A Living Wage Cannot be Defined: Reflections on the Progressive Wage Model

Ambassador Tommy Koh’s comments in the IPS summit have led to renewed interest in the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), with numerous academics and public intellectuals weighing in on the economic[1], psychological[2] and sociological[3] aspects of the PWM. In this piece, I offer a perspective from political philosophy, suggesting that while much discussion has revolved around Dworkin’s concept of luck egalitarianism, Sen’s capabilities approach and Anderson’s concept of democratic egalitarianism suggest there is more to be said about the PWM not fully captured in current debates.


The PWM – Ambition Sensitive and Endowment Insensitive

The PWM is a “productivity-based wage progression pathway that helps to increase wages of workers through upgrading skills and improving productivity”[4]. By raising the salaries of low-wage workers through fully subsidized skills upgrading courses, the PWM rewards people who choose to work. Thus, the PWM recognizes that while one can choose to engage in regular employment, one might not possess the resources to attain particular qualifications or skills. In other words, the PWM is structured in a way that is sensitive to the choices people make but does not discriminate based on the circumstances they are in.

Dworkin refers to this sensitivity to choice but not to circumstance as ambition-sensitivity and endowment-insensitivity respectively, terms which are very closely linked to another pair of Dworkinian terms: option luck and brute luck. While option luck refers to the deliberate gambles one makes, brute luck refers to the non-deliberate gambles one makes[5]. For example, Dworkin would characterize a cleaner getting caught while skiving as work as bad option luck. On the other hand, being allocated to clean a building with disrespectful tenants would be characterized as bad brute luck. The practical distinction between choice (option luck) and circumstance (brute luck) is one of degree[6] and it is not my objective to tease out the nuances of this distinction in this piece. Instead, I introduce these terms to suggest that the PWM is distinctly Dworkinian. It attempts to remove the consequences of bad brute luck while still respecting the outcomes of option luck. The PWM is sensitive to individuals who choose to work hard. At the same time, it aims to help people who are victims of bad brute luck by fully subsidizing skills upgrading courses.



By fully subsidizing skills upgrading courses, the PWM develops self-reliance in a way that a minimum wage fails to do. Under the PWM, one is entitled to a higher income because one is more productive. As a result, “every worker has the chance to earn more through better skills, a larger job or higher productivity”[7]. This rhetoric of self-reliance is not limited to the PWM; it pervades Singapore’s political and social spheres. Not only is self-reliance a core value of the People’s Action Party (PAP)[8], it is also one of the missions of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)[9]. This emphasis on self-reliance is also reflected in social policies such as Medisave and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) that rely on ones personal savings.

However, it is on the charge of self-reliance that the PWM has faced one of its most pertinent criticisms. Ambassador Tommy Koh has criticized the PWM for not providing a living wage[10]. This is a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth Anderson in her critique of luck egalitarianism. In What Is the Point of Equality, Anderson criticizes luck egalitarians for abandoning the prudent, suggesting that while luck egalitarians respect choice, they do so at the expense of neglecting those who make prudent decisions yet suffer bad outcomes[11]. Under the PWM, prudent people who are willing to work hard still suffer bad outcomes because they do not earn a living wage. Koh characterizes this failure to provide a living wage as a “moral disgrace”[12].


What is a Living Wage?

At this point, I would like to dig deeper into Koh’s criticism of the PWM. He criticizes the PWM for not providing a living wage. While the substantive point in his criticism lies in the term “living wage”, discussions thus far have usually avoided the question of what a living wage entails. When tackled, it is quickly dismissed as subjective[13]. However, subjectivity is not a reason for dismissal.

Even though a living wage is subjective, it is still valuable to peg it to a specific amount. This not only serves as recognition that prevailing wage rates are not high enough, but also provides employers who want to pay employees a living wage with an amount to peg their pay to. For example, the UK-based Living Wage Foundation and the New Zealand Family Centre Social Policy Unit have calculated and published voluntary country-specific living wages, accrediting 4761[14] and 60[15] businesses respectively as living wage employers.

However, while it is meaningful to peg income to a living wage, this does not tackle the “subjectivity” critique directly. Perhaps a living wage is subjective because people require different amounts of resources to achieve the same standard of living. Thus, the “subjectivity” critique should not lead one to conclude that a living wage cannot be discussed.  Instead, it should lead one to realize that a focus on wages is misguided. A living wage is subjective precisely because the wage is not the end goal. Instead, it is a means to satisfy a basic standard of living, a basic set of capabilities. This is the position adopted by the capabilities theorists.

While Dworkin advocates for a distributive theory of equality based on a pattern of distribution grounded on personal choice[16], capabilities theorists such as Amartya Sen advocate equality in the space of capabilities. Put simply, people should be able to do certain things. In response to Koh, Sen would argue that by focusing on the living wage instead of the capabilities that the living wage provides for, one is mistakenly focusing on the resource instead of what the resource enables one to do. However, while the capabilities approach is intuitively appealing, it leads to policy outcomes that Singapore is ideologically opposed to[17]. If society has an obligation to provide for certain capabilities, it cannot discriminate based on irresponsible decisions, leading to universalist policies antithetical to the distinctly Dworkinian Singaporean ethos of self-reliance[18].


Living Wage and Dignity – 2 Sides of the Same Coin

Koh summarized this Singaporean ethos in an article written for the Straits Times:

“We believe in the work ethic and the principle of self-reliance. We also believe that hard-working Singaporeans, no matter how humble his or her job, should earn incomes that would enable them and their families to live in dignity and material sufficiency”[19]

In this excerpt, Koh suggests a link between earning a living wage and living with dignity, a sentiment similarly expressed by living wage advocates in New Zealand[20] and the UK[21]. However, while a living wage is necessary, it is not sufficient for living with dignity. Anderson’s concept of democratic equality offers a conceptual framework to ground this related concept of dignity within the capabilities approach. She suggests that there are social bases to achieving certain capabilities, proposing that in order to equalize the capabilities necessary for functioning as an equal citizen, social relations and norms have to be taken into consideration as well[22]. Thus, the egalitarian project is not limited to the distribution of goods and should be extended to other features of society. Even if the PWM offers a living wage, it will not be sufficient in conferring dignity.

To illustrate this, I return to the example of bad brute luck from the beginning of this piece. While Dworkin would characterize being allocated to clean a building with disrespectful tenants as bad brute luck, Anderson would argue that dismissing it as bad brute luck hides the moral injustice of the tenants’ actions, criticizing Dworkin’s formulation of justice for not expressing respect for all its citizens. This Andersonian position is a view shared by DPM Tharman, who similarly expressed that “[getting] people out of poverty” also involves “[shaping] social culture for the better”[23].

However, shaping social culture and cultivating mutual respect is not a project limited to state policy. Mummy Yummy, a hawker stall, has been discreetly providing food at half price to cleaners and housekeepers since 2016[24]. In doing so, they provide cleaners with access to affordable basic levels of nutrition in a way that preserves the dignity of the cleaners. In contrast to the bulk of this article that has focused on the structural determinants of people’s lives, the example of Mummy Yummy is one of particular charity, suggesting that there is personal agency in cultivating a culture of respect.



While respecting others is unambiguously good, there exists a tension between Dworkinian responsibility and Andersonian respect for all. This manifests in an ideological opposition between policies that embody self-reliance and universal provision, an opposition that Teo You Yenn forcefully articulates in This is What Inequality Looks Like. Teo suggests that state policies that aim to encourage self-reliance ultimately ghettoize the problem of poverty because of its residual, targeted and conditional nature[25].  Consequently, it is not possible to enact state policies that embrace both Dworkin’s and Anderson’s philosophies.

The debate between the PWM and minimum wage does not stop at economic questions. There are philosophical underpinnings that animate each policy consideration. These not only suggest what it means for the PWM to succeed or fail, but also inform how policies and state rhetoric are aligned or misaligned.



[1] Josephine Teo, “Workfare and the Singaporean Approach to Tackling Wage Inequality” The Straits Times, November 6, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/workfare-and-the-singapore-approach-to-tackling-wage-inequality

[2] Linda Lim, “Psychological Factors may Explain Resistance to More Redistribution,” The Straits Times, November 6, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/psychological-factors-may-explain-resistance-to-more-redistribution

[3] Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos, 2018)

[4] Ministry of Manpower. “What is the Progressive Wage Model”. Last modified August 22, 2017. https: //www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/progressive-wage-model/what-is-pwm

[5] Ronald Dworkin, “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, 1. 4 (1981): 293

[6] Ibid

[7] Teo, “Workfare and the Singaporean Approach to Tackling Wage Inequality”

[8] People’s Action Party, “About.” ,accessed Nov 17, 2018. https://www.pap.org.sg/ABOUT/Content

[9] Ministry of Social and Family Development, “Comcare and Social Support Division,” last modified April 25, 2018. https://www.msf.gov.sg/about-MSF/our-people/Divisions-at-MSF/Social-Development-and-Support/Social-Policy-and-Services-Group/Pages/ComCare-and-Social-Support-Division.aspx

[10]Tommy Koh, “I participated actively and happily in the 30th anniversary”. Facebook, October 27, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2114233902127552 set=a.1758071344410478&type=3&theater

[11]Elizabeth S. Anderson, “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109, no. 2 (1999): 298

[12] Koh, “I participated actively and happily in the 30th anniversary.”

[13] Yasmine Yahya, “Minimum Wage vs Progressive Wage Model: Debate Over Best Way to Lift Pay of Low-Wage Workers,” The Straits Times, November 6, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/whats-the-best-way-to-lift-pay-of-low-wage-workers

[14] The Living Wage Foundation, “Accredited Living Wage Employers,” Accessed November 22, 2018, https://www.livingwage.org.uk/accredited-living-wage-employers

[15] Living Wage Movement Aotearoa NZ. “Information Sheets.” Accessed November 22, 2018. https://www.livingwage.org.nz/information_sheets

[16] Anderson, 313

[17] Teo You Yenn, Ng Kok Hoe, and Chua Beng Huat, “Tackling Inequality Vigorously: Academics Give Their Views,”  The Straits Times, May 11, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/tackling-inequality-vigorously

[18] Teo You Yenn analyzes this at length in “This is What Inequality Looks Like”

[19] http://newshub.nus.edu.sg/news/1011/PDF/WAGE-st-11nov-pA32.pdf

[20] Living Wage Movement Aotearoa NZ, “About,” Accessed November 22, 2018. https://www.livingwage.org.nz/about

[21] John Sentamu, “The Living Wage is a Matter of Dignity,” The Independent, April 20, 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-living-wage-it-s-a-matter-of-dignity-10190659.html

[22] Anderson, 319

[23] DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. “DPM Tharman’s Dialogue at the IPS 30th Anniversary Event”. Last modified 25 October 2018. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/dpm-tharmans-dialogue-ips-30th-anniversary-event

[24]Mummy Yummy, “At Mummy Yummy, we have a discreet arrangement with one special group of customers,” Facebook, November 13, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1941989889182931&id=679826295399303

[25] Teo, 172-173

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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