How minimum income standards can help us build a more inclusive society

Academic Views / Monday, October 9th, 2023

At its core, the exercise of determining the basic standard of living that everyone in Singapore should have requires recognition that all are equal in humanity, argue TEO YOU YENN and NG KOK HOE.

In recent years, the Singapore government has spoken loudly and widely about building a more inclusive society. Social inclusion is a major thrust in the Forward Singapore conversations. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has also spoken about inequality and sluggish social mobility as key challenges to inclusion. At a time when many societies are facing economic uncertainty and political disruption, social inclusion is more important than ever in maintaining cohesion and resilience. 

Our research on Minimum Income Standards (MIS) can contribute to the goal of building a more inclusive society. 

Here is why:

This is what inclusion looks like

First, built into MIS are concrete articulations of what social inclusion might actually look like — in daily life, across the life course, and for ordinary people. 

Through our focus group discussions, we saw that people from diverse socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds could come together and reach consensus about the importance of belonging, respect, participation, choice and independence. 

Each of these is a value that deepens and thickens the notion of social inclusion. Social inclusion means people feel a sense of belonging to their various social groups; is respected by friends, family, neighbours, co-workers, acquaintances; can participate in various activities — work, school, leisure, religious practices — that involve others; and have choices about how one relates to others — how often, where, doing what. 

When translated into material terms, it is clear that social inclusion is not an abstraction. It is about dressing appropriately for work or for special occasions; about spending time with friends at the hawker centre (for older people) or drinking bubble tea (for youth); about ensuring that one’s child has the educational support they need to keep up in school; about being able to choose if one would like to join co-workers for a gathering after work. 

To be true, social inclusion cannot be a rare occurrence but must be present in everyday life. The specific things that enable it shift over the life course. Older people do not seem interested in bubble tea, for example. But the needs for belonging, respect, participation, choice and independence remain. 

The authors were recently interviewed by Walid Jumblat Abdullah (Nanyang Technological University).

Pathways to forging inclusion

Second, if social inclusion is a goal for Singapore, MIS suggests there are multiple pathways to achieve it. As with any complex problem, multiple solutions must be pursued. If a tap is leaking, we would want to figure out how to fix the faucet while we also fetch a bucket to contain the water and a cloth to wipe up any spills. 

We must first properly acknowledge that if social inclusion is a goal, a national project we are still working on, it means there are people who currently live lives excluded from society. Identifying the scale of exclusion is one important component of attaining the goal. In this, MIS provides a benchmark of income needs which, through comparison against actual incomes, helps to identify which groups are at greater risk of hardship and the depth of their exclusion.

MIS determines levels of income required to meet basic standards of living. Where this income should come from, or how these needs will be met, is a separate matter. Given a diverse society, how needs are met will also require diverse paths. We offer these possibilities: living wage, enhanced social protections in life stages where incomes may be insecure (such as childhood and retirement), and more adequate direct assistance for the lowest-income persons in society.

A strong version of inclusion 

Finally, a central principle at the heart of MIS draws attention to an aspect of social inclusion that is fundamental yet often overlooked: what participants in our focus groups were tasked with and accomplished is to set a universal standard below which no one should fall. A minimum income standard, in other words, is for everyone — the very essence of ‘inclusion.’ 

Some critics have lamented that the MIS budgets are too high and even suggested that the ‘high’ levels somehow remove the dignity of low-income persons; if applied to their own lives they would probably find the levels well below their own actual standards of living. Others wonder ‘who will pay’ and worry about having to subsidise ‘the undeserving.’ These responses indicate that existing articulations of social inclusion are shallow. 

The MIS standard is not a standard for ‘others’ but a standard for all. It represents a kind of proactive, radical inclusion — the ethical core of which is that as humans living in Singapore today, everyone should have at least this basic standard of living. Here lies a framing of social inclusion that is not a post-hoc inclusion — added after people have already been excluded — or a benevolent ‘othering’ inclusion — ‘I am on the inside and I’m so generous I’ll bring a few others along’ — but one that insists that we first recognise that all humans are equal in our humanity and therefore that all of us deserve to be included. 

In a society increasingly divided by class, where our lived realities and interests are so often disparate, this radical version of inclusion is necessary as a clarion call. If political leaders want to encourage solidarity across class lines, if they are genuine about getting everyone to support their promise of a more inclusive society, this is the strong version of inclusion they should articulate and insist on. 

Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University. Ng Kok Hoe is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Case Study Unit at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Details of research on Minimum Income Standards (MIS) at