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Making sense of the class discussion

Everyone is talking about class these days. Or socio-economic status. Or income inequality. Or social capital. Or meritocracy. Actually, this can be summed up in one line: As the rich get richer, will the poor remain poor?

Surveys have been done, a documentary programme aired on television and speeches have been made especially in the past month. But what, however, have we gleaned from all these words and numbers? What solutions, or even conclusions, can we draw from them?

If I can summarise what Messrs Lee Hsien Loong, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Ong Ye Kung and Janil Puthucheary have said in the various forums, it goes something like this:

a. There will always be poor people in Singapore.

But the poor here are less poor than before, and not so poor as those elsewhere. Don’t forget that Singapore topped the world’s Human Capital Index; its investments in education and health of the people are paying off handsomely.  According to an OECD report, even our disadvantaged students do better than those elsewhere and more of them  have a firmer grasp of core science, maths and reading skills.

There are plenty of programmes to help the poor and even the less-poor. For adults, there is the Workfare Income  Supplement, rebates on service and conservancy charges and other ways to help raise their incomes and cut living costs. And while there is no minimum wage, Singapore’s Progressive Wage Model seemed to be working so far in boosting the salaries of cleaners and security guards.

As for who or how many people, households, students are poor, there’s the confusion. There is no poverty line nor a minimum wage which establishes the official poor. But Prof Tommy Koh who was moderating an Institute of Policy Studies forum with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was reported saying that  his research estimates that 100,000 to 140,000 households here lack the means to pay for their basic human needs. The report didn’t say how he reached that conclusion.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung gave another set of statistics in another forum: less than 15 per cent of employed households today have an income of $3,000 and less.  This is an improvement from 20 per cent 10 years ago.

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We would therefore have to leave it to the G and other groups which have the information on incomes to do what they can for this group of invisible poor. But is direct intervention enough? Or should we be looking for a change in welfare philosophy altogether? Probably not. Read on.

b. Having too much of a good thing 

Meritocracy has worked too well because the better-off who had benefited from this system now have the resources to ensure that their progeny stays ahead of the pack, thereby widening inequality of outcomes. In fact, that same OECD report said that Singapore’s disadvantaged students have trouble catching up with their top peers. For example, only 10 per cent of 15-year-old students from lower socio-econom backgrounds in Singapore attained equivalent scores in science that the top quarter of the country achieved.

It is a natural thing for parents to want the best for their children, even if it means depriving a taxi-driver’s son of a place in a good school. But it wouldn’t be right to lop off all the “top poppies”, as Mr Ong put it, because it is instinctive of every Singaporean to do their best. Also, he asserted that no alternative system has emerged to replace meritocracy. (We would have to presume that alternatives were actually looked at and found wanting.)

His take on meritocracy is somewhat different from past pronouncements on the need for a compassionate meritocracy or taking steps to blunt the hard edges of meritocracy. He said we should “double down” on meritocracy but enlarge what is deemed meritorious from the current narrow focus on past academic grades. So non-academic skills, talents and strengths should be factored into the definition of success. This, however, depends on fixing some structural and cultural issues such as “the way we hire people, admit students to tertiary institutions, grant awards and scholarships, and accord respect to fellow Singaporeans”.

Some structural changes have taken place, for example, there’s no more need for polytechnic students to hand in their O level results when seeking a place in a university.  What has yet to be seen is whether the G itself has changed its position on granting awards and scholarships. Will this still be top scorer-based? Or will there be a range of scholarships of equal prestige given to those with more skills than academic prowess?

c. Birds of a feather

The CNA documentary, Regardless of Class, starring Dr Puthucheary, is now being remembered for a segment on the replies of students from various academic streams. To put it bluntly, the clever among them have high aspirations while the rest seemed resigned to their lot in life, now and for the future. We’re looking at two worlds here which intersect very little with each other. This was borne out by a survey on social capital published in December last year.

Among other findings, the study showed that on average, Singaporeans who live in public housing have fewer than one friend who lives in private housing. People who study in elite schools also tend to be less close to those in non-elite schools, and vice versa. Predictably, this led to calls to change school admission policies for children whose parents have no connection to schools. That is, parents who are alumni members or have the luxury of time and energy to contribute to the school that they’re aiming their kids at.

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A small move has already been made: from next year, 20 per cent of secondary school places will be reserved for students of parents with no affiliations.

More worrying is the finding in the OECD report on where “disadvantaged” children study. It found that 46 per cent of disadvantaged students in Singapore were attending “disadvantaged schools” in 2015, up from 41 per cent in 2009. The OECD average is 48 per cent. The Education ministry has come out to protest that “disadvantaged schools” do not mean low quality teachers and lousy facilities. In other words, every school is a good school.

But this doesn’t take away the fact that there are concentrations of poor students in some schools. (Dare I say ghettos?). According to the OECD report, disadvantaged pupils do much better in schools where they are in a minority. It suggested that  governments boost social mobility by breaking up clusters of pupils. What this means is that MOE shouldn’t just be looking at the supply side of the equation but also at the kind of student mix that would maximise the potential of individuals.

d. Start early, step up and get off 

Increasingly, there is an acknowledgment that efforts must start early, even at the pre-natal stage as DPM Tharman suggested. So Kidstart to help disadvantaged parents raise their new-borns and changes to pre-primary school system to ensure the young ones have same starting line to push off from have been implemented. For example, one-third of MOE kindergarten spots are reserved for children from poor households.

The problem, however, is not confined to whether the poor will remain poor – but whether everyone, including the middle class, will stay stagnant. That’s when you can expect a great deal of dissatisfaction, when a broad swathe of Singaporeans believe life isn’t getting better. I say “believe” because there would always be those who expect a lot more than they deserve or think the system is weighted against them. Social mobility is as much about perception as about numbers.

DPM Tharman talks about keeping the escalator moving, which is a good metaphor for social mobility.  But there is another metaphor for the situation now: the elevator or lift. In Singapore, people get off on different floors, including the top floor. But there will always be some on the ground floor waiting for the lift doors to open.



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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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