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