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DPM Tharman weighs in on inequality, urges citizens to keep ‘escalator’ of social mobility moving to ‘help people do well for themselves’

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In the latest of a series of officials to speak on the issue of inequality, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam used a unique analogy for staying upwardly mobile, urging Singaporeans to keep the “escalator” of social mobility moving. He argued that if the escalator stops, the ones who are in the middle will be affected the most, suffering from “pervasive anxiety” due to the inability to progress, and yet aware that those behind are reaching them already.

Of late, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have aired their opinions as to how to solve the problem of inequality.

Mr. Shanmugaratnam made these remarks in the context of a dialogue on Thursday night, October 25, at the at the 30th Anniversary of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). Ambassador Tommy Koh was the chairman of the session.

The Deputy Prime Minister said, “Once the escalator that carries everyone up stops, the problems of inequality and all the problems of me-against-you, this-group-against-that-group, become much sharper. And this is exactly what has happened in a whole range of advanced economies.”

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He warned that the country will be facing more challenges due to this mobility, having had a citizenry from humble beginnings, who did well in school, and then climbed upward. “Those whose grandparents were poor, had parents who were not so poor, (they) now are no longer poor and are quite well-off, and they invest in their children as much as they can, so that their children can do well.”

There are also those who have not been as successful have faced more challenges, as they face diminishing chances.

Therefore, the DPM said, the country needs to strive all the more to keep the momentum of mobility, including early intervention measures that would “help people do well for themselves”.

According to Mr. Tharman, social mobility is at the “heart and soul” of the ambition of Singaporeans. The country must, therefore, sustain a system where citizens are able to keep climbing up the social ladder.

His main concern is that inequality becomes a bigger issue when those in the middle rungs stop moving. “This, too, is what we see in a range of advanced countries: That pervasive anxiety of people in the middle. As someone is catching up, then someone is moving away from them. So, keep the escalator moving.”

As long as the escalator moves, the opportunities, skills and available jobs also increase.

Mr. Tharman also tackled the issue of “generational inequality,” noting that over 60 percent of Singaporeans older than 55 only attained secondary school education and are now on the lower steps of the escalator, while younger, better-educated Singaporeans have been able to progress. He believes that efforts need to be made to help these citizens.

Professor Koh made the point Singapore has become more of a class-conscious society since more and more, low wage earners are feeling “invisible” to the more elite in society.

To this, the Deputy Prime Minister stressed that the culture must change. “I don’t think this is only important for the elite. I think it’s part of our social culture. We inherited a combination of a set of British institutions and the East Asian culture, both of which were quite hierarchical, both of which tended to look down ordinary manual labour, and we got to move past that.”

He said, “The culture of our interactions, the way we treat each other, whether as equals, as we grow up and as we go through life, also shapes social mobility because it spreads aspiration.

Aspiration shouldn’t just be the habit of the upper middle class or the wealthy. Aspirations spread through interaction and having a common culture.

And social mixing is something that enriches all of us. That’s the beauty of social mixing. So let’s keep that in our Singaporean culture.”

Read also Inequality: Don’t dismiss Oxfam report

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