necessary for attaining basic standards of living.

Through focus group discussions involving over 100 members of the public, we observed that when given opportunities to freely express their views and respectfully agree and disagree, people can come to a consensus on setting a baseline below which no one in Singapore society should fall.

Participants were mindful that their task was to identify how to meet reasonable needs, and to avoid extravagance.

They clarified and justified to one another why each item or activity was a need, and if they could not reach agreement on it, it was not included in the budget. This provoked a thoughtful and detailed discussion and the final list was the result of robust consensus.

They articulated strongly and consistently that basic needs must go beyond merely surviving — basic needs should enable “quality of life”. They emphasised the importance of independence and autonomy; this means not being a burden to loved ones, and being able to exercise one’s preferences and choices.

They also emphasised that humans are social beings, and basic needs must entail social participation and connection to others.

A key aim in the MIS approach is to translate needs which may initially appear abstract — needs for independence or connection, for example — into concrete things which can be clearly and explicitly budgeted for.

The oft-repeated cliché that “money cannot buy happiness” may well be true in its most literal and simplistic conception, but our participants’ deliberations demonstrated that there are many concrete and material things — which require specific sums of money — that are needed to meet people’s needs.

While these material things cannot guarantee anything as subjective as “happiness”, they are deeply connected to well-being and important preconditions to happiness.

How did abstract concepts about needs translate into concrete budgets for material goods and services?

Participants said that basic needs are more than survival, and therefore built budgets that enable people to thrive.

They talked about objects that bring pride, pleasure and joy. For example, in listing items for the home, they emphasised aesthetics: “We want to have a nice way of living lah…[Decorating a home] is a chance to be distinct [so] somebody [can be] house proud.”

Participants included household budgets to replace or change old items to reinvigorate the home such that furnishings in the house would look “up-to-date”.

When it comes to food, participants talked about the importance of having choices to eat at home as well as eat out, and budgets that would allow people to enjoy occasional treats with loved ones at restaurants.

In emphasising needs for independence, they made connections between independent living and household items that could ensure personal safety.

For example, they included stools in household budgets, so that (older) people can sit to wear their shoes. Independent living also involves being able to maintain household items in good condition.

They therefore included a budget to pay for maintenance work at home (e.g. removing curtain rods, fixing light bulbs, climbing ladders).

The emphasis on needs for independence and autonomy does not mean that participants think people should live in isolation.

Their budgets also reflect people’s needs for social connections and access to activities that enable self-esteem, respectability and belonging.

Participants highlighted attendance at functions such as birthday parties and weddings as basic needs.

They talked about social obligations such as attending funerals and visiting friends and family when they are ill. They therefore included budgets for presents (for birthdays) or cash gifts (for weddings and funerals).

Going to social events is important to “give face” to friends or relatives and to avoid negative judgment. Budgets are necessary because arriving empty-handed would not be acceptable.

As one participant said: “You attend a party, you don’t bring a present, you are not welcome, you know.”

Gifts need not be expensive, particularly if intended for children, but they need to be “presentable” to avoid social embarrassment.

While doing this research, we have been moved by the wisdom of ordinary people — their pragmatic and modest approach to determining basic needs; their capacity to discuss, disagree, compromise, and come to consensus; their recognition of the importance of needs for autonomy and social connection; and their concern that in Singapore today, there are still those who are unable to meet basic needs.

On this final point, one participant reminded us: “When you define what the minimum is, you need to take into consideration those who have caught up and those who have not. There is [a] big group of people who have not caught up…How do we pull this group closer and how do we define a minimum standard? This will take a lot of time and effort.”

Ensuring that everyone is able to meet basic standards of living will indeed take time and effort.

We hope this research, in pointing to a baseline that reflects ordinary people’s understandings of what basic needs are, will take us another step closer to ensuring that everyone in Singapore today can not just survive, but thrive.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Ng Kok Hoe is Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and editor of They Told Us to Move: Dakota-Cassia.

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