SINGAPORE — A debate on defining what is a basic need for households played out in Parliament on Wednesday (Oct 4), as questions were raised about whether items such as perfume, jewellery and overseas holidays are essential for some segments of the population who are receiving financial aid from the Government.
At the centre was a recent study done by academics on household budgets at a time of rising costs of living, with Mr Eric Chua, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development, telling the House that the study’s findings went beyond reflecting the basic needs of lower-income households.
This was a point three governmental ministries overseeing social and family development, finance, and manpower had made last month in response to the same study.
The Minimum Income Standard (MIS) 2023 Report, released last month, was co-authored by Dr Ng Kok Hoe, who is head of the social inclusion project at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, who is provost chair in sociology at Nanyang Technological University.
Mr Chua highlighted how the MIS report had itself stated that it looked beyond “basic needs like housing, food, clothing”, to also account for “what it takes to enable a sense of belonging, respect, security (and) independence”.
“So quite clearly, even the MIS report itself has defined what (researchers) have found as going beyond basic needs. Hence, what they were describing was really about what is aspirational, what perhaps … families would like to have,” Mr Chua said.
“But as I mentioned in my main reply, what we cater for in ComCare — and in our subsidies and in our financial assistance schemes — caters for basic needs.”
ComCare, a financial assistance scheme under the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), supports lower-income households with basic living expenses such as cash and assistance with utility bills.
The debate arose after Mr Ang Wei Neng, Member of Parliament (MP) for West Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), filed a parliamentary question in view of the report’s findings, asking whether MSF would consider adjusting the financial aids it rendered to low-income families.
Mr Ang also asked if the ministry would consider conducting its own study — using various government data beyond what is publicly available — to determine the level of living wage required to support a basic standard of living.
In reply to Mr Ang’s questions, Mr Chua said that the ministry “regularly reviews” its assistance coverage, and that MSF “references data and information from different sources” during these reviews.
These sources include price data from the Department of Statistics, views from domain experts and community stakeholders, as well as academic studies and research commissioned by MSF.
Further challenging what constitutes a basic need or aspirational goods such as perfume, Associate Professor Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party MP for Sengkang GRC, said: “Of course, many Singaporeans will understand as well that in a hot and humid climate like our own, being presentable, smelling normal, would be something that many jobseekers would require in order to have some dignity when they go for a job interview or when they go to work.”
He then said that he was “somewhat puzzled” as to why ComCare seemed to have expanded its notion of needs to “relative needs such as mobile phone plans and the like”.
To this, Mr Chua said that the ministry assesses its “basket of products and services that are needed in a basic package for our ComCare families from time to time”.
“And we have included mobile data plans, because that provides for digital connectivity, which in turn provides for human connection, which is a basic need we assessed, and that’s consistent with what I said today.”
Mr Ang later posed a supplementary question asking if MSF would consider producing its own report should it disagree with the findings of the MIS report, “which is internationally conducted in many countries”, so that it may better convince Singaporeans.
Mr Chua did not answer this directly, apart from making the point that aspirational items are good-to-have but not essential.
He took time to clarify instead certain aspects of the report, including the “assumption” made that lower-income households received the same amount of financial help as their median-income counterparts.
“This is clearly not correct. Lower-income families qualify for, or receive more financial help, than median households. This is not something that has been recognised by the MIS study.”
Mr Chua added that it was important to “look at the entirety” of what is provided to the families as well – not only in terms of financial assistance rendered by the Government, but also what other community and corporate stakeholders are doing, in line with the “many helping hands approach” to cater to families with less.
Drawing also from his conversations with two residents living in rental flats, Mr Chua recounted how they had told him that items such as perfume, jewellery and overseas holidays were “good to have, lah”, and that they would “work hard for these things, lor”.
“So my takeaway from these two conversations was this: Let us not underestimate the agency, the strength and the dignity of our lower-income families, and their ability to turn things around and to break the cycle of poverty — with them clearly in the loop, with them clearly holding on to the levers of their own lives.”