More Singaporeans living alone; trend seen rising

One-person households have tripled in two decades; NUS don expects rapid increase

Madam Lau had moved in with her daughter after her husband died.
Madam Lau had moved in with her daughter after her husband died. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Miss Neo finds it stressful living with her parents as her father suffers from dementia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

More Singaporeans who are single, widowed or divorced are living alone.

The proportion of one-person resident households has doubled from 4.6 per cent of all households in 1992 to 9.5 per cent in 2012.

The Population Trends 2013 report of the Department of Statistics showed there were 109,500 such households in 2012 - more than triple the 32,400 in 1992.

Resident households are those headed by a Singaporean or permanent resident.

Professor Jean Yeung, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), described the increase as very significant and said: "The trend is just starting in Singapore and it will increase rapidly in the next two to three decades."

In fact, one-person households are the fastest-growing household type in Asia, especially East Asia, said Prof Yeung, who organised the NUS Asia Research Institute's conference on the subject last December. It was the first conference to examine the trend in Asia, with countries like South Korea and Taiwan also seeing a surge in the number of people living alone.

For example, the proportion of one-person households shot up from 9 per cent in 1990 to 23.9 per cent in 2010 in South Korea and from 13.4 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2010 in Taiwan.

Singapore's figures are lower given the relatively lower percentage of singles and the elderly, coupled with high housing costs, Prof Yeung said.

But the rising trend also reflects changing values and the desire for greater personal space and privacy, sociologists interviewed said.

The people living alone cut across age groups and socio-economic backgrounds. One growing group are affluent singles in their 30s and older, who can afford to set up their own home.

Take, for example, Mr Desmond Sim, head of research at CBRE, a property consultancy firm.

The 40-year-old bachelor, who lives alone, said: "Singles want to live alone for freedom, independence and to live a certain lifestyle.

"For example, I can have dinner whenever I want, eat M&Ms for dinner or skip dinner and no one would nag me. If I live with my parents, I have to worry they would wait for me to come home before eating or stay up when I stay out late at night."

He moved out of the family home after university and shared a rented flat with two friends. About four years ago, he bought his first home, a 1,200 sq ft apartment. He said: "People no longer feel they have to live in their parents' flat until they get married. Many of my peers are schooled overseas and influenced by Western values and lifestyles."

For others, living alone is not a matter of choice. They either do not have family or are estranged from their relatives.

Former odd-job worker Wong Ah Kiong, 74, lost touch with his ex-wife and three adult children after his divorce more than 30 years ago. His parents and five siblings are dead. He survives on the $450 a month he gets from the Government's Public Assistance scheme for the destitute and rents a one-room flat from the Housing Board for $33 a month.

He said: "Even if my siblings were alive, how could I live with them? I was not close to them. Besides, I'm so used to living alone."

Other than singles and divorcees, a growing number of baby boomers also value the freedom of living alone after their spouse's death, said sociologist Angelique Chan of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.

"They want their own privacy, their own space and not being told by their children what to do," Associate Professor Chan said. "It's not like in the old days when seniors had no choice but to live with their children as they had no money to live on their own."

Recently, the HDB has made it easier for more singles to buy their first homes, CBRE's Mr Sim pointed out, and this could fuel the surge of one-person households.

Since last July, singles aged 35 and older and earning up to $5,000 a month can buy new two-room flats directly from the HDB. Previously, they could only buy HDB flats from the resale market, which cost considerably more.

The HDB will offer 5,000 two-room flats this year, double last year's number, given the strong demand from singles.

With more solo dwellers, a group to look out for and support are the frail elderly who may be lonely or depressed, or may need help with daily activities, Prof Chan said. The number of seniors living alone is expected to more than double to 83,000 by 2030.

"Seniors who are not doing well living alone tend not to have family support and they usually don't come forward to seek help," she said.


Growing up the youngest of five children in a three-room flat, Miss Pesvien Neo craved having her own space.

She started living alone from the time she went overseas to study - first to Britain for her bachelor's degree in English language and literature, then to Australia for a master's degree in education.

Miss Neo, 40, who runs a centre teaching English and does freelance copywriting, has previously rented a flat to live on her own and did a stint as a hostel boarding mistress when she taught at Victoria School.

She spent the past two years at her parents' flat as her father, 80, has dementia and her 77-year-old mother needed help to care for him.

"My dad is depressed and my mum is depressed by his condition. It takes a toll on us caring for him and sometimes I feel that I can't breathe," she said.

Earlier this year she moved to her own place - a three-room Housing Board flat she bought in Waterloo Street - when one of her sisters was able to help with the care-giving.

"I need my own space to think, write and paint," she said.

She attributed her preference for solo living to her independent streak and being influenced by Western lifestyles.

"I don't feel lonely living alone. I feel very contented and I have tons of things to occupy myself, such as books to read, movies to watch, paintings to paint and friends to meet," she said.

Her mother calls every day to check on her, she added.


Widow Sharon Lau, 62, got on well with her daughter's family when she lived with them after her husband's death, but she longed for personal space and privacy.

She wanted to be free to do little things such as putting a leg up to relax or lying down on the sofa if she felt like it, and have her books and collectibles near her without having to wonder if anyone might mind.

About four months ago, the former clerk moved back to the four-room flat in Tampines she shared with her husband until he died about eight years ago.

"I want the freedom to do my own thing, for example, like buying a potted plant to decorate the house without having to consider if my daughter would like it," she said in Mandarin.

After her husband died, she rented out her flat and moved in with her daughter, who runs a travel agency and is married with two daughters. She also has a son, an air force captain who is married with children.

Madam Lau feels more at ease now that she is back in her own home.

At first, though, she felt lonely, with little to occupy her days. So last December, she found a job working four afternoons a week at a McDonald's outlet near her flat.

Time passes more easily and life is more fulfilling now, she said. She spends Saturdays with her friends from WiCare, a support group for widows, and goes to church on Sunday.

Her children visit for dinner on Sundays. "My children worry about me living alone and they call me very often to ask how I am. But I feel a lot more comfortable living in my own home," she said.

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