Beyond Wages, What Makes for a Quality Life in Singapore?
Top image: Tey Liang Jin/ Rice Media

A quality life is a vague idea since we can’t measure it in concrete, monetary terms. But one thing’s for sure: All of us want to live a quality life beyond merely meeting the bare essentials—food, shelter and clothing. It’s more than just staying alive. It’s about living fully while being our authentic selves.

Teo You Yenn, Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, believes that when everyone living in a society can meet their needs, we all benefit because everyone we are connected with—family, friends, co-workers and neighbours—will enjoy better health, are better cared for and educated, are less stressed, and more motivated.

She added, “If there is a baseline below which we would not fall, it would mean that all of us would feel more secure, knowing that the various situations we may face in life—illness, old age, family conflict—would not put us in positions of precarity.”

To better understand what constitutes a quality life for the regular citizen, we asked Singaporeans how they would define quality in the second most expensive city in the world. Beyond the dollars and cents, what does a thriving society with a quality life in Singapore look like?

Photo: Zachary Tang/Rice Media

Drawing boundaries

Trapped in the forces of a capitalist society, we are assessed and evaluated by our productivity and efficiency—how much and how quickly we can contribute has become a sort of yardstick to measure our self-worth and identity. 

When our personal values conflict with societal standards and expectations, our mental well-being unquestionably suffers. Evidently, mental health issues have become a growing concern. 

“What does a quality life mean to you?” I asked Ying, a final year undergraduate at a local university in Singapore.

“Sufficient rest. I did not know when I should stop for a breather for a large part of my life. To me, it’s tough to stop once I start working. So, learning to rest and compartmentalise work has become essential.”

She shared a conversation with close friends in church earlier this year. “I couldn’t respond when they asked how I was doing. How was I really? That was when it hit me. I could not continue with my life like that. I needed time off.”

Ying said she has always been the person people counted on when they needed someone there for them—inconvenient as it can sometimes be. “I knew I had to start drawing boundaries. I also learnt to say no when my friends wanted to hang out or when they expected me to do something for them.”

“It probably stemmed from my fear of not being good enough,” Ying continues, labelling that episode with her friends in church as a ‘defining moment’. “I craved recognition from people. To feel more worthy, I took on more responsibilities and worked hard to prove myself. Unfortunately, it backfired.”

Fortunately for Ying, sufficient rest helped her regain her mental and spiritual health. Some people may struggle with the concept of rest, especially when rest is often viewed as being unproductive or a waste of time. For others, rest comes in the form of a few hours of sleep after a long day of work. 

Setting aside time to rest then almost feels like a sin, as it goes against the grain of capitalism. 

Photo: Goh Qiu Ting/Rice Media

Having safe and strong families

Rashid, a father of 2 teenagers, talked about his struggles with feelings of inferiority. “It’s hard not to compare when I see some of my friends earning S$700 per day. Sometimes, I question my life. But I guess, the more we dwell on what we lack, the inferiority complex sets in and hijacks our mental well-being.”

“What has been a personal triumph for you?” I asked.

“Having brought up my kids to this age and seeing them develop into responsible and sensible young adults,” he said after pausing to think.

Rashid exposed his children to different activities when they were younger to enhance their perception of life—opting for a private child care provider because of the programme offerings. His children went for guitar lessons, and his daughter attended Mandarin classes.

Some people have questioned the necessity of having tuition, enrichment, recreation, and entertainment because they simply do not fit into the standard of ‘basic’ expenses. However, they do fall under social and cultural capital, which are assets essential in helping families and their future generations thrive and live a full and quality life.

Here, social capital refers to connections from being part of social networks, as people navigate interpersonal relationships with trust and reciprocity in which they develop a shared sense of identity. Cultural capital also enables social mobility, such as knowledge, skills, and education, allowing individuals to get ahead in life. 

Our conversation brought Rashid back to his childhood when he grew up in a rental flat.

He recounted the quality family time they shared, “My mum would always make time for my siblings and me. Also, we would spend time with my dad over a kite or birdcage making session.”

“So if parents cannot afford costly enrichment classes, find other ways. Children can attend playgroups instead or go to museums. You know how art museums have activity corners for children, right? Look for free events. Expose them to all the finer things in life. These informal activities help to open their minds.”

Another parent, Rus, a working mother of a 3-year-old, attributes her triumph in life to the birth of her daughter.  She swells with pride whenever she talks about her daughter. The latter fluently expresses and articulates her opinions and desires autonomy to make decisions for herself at such a tender age.

“Would you consider being married a milestone too?” I asked.

“Truth be told, my mum single-handedly raised us, so the notion of marriage is not as strong for me as compared to others. Parenting is a heavy responsibility—you go all out. Their lives are still intertwined with yours when your children have grown up. Even in the event of a breakdown of marriage, parenting continues, albeit separately.”

Photo: Marisse Caine/Rice Media

Leading purposeful and fulfilling lives

“What does a successful and quality life mean to you?” I asked Ms K, who has about two decades of teaching experience.

“At this stage in my life, I consider myself successful because I am still healthy and can pursue my interests and work well. I see that my students have grown and come into their own in their respective fields and personal lives.”

“Success, to me, is when ex-students express their appreciation and share with me about their lives, years after they have graduated.”

It was heartening listening to her talk about her students and the memories she holds dear. She was enthused over her recent sourdough bread making ventures and shared with delight that she had the help of an ex-student, who taught her how to make a sourdough starter.

“And I think it’s about relationships too. If you still have friends from a long time ago, with whom you still enjoy the friendship and camaraderie, that is success too,” she added. For Ms K, a quality life is filled with purpose when she can connect with others.

On the other hand, Madam Chan believes that the key to a meaningful life is to stay curious, learn, and improve ourselves in terms of acquiring knowledge and gathering experiences.

“Not upgrading in terms of material pursuits ah,” she joked.

“So what does a successful person look like to you?

​​”Successful people lift others through the resources they have. They encourage and guide others, pushing them towards feeling a sense of empowerment. I think they are successful because they lead their lives with purpose.”

She refers to them as “贵人”, guìrén in Mandarin—benefactors in our society who reach out and support others who are in less privileged positions. For some people, a quality life would mean that they see themselves being active contributors in society who find time to support causes they believe in and want to advocate for. 

I am reminded of what Associate Prof Teo shared, that “The “social contract” should not be imagined as altruism—as the rich giving up to “help” the poor. It is about the reality that when any given individual contributes to the collective, they and their families also reap the benefits of public goods at various points in the life course.”

Photo: Marisse Caine/Rice Media

Being financially future-ready 

Financial security and independence are at the forefront of most, if not all, of our minds. Some people would have more in excess to be channelled into savings, investments, and insurances. On the other hand, some people struggle to make ends meet every month, let alone have the means or headspace to venture into investing. 

Insurance and investment take up a considerable portion of single-parent Candi and her daughter’s monthly living expenses. 

“Meals are becoming more expensive,” Candi laments. “We as individuals need to know how to grow our wealth to move with our economy. Do you know that we are spending future money in the present because of inflation? We cannot avoid inflation. We cannot stockpile our food or vegetables now for the future.”

“How has your life changed since giving birth to your daughter?” I asked.

To ensure that I will not become a liability to her when she grows up. I increased my mortgage insurance for my HDB flat. ​​I also upgraded all my life insurance plans, everything that would prepare me in the event of a critical illness.”

Candi was forthcoming in her responses. “As a single parent, I always have this struggle after having her… what if I go first much earlier than expected? Even if I have enough finances put aside, I think it’s also important for her to have someone there by her side.”

The controversial LKYSPP Minimum Income Standard study

Financial security is paramount in helping families feel settled. As society progresses, our living costs will inevitably rise as we seek a quality life.

Many have expressed concerns about rising costs of living and experiencing financial instability in the future. Individuals and families who are less advantaged are the ones bearing the brunt.

How hard should we work to deserve a good life and at whose expense? Who defines how deserving we are? How should we measure who’s more deserving? What defines hard work and success? 

Since definitions and measurements of success vary across individuals brought up with different lived experiences and perspectives, is it fair to define the concept of a “living wage” or minimum wage in Singapore as the bare minimum to merely exist? 

According to Associate Prof Teo, the notion of a “living wage” versus a minimum one is helpful because it is a reminder that wages have to be sufficient to provide people with enough to live dignified lives. There is much value in articulating and getting people to think about what human needs wages must meet.

To understand in-depth the household budgets accounting for human needs and social inclusion—the key ingredients to living a dignified life—the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) recently conducted a Minimum Income Standard (MIS) study that looked into the concept of a “living wage”.

It accounts for the prices of goods and services using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), an index often used to measure inflation by tracking the price changes over time. As for public services, like utilities or housing, where the actual price changes are known, the costs are adjusted based on the newly published rates instead of the CPI.

According to Associate Prof Teo, “the work of political leaders should be to galvanise people, to build solidarity among people, to get people to experience and see that they have interests in contributing to collective resources, that they benefit from a fairer society where everyone can meet their needs.”

Photo: Zachary Tang/Rice Media

Living and dying with dignity

Ms K is not afraid of dying alone, but she wants to avoid being in a state of health where she is wholly dependent on people. “So I do things to keep myself healthy, mentally and physically, as much as possible. I make certain financial decisions with mid to long-term intentions as much as I can.”

She continued after pondering, “You know, it’s going to be a challenge if my parents fall sick. Everyone will be affected if I have to stop work to look after them. Seeing them live well and as long as possible is my responsibility as their daughter.”

“But, I also need to consider my retirement and healthcare when I can no longer work. You never know what will happen, right? We have a stable environment in Singapore, not plagued by natural disasters or war, but we have a high living cost.”

While listening to Ms K’s concerns, I thought about my parents too. I also thought about individuals who may find it crippling when their family members are diagnosed with a medical condition that they cannot manage in terms of financial resources and emotional labour when caring for their loved ones. 

At 30, HM is already thinking of death with dignity, “If I am diagnosed with a terminal illness, I want to choose when to die.”

“I feel like there is a discrepancy in the healthcare services between the public and private hospitals in Singapore. Due to staffing constraints, minimal attention and care are given to the patients in public hospitals. I understand why, but I have also seen patients in pain and discomfort in the wards. I don’t want to go through that.”

She looked wistful and was deep in thought, “If I have the means to opt for a private hospital, I can receive personalised care and be as comfortable as possible in my final days. Alternatively, I want to go to places like Canada, where euthanasia is allowed.”

In September this year, Madam Chan saw how quickly her father’s health deteriorated in the last four months of his life owing to lung cancer.

“Despite his pain and suffering, he blamed himself for being a “burden” to his loved ones. He was also worried about leaving my mother behind. As he has been a constant pillar of support in her life, my mother struggled to see him becoming weaker by the day.”

For the elderly especially, coping with grief and loss of their spouses after decades of marriage can be an extremely devastating experience. How can society support the elderly who are experiencing this stage of life?

“But I am grateful to have been able to hold his hands, spend time with him in the last few months of his life and tell him that I love him,” Madam Chan speaks fondly of her father.

Now she squeezes out pockets of time every week to visit her mother with her mother’s favourite meals from the hawker centre, “It lifts her spirits whenever I do that, so it’s all worth it.”

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