SINGAPORE (May 22): Just how much does a single, elderly person aged over 65 years who lives alone in Singapore need to cover his basic needs?

Some $1,379 a month, according to a team of researchers led by assistant professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

If the name sounds familiar, it is because Dr Ng had in 2017 conducted the first count of Singapore’s homeless people.

Singapore has shied away from defining a poverty line, or setting a minimum wage. But, for the first time, a group of researchers has released figures tacked to the basic needs of a group in the affluent city-state.

For the latest study published today (May 22), the team of researchers had talked to 103 participants to figure out which items and services Singaporeans regard as necessities – and how much to budget for it.

Beyond subsistence such as food, housing, utilities, clothing, researchers also included items that allow for “quality of life”.

These include the financial means to participate in social activities, as well as engage in cultural and religious practices. For instance, some $54.01 was budgeted for recreation and entertainment per week, which will allow these individuals to provide for gifts and clothing for special occasions.

The budgets should enable older adults to thrive rather than just stay alive, said the research paper.

For an elderly couple living together, the figure needed to cover their basic needs rises to a total of $2,351. And for a single person who is slightly younger, at 55 to 64 years old, the sum needed for his basic needs stands at $1,722 a month.

According to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore has reigned as the most expensive city in the world since 2014.

Yet, the city-state, which served as the backdrop for the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, grapples with a widening wage gap that has roused public discontent.

Last year, the average monthly household income for residents here was $10,664. Meanwhile, those in the bottom 10% took home $1,955 a month, and the 11th to 20th percentile made $4,005 a month.

Of the households in the bottom two percentiles, a staggering four out of 10 are headed by residents aged above 60.

But the threshold for state help varies, making it hard to pinpoint what policymakers see as poverty.

For instance, there is a maximum monthly household income of $1,500 to qualify for a rental flat.

But to receive short- to medium-term financial assistance under the long-running ComCare scheme, there is a maximum monthly household income of up to $1,900, or a per capita income of $650.

Researcher are hopeful that the figures released in the new report can be used as a yardstick by policymakers.

“Such income standards can help by translating societal values and real experiences into unambiguous and substantive benchmarks that policy can aim for," said Dr Ng.

Notably, the figures these researchers say are required to cover an individual’s basic needs are higher than the basic wage floor set by policymakers in Singapore’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM) – the nation’s version of a minimum wage.

PWM is implemented to help uplift low-wage workers in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, where wages had stagnated due to widespread cheap sourcing.

But for 2019, the basic wage floor for a Security Officer is at $1,175 a month – more than $200 shy of the $1,379 needed by a single, elder person aged above 65.

To arrive at these figures, the researchers had conducted focus group discussions and used a consensus-based methodology known as Minimum Income Standards.

This means the focus groups had to agree on how ordinary Singaporeans think about basic needs and what those cost.

Each item or service was only included if the participants agreed that it was a basic need and could justify its inclusion.

The other researchers are associate professor Teo You Yenn from the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), author of bestseller This Is What Inequality Looks Like; Dr Neo Yu Wei, from the Social Service Research Centre in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS; Dr Ad Maulod, from the Centre for Ageing Research and Education at Duke-NUS Medical School; and Ting Yi Ting, from the NUS’s Social Service Research Centre.