There’s quite a good ChannelNewsAsia documentary, Regardless of Class, on television which stars Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary. What’s more interesting is that it is underpinned by a survey of about 1,000 Singaporeans aged 18 to 74, who were asked for their views on the social divide.
Here are some key points:
a. Half of the respondents think class is the biggest social divide while only 20 per cent picked out race or religion.
This means that our perception of fault lines have changed. It’s how much you earn and the socio-economic status you have or are perceived by others to hold, that will pull society apart. But what if class lines coincide with race?
b. Here’s how the respondents perceived the characteristics of the upper class and the lower class.
Upper class: Able to speak good English, plan ahead and domineering. That view is held by more than 90 per cent of respondents. Also, more than 90 per cent described the group as “arrogant” and “luckier” than the less well-off.
Lower class: Friendly, caring and tend to speak Singlish. More than 90 per cent of respondents picked the first characteristic. Only 3
If it sounds familiar to you, this is because it has echoes of the much-derided social studies guide book for students which described the characteristics of the those with different socio-economic status. Like how the high SES eat in fine restaurants and those at the other end prefer hawker centres.
c. This bit is about sense of belonging to the country. It isn’t clear here how CNA divided the respondents into upper and lower classes, but the two groups were asked how dear their country was to them.
Upper class: 70 per cent felt a strong sense of belonging while 76 per cent declared themselves proud to be Singapore
Lower class: 46 per cent felt they belonged here while 50 per cent evinced feelings of national pride.
d. The two classes also place different importance on the impact of education. The lower class mentioned education as a way out of poverty, while those in the upper classes didn’t even mention it. Perhaps this is because the upper class have already grasped the education quotient. You can see this in the different attitudes of parents and students in IP schools, and those in the Normal stream
IP students and their parents: expect at least ‘A’s and to go to university, locally or abroad.
Normal stream students and their parents: expect a pass in all their subjects and a little bit of improvement, and also to get into the Institute of Technical Education.
Are any of the findings, beyond getting numbers pinned on them, of surprise to you? The documentary had some heartbreaking interviews with Normal Stream students talking about being looked down upon, and security guards about abuse from residents whose estates they serve. There was an unnamed individual who works at McDonalds who declared her “invisible”. They spoke matter-of-factly, which made their comments more poignant.
Income inequality is a perennial hot topic which was re-ignited by the publication of academicTeo You Yenn’s book, This is what Inequality looks like, in which she argued that some policies intended to help the poor could actually be hindering access instead. (She wasn’t interviewed in the documentary, which was a surprise.) Singapore’s Gini co-efficient is among the highest in the world, at 0.450 last year. After taking into account G transfers and taxes, it’s 0.401. The G has tried its level best to explain that the figures do not reflect the interventions at ground level, such as subsidies, the different methodologies employed in the calculation of the index and how a large swathe of the population pay no income tax at all. But it doesn’t wave away the fact that the Gini co-efficient is high.
We’re breeding a society of haves and have-nots with those sandwiched in-between believing that they belong in the have-not category. Hence the angst over ministerial pay and complaints about grants and subsidies pegged to housing type. But better a culture of envy, methinks, than a culture of resignation. One part of the survey which reflects this resignation: Only half of the people from the lower class were confident that their next generation’s financial situation will improve.
So many schemes have been enacted to alleviate the plight of the poor, and we can only hope that new pre-school initiatives would give those at the bottom a push to get to the same starting line as every other child. Then, there are now housing plans to put rental and owner-occupied flats in the same area, to promote social mixing. But there are still concerns that this won’t work as people have different needs.
The calls to be an inclusive society should be accompanied by tangible actions. I don’t think it is enough for the G to enact new or more schemes for the poor. And while I lament the different attitudes people have towards rich and poor, I acknowledge that you can’t police what people say or feel about themselves and others. Cultural changes take a long time.
There is a simple action that I wish to propose, which would test the empathy of the upper classes for those who are less fortunate.
You know the Singapore bonus, GST rebates and other payouts that are now in pipeline? They have always been contentious because they are given out based on different criteria like household type or family income. How often have you heard the grumble that rich people don’t need $100? I think the Finance Ministry should consider including an option to let those who don’t need the pay-out to re-direct the money somewhere else. Perhaps, the money could go into a pot to be divided among those in need, like public assistance recipients.
This could be a standard feature for all future G pay-outs.
I think this will be a good gesture. Far better than calls to raise the marginal income tax rate, because it is also voluntary. It might well be that too few people would give up their pay-out, which only reflects on us as a society, or it would be a tangible way to show that we are serious about being an inclusive society, regardless of class.
How about it, Finance ministry?