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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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A national conversation about class?

In all the discussions about social stratification, I always look out for the voice of the well-off parent. What does he or he say about the current clamour? About how well-off parents   leverage on their social networks, use their social capital or pour their financial resources into the upbringing of their children?

We hear little from them in public, probably because it would be impolitic for them to speak in the current environment.

The concept of closed circles isn’t a new one. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned it in a National Day rally speech in 2013.

“ The system has to be open, meaning there cannot be barriers to entry. Outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite – I am here, my children are here, you are not in this magic circle, you cannot come in. Some societies become like that. We must never become like that. We must have many pathways in our system, an open system so students can come in. If they do not fit, they go out. If later on, they develop, they could come in.’’

He announced that the Direct Schools Admission policy would be expanded and that places in schools set aside for students whose parents are “unconnected’’.

Five years later, we’re still grappling with closed circles.

I can’t help but think we are pussy-footing around the issue. It’s very Singaporean to make a dramatic statement, and then moderate it with a “but’’. That is, things aren’t so bad after all.

So Raffles Institution has a less diverse student population now, “but’’ 53 per cent of the boys still hail from public housing. That’s a dubious “but’’ given that it’s not representative of the population in public housing.

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Income inequality is high “but’’ not if you take into account transfers to the lower income. In other words, they are not as badly off as a plain Gini co-efficient demonstrates.

There is no poverty line in Singapore “but’’ we can roughly use $1,300 a month because that’s what the National Wages Council seems to think is the right amount. The “but’’ is mine, by the way.

All that moderation is compounded by a paucity of statistics. Asked by TODAY to respond to an article on social stratification, the Education ministry said that eight in 10 schools today have a “relatively balanced mix” of students, with at least 5 per cent of students from both the top and bottom socio-economic quintiles.

I don’t think such a statement sheds any light on the issue. If social stratification is threatening to tear society apart, then it behoves the G to give us some statistics to chew on. Does the class divide coincide with racial lines, for example.

In my view, the issue is worth a thorough whole-of-G examination. We should turn over every stone in our fiscal, housing, education, social policies to see what sort of active G intervention is needed to ensure the openness of the Singapore system.

Efforts seem piece-meal – there is KidStart for underprivileged children, the expansion of MOE kindergartions and now, mixing rental and owner-occupied flats in future projects.

Perhaps, we should also look at co-curricular activities in schools.

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said some co-curricular activities are “far too ethnically defined”.

Football is dominated by Malays and sports like table tennis, volleyball and basketball appear to draw Chinese, although some schools like Dunman and Jurong Secondary have been deliberate in forming multi-racial basketball teams, he noted. In contrast, football in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s was very multicultural, he said.

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“How about the rest of the world? You have all sorts of countries playing basketball, volleyball and table tennis. In our region itself, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, are top in basketball and volleyball. We are trapping ourselves too easily, and it is not difficult to change,” he said.

What about the role of ethnic self-help groups and Community Development Councils? Are self-help groups perpetuating closed circles or should the G intervene to direct help through CDCs? Are the grassroots organisations run by the People’s Association too oriented towards providing activities for public housing residents or should it play a bigger role in encouraging social mixing?

It’s a worthy topic for the 4G leaders to handle, one that should draw the participation of Singaporeans from all walks of life in the proposed second Singapore conversation. It has a firm objective, unlike the multifarious first Singapore Conversation.

We can all bring our minds to bear on it – and possibly hear from those who have kept their opinions to themselves.

I mean, why should a well-off parent not send his child to the top school he used to study in, pile enrichment lessons and private tuition on the kid and stop him from making friends with the lower classes in case the friends turn out to be a bad influence?

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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