Looking to 2021: The pandemic’s impact on society

By Associate Professor Irene Y.H. Ng |

Economists use letters to describe the shape of recovery from recessions, and the current recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is given a new letter: K. This depicts a shape where some industries and individuals ascend, but the rest decline. In the midst of wage cuts, job losses and business closings, stock market prices have been rising and the Big Techs have been thriving.

The K-shaped trend is said to reflect existing inequalities. In this essay, I will discuss four types of inequalities in Singapore that have been spotlighted by the pandemic: wage, digital, residency and gender. I would like to suggest going beyond a business-as-usual response to these areas of inequality, failing which we would be wasting the lessons learned from the pandemic and the inequalities that were already there will further divide our society.

Wage inequality

First, wage inequality. Evidently, lowest-income earners have been the hardest hit. The latest income trends report by the Department of Statistics shows that on a per household member basis, earnings of households in the bottom 20 per cent declined the most (See Table 15C). A Beyond Social Service study of 1,231 beneficiaries found that the largest drops in work income were experienced by the lowest earning households.

Thankfully in Singapore, the government has rolled out multiple aid packages that are buffering the pain of the economic sting. At the same time, policy is responding to longer-term structural issues. For example, to uplift low-skilled wages, the progressive wage model (PWM) will be expanded to the retail and food services sector, with more to come. Coming nine years after the PWM was first introduced, this is long overdue.

It is strange to raise wages at a time when many businesses are suffering, but COVID-19 has spotlighted the fact that existing labour market forces are undervaluing essential work such as in the fields of F&B, cleaning and healthcare. Thus, there is no better time than now to extend the PWM to retail and food service workers, two sectors hard hit by COVID-19 restrictions yet whose workers (e.g. delivery riders and retail shop assistants) have to keep working in people-facing roles exposed to the virus. The momentum to correcting wage inequality needs to go beyond these two sectors.

Digital inequality

Second, digital inequality. At the top end, technology companies have been profiting so greatly in the last decades that western governments have mooted technology taxes and other restrictions. Now, COVID-19 restrictions have further boosted their profitability. At the bottom end, some children and adult learners from low-income households became unable to attend classes or do their homework when classes and assignments went online. Some did not have laptops, some did not have internet access at home, and many did not know how to use these resources. Some migrant workers and the elderly did not have the up-to-date devices, language or knowledge to use contact tracing applications and online services such as banking.

The tremendous outpouring of donations, volunteerism and government support has helped bring much-needed digital resources and knowledge to many low-income families, the elderly, and migrant workers. However, they have plugged only the current urgent gaps. As digital transformation accelerates post-pandemic, concerted and continuous actions to help these digitally excluded groups level up are necessary, or digital inequality will worsen the social inequalities that already disadvantages these vulnerable groups.

That is why some colleagues and I are advocating universal digital access, that access to digital devices, internet and digital skills are no longer wants but needs to be provided as public utilities like water, electricity and education. This rethinking of what are necessities in a digital world is but a small sliver of the paradigmatic changes that will be needed as coming digital transformations continue to worsen inequalities, from rehauling tax regimes to including non-traditional workers such as platform workers in labour protection laws.

Inequality in residency status

A third inequality is by residency status. Singapore’s response to the pandemic has been exemplary, except in one aspect which checkered our record. The rapid spread of the coronavirus in migrant worker dormitories highlighted the crammed living conditions in the dormitories. It prompted the building of less densely designed dormitories. At the same time, to contain the spread of the virus, restrictions on migrant workers were harsher and longer than they were for the rest of Singapore. Until end of last year, dormitory residents were not allowed out of their rooms. Till today, they are not allowed outside of the dormitories except to go to work, run essential services and visit specific recreation centres. The plans are for further easing once the workers all have a contact tracing device. In contrast, the rest of Singapore was out of the Circuit Breaker in June, and even when confined at home, our living environments are far superior.

The government has provided help to migrant workers, for example by ensuring payment of wages and working with volunteer groups to provide medical and mental health support. Looking ahead, commentators have called attention to this blight in our COVID-19 response as reflecting the fact that we are only as strong as how we treat the weakest in our land. They have called for a rethinking of our heavy reliance on low-skilled foreign workers, but others have drawn attention to the challenges of doing so, for example in terms of competitiveness and hiring local.

I wonder whether the debate should pivot away from these pragmatic considerations and towards one of considering equality and value as fellow humans. While the tight controls on dormitories are necessary to contain a deadly and infectious virus, it calls into question a stark segmentation in Singapore society. Foreign workers in Singapore make up a particular category of individuals with lower status than those who are residents. They are temporary workers treated differently in employment laws and in terms of access to health and social services.

Can we continue to find the resident-foreign worker duality in our society acceptable? If not, then the practical challenges around foreign worker issues will have to be dealt with no matter what.

Gender inequality

Fourth is gender inequality. 2021 has been declared the year of celebrating Singapore women. This is therefore a year to also dig deep to overcome existing gender fissures. Restrictions from COVID-19 have heightened the uneven distribution of home responsibilities along gender lines and the prevalence of domestic violence, whose victims are predominantly women and children. While social service professionals do the remedial work with families under repair, there is much opportunity for the rest of us in society to prevent the perpetuation of misogynistic and patriarchal ideologies, which underlie the ill-treatment of women.

The privileged in society have a role to play. First, not to perpetuate inequalities; second, to better understand the most vulnerable in society; and third, to use our privilege to speak up for and uplift the under-privileged. There is great influence when employers speak with other employers on behalf of employees; the digital haves advocate for equal access for the digital have-nots; citizens appeal to citizens on behalf of non-citizens; and men tell other men to respect women.


About the author

Associate Professor Irene Y.H. Ng is from the Department of Social Work at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and is Co-Director of the Social Service Research Centre at the Faculty. Assoc Prof Ng holds a joint Ph.D. in Social Work and Economics from the University of Michigan. Her research areas include poverty and inequality, intergenerational mobility, youth crime, and social welfare policy. She is serving or has served in committees in the Ministry of Social and Family Development, National Council of Social Service, Ministry of Manpower, and various voluntary welfare organizations.



Looking to 2021 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the sixth installment of the series.

Click here to read about Professor Tommy Koh's seven wishes for the year.

Click here to read about Professor Danny Quah's outlook for the global economy.

Click here to read about Dr Kelvin Seah's analysis of the Singapore economy and labour market.

Click here to read about Professor Freddy Boey's views of the start-up ecosystem.

Click here to read Professor Teo Yik-Ying's commentary on the great unknowns that remain, regarding COVID-19 vaccines.