Consumer Trends in Singapore

ABSTRACT - This paper provides a cross sectional view of Singapore' s progress over the past Len years and its implications to marketers. More specifically, it looks at changing consumption patterns, values and life styles and how these would influence the marketing mix decisions.


Swee Hoon Ang and Chin Tiong Tan (1985) ,"Consumer Trends in Singapore", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 112-116.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 112-116


Swee Hoon Ang, National University of Singapore

Chin Tiong Tan, National University of Singapore


This paper provides a cross sectional view of Singapore' s progress over the past Len years and its implications to marketers. More specifically, it looks at changing consumption patterns, values and life styles and how these would influence the marketing mix decisions.


Within the last couple of decades, Singapore has transformed from a small entrepot town to a modern, bustling city. Evidently, changes in population structure, income and literacy level, and overall economic condition have raised the general standard of living, in turn influencing increased sophistication Oil the part of Singaporeans in their consumption pattern. What have been the economic and social improvements achieved thus far? What are the impacts and likely trends in consumer behavior that we can foresee arising from these changes? This paper sets its objective to address these two questions and to provide a profile of a typical Singaporean consumer.



Singapore's manpower base, previously of immigrant predomination, has grown to a size of 2.4 million with a majority being Singapore-born. Figure 1 traces the annual population growth over a 3-decade period.


POPULATION, 1951-1985

By and large , the Singaporean population is consistently evenly distributed between the 2 sexes. What is interesting is the emergence of a different age distribution among the population. Figure 2 shows the age distribution over the years.

Clearly, we notice the effects of the post. war baby boom in the 1950s. Not only did this substantially increase the population size, but together with the government's concerted efforts for family planning, the age distribution has changed from a triangular structure to a beehive one. This offers much implication to a as the needs of a young population vary from that of a matured population.



Labour Force

Singapore enjoys full employment with a jobless few of 2.6% in 1982, down from 8.7% in 1965 (The Straits Times, 1 April 1984).

Although the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the world and hence implying that most Singaporeans are at least able to afford the necessities in life, the trend that spells a more far reaching impact on marketers is the rising proportion of women in the labour force. Table 1 gives more labour statistics.

Half the female population is currently actively involved in the labour force compared to one third in 1970. A further examination of this group is by its education qualifications.


LABOUR FORCE, 1970, 1973 - 1982



Women with tertiary education now constitute 2.8% of the female labour force, an increase of 56% over 1970. Similarly, the tertiary educated men now make up a larger proportion of 3.9% of the male labour force compared to 2.4% in 1970. Overall, the labour force is becoming more educated. Again, marketing implications on receptiveness to innovation as well as media popularity are important.


A more thorough cross-section on the literacy of the population is provided in Table 3.


EDUCATION, 1973 - 1983

The population now boasts a literacy rate of 65% with more achieving higher  standards of education.


The average weekly earnings of Singaporeans have seen a 3-fold increase over the past 10 years. With better education comes more opportunities for higher paid jobs. With the inflation factor low, Singaporeans are experiencing a substantial rise in real income over the last decade. Looking at it from a household level, income has also improved tremendously. Tables 4 and 5 provide income and households earnings figures respectively.





Social Amenities

The urbanisation of the Singapore economy has seen to the massive shift of housing from traditional zine-roofed houses to the blocks of apartment flats. Table 6 gives an account of the housing condition in Singapore.



Today more than three-quarters of the population live in such flats, public and private, and more are expected to do so in the future. These blocks of flats being grouped together in housing estates means that the consumers are no longer sporadically situated but are now conveniently grouped together to warrant changes in the distribution channels on the part of the marketers.

We are also interested in the trends of other social indicators such as culture and recreation activities as well as communication facilities. Table 7 highlights these trends.



Where newspaper readership is concerned, the rising literacy rate has enabled more Singaporeans to read the print media, and so far, this has proven to be most popular of all the media. Cinema attendance is on the downward trend since 1960 due to the increased cinema charges as well as the advent of video recorded films easily available in the market. The affluent Singaporean also enjoys the luxury of the radio, television, telephone in each family and-has more public transportation to serve him. Moreover, there is greater mobility among Singaporeans as indicated by the declining trend in persons per private car.


Living standards of Singaporeans have also improved over the last 5 years. Households expenditure on consumer goods and services has risen by 66% since 1978. (Report on The Household Expenditure Survey 1982/83). Although food accounted for the largest portion of the expenses, it was transport and communication expenses that showed the biggest rise of 134% during the 5-year period. Of this amount, two-thirds was spent on private transport such as purchase of cars and petrol.

The other expenditure which rose substantially by 68% was miscellaneous expenses on health and medical treatment and education, among others. All these point to a substantially improved living standard with indications of changing consumer patterns away from basic goods towards luxury items.

Consumer Value System and Life Styles

Although the population of Singapore is 75% Chinese, it is no longer strictly"oriental'' anymore. Due to the increased influx of Western cultural values and ideas, Singaporeans, especially the younger ones are increasingly westernised.

As one would expect in an oriental society, many Singaporeans still live closely knitted relationships among family members and relatives, traditional values of male dominance and women's role at home. There are however many who feel more comfortable in the Western ways of life.

In a receent study to investigate Singaporean consumers of differing values and consumption, it was found that the more Westernised consumers tended to place more emphasis on image and convenience while the traditional consumers relied on price and quality (Tan and McCullough, 1984). The findings also indicated that education, in particular, the English stream education, has a strong impact on consumer values.

Of interest is the impact of changing values and life styles on family decision making. Tan et al (1984) reported strong husband dominance in the purchase of durables and an increased trend towards joint activities. Moreover, the Chinese educated wives exhibited more wife domination on convenient goods than the English educated wives. in general, the former group is more traditional, conservative and ''Chinese'' compared with the latter.

In a series of short survey conducted by a professional marketing research organisation, some interesting changing attitudes, interests and values can be noted (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post).

Attitudes towards the role of women in the society are gradually changing as more women are absorbed into the labour force. Fewer and fewer women believe that a woman's place is in the home (1 in 3 in 1981 as compared to 1 in 2 in 1978) and men still equally divided on this issue, thus discouraging the task of home cooking.

Also, with more women in the labour force and the relatively inexpensive food available in hawker centres, the Singaporean habit of "eating out'' is reinforced. Although the most popular eating place appears to be the hawker centres (81%), followed by the fast food centres (14%), a trend towards eating at the latter is evident as it is appealing to the major segment of the Singaporean population. This segment is the English educated, higher income earners below 30 years of age. Their higher education and possibly fast paced work life have made them more receptive to the idea of having quick Western food as a substitute for the slower hawker centre food. Local taste has grown more cosmopolitan with a willingness to experiment With new food as well as new lifestyles. Moreover, this receptiveness is also backed by the rising disposable income to indulge in the relatively more expensive fast food items compared to hawker food.

The notion of a non-cash society is also fast catching on in Singapore. Although at present only about 4% of the population own at least a credit or charge card, the prevailing negative attitudes among non-card holders are eroding.

Because credit cards is a recent phenomenon in Singapore, comparison within a 1-year period is adequate to identify its trend. As shown in Table 6, dramatic decreases in all the negative respouses to the use of credit cards were experienced in 1960. This increasing favourable disposition towards credit card usage may therefore see to it that it becomes a norm rather than an exception.

Moreover, such a favourable disposition is more prevalent among the under-30s than the general population. Although 50% of the general population Consider credit cards as a convenient means of payment, a greater proportion of 57% among the under-30 age group was recorded as sharing the same opinion. Similarly, although 31% of the general population think they will never use it, only 25% Of the under-30s think likewise. (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post-May 1978 and 1960).



Another changing aspect of the value system is the the expectation of what is a good weekend activity. The most popular weekend activity among Singaporeans is currently watching television. In a survey conducted, 72% of the respondents cited watching television as one of their weekend activities and cleaning the home was not as popular with 38%. (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post November 1979). Instead, shopping in departmental stores is becoming popular with every 3 out of 10 Singaporeans visiting a departmental store at least once a week. (Frank Small and Associates, Listening Post January 1981).

On more ostentatious leisure activities, traveling has become a regular part of a Singaporean's lifestyle. Figure 3 depicts the changing patterns of family expenditure preferences for the last twenty years.

More and more Singaporeans are now traveling abroad for their vacations. Although this is partly due to the Strong Singapore dollar, the rising aspirations of Singaporeans towards their ideal destination cannot be ignored. The most popular destination seems to be Europe (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post February 1978) and lately, although preferences for countries remain unchanged, Asian countries have lost. their attractiveness. (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post February 1980). Although traveling to an ideal destination may not be feasible because of Cost constraints, it nonetheless reveals the general Singaporean's high expectations of a holiday destination abroad.

Prestige consciousness is also a characteristic of the general population. Despite the government's increased taxation on new cars , the demand for cars nearly doubled among those with intentions of purchasing one. In 1978, 5% of the respondents in a survey expressed strong intentions to purchase a new car within the next 12 months. This figure doubled to 9% in a similar survey conducted 2 years later. (Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post May 1979, 1980). At the same time, demand for second-hand cars ran at a very low level of 4%.




The Singaporean consumer is becoming more sophisticated in his choice of product. He is no longer contented with a simple functional intrinsic benefits such as prestige that comes along with the ownership of a branded product has become an important consideration in his purchase decision. Marketers should therefore seriously consider promoting such benefits psycologically either through brand name or its association With other branded products. product.

The sophisticated consumer is also better educated, has a higher purchasing power and is well informed through exposure to the media. Many travel extensively and are familiar with recent developments either in the area of fashion, cars or electronic equipment. Marketers must therefore brace themselves to be just as sophisticated in the products they sell in order to satisfy the discriminating tastes and value for money demands on the part of the Singaporean consumer.

Also, we observe that Singaporeans are more than willing to embrace Western ideas which are compatible with the hectic pace of a Singaporean lifestyle. Therefore, products that include this element of time saving as in the case of fast foods and household equipment like washing machines, would be well received by Singaporeans.

Convenience is also an important consideration. As in the case of the rising popularity of credit cards, marketers may include this service to the sale of their products to boost sales.

With more than 75% of the population living in housing estates, demand exists therefore for outlets to be set up in these estates. outlets are no Longer situated in prime shopping areas but are penetrating into these estates. The MacDonalds fast food chain is a case in point. A Switch from the pull to the push Strategy is evident as this strategy hinges on convenience to the consumers, a key factor to the Singaporean consumer. We may also see the emergence of more one-stop at our doorstep whose selling point of convenience is enthusiastically received here. (The Straits Times, 30 December 1980).

We also observe that Singaporeans have Shown a preference for self service stores. The days of provision shops with their haphazard displays and home delivery service seem numbered. the Singaporeans' demand has c- ha nge d favourably towards self service supermarkets. (The Straits Times, 14 April 1962). Unless marketers can provide the store atmosphere consistent With the Singaporeans' demand for independent decision making and comparative shopping, they would find difficulty in retaining customers in the face of competition.

Moreover, with more women in the labour force its impacts on the opening hours of stores are inevitable. Stores would have to adapt its opening hours to suit the free time available to these women for their grocery shopping. Another alternative would also be to have these stores in proximity to their place of work to allow quick shopping during lunch hours or immediately after work.

The wet markets, which have been a part of the Singaporean housewife's lot for - so long, may soon be things of the past. Its day time operation hours as well as its wetness, shoulder rubbing and price hustling characteristics do not fit in with that of a typical working Singaporean woman.

The indications Seem clear that the print media would remain popular as a promotion media. The rising literacy rate has ensured that Singaporeans are able to read and understand printed advertisements.

However, television advertising may prove to be a close competitor. Viewership of television is on the rise as indicated by the number of TV licenses in Table 7. Moreover, watching television was rated as the most popular weekend activity. Marketers should be aware that television advertising is an accessible, though costly,   alternative to newspaper advertising.  However, in order to ensure that television advertising be effective, its content should be honest enough to be perceived as such. Singaporeans are now more discerning and better informed products arid would not lend themselves to be easily bought over. Advertisement content should therefore be as truthful and accurate as possible to allay any suspicion arid enhance any possibility of a sale.


With these changing demographic Singaporeans are gradually adapting their tastes and lifestyles to higher standards of living. The more cosmopolitan outlook as well as the more educated buying behaviour have made the Singaporean consumer more sophisticated. This calls for marketers to be alert and adaptable to the changing consumer demands in order to thrive.


Economic Survey of Singapore 1979.

Frank Small & Associates, Listening Post (1978, 1979, 1980, 1981)

Report on the Household Expenditure Survey 1982/83. Department of Statistics.

C T Tan, J. McCullough & J Teoh (1984), ''An Exploratory Study of Family Buying Behaviour In An Oriental Culture". In C T Tan and D Kujawa (ed.) Proceedings of the Academy of International Business, June 16-16.

C T Tan, J McCullough & J Teoh (1984), "Oriental Values and Consumption Values". In C T Tan and Dr Kujawa (ed.) Academy of International Business, June 14-16.

The Straits Times (30 December 1980, 14 April 1982 and 1 April 1984).

Yearbook of Statistics 1962/63. Department of Statistics.



Swee Hoon Ang, National University of Singapore
Chin Tiong Tan, National University of Singapore


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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