Despite the popularity of Crazy Rich Asians, the romcom that became the runaway blockbuster hit this summer, Singapore has become increasingly aware that the class divide between the haves and have-nots in the Lion City has only grown deeper.
Singapore’s per capita income, US $55,000 in 2017, is one of the largest around the globe. However, social stratification seems to only be on the increase, and what’s more, is serving to cause citizens to question whether the deeply cherished tenet of meritocracy is enough to level the playing field when it comes to inequality, and lead to a more equitable society.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes that division between classes has become more and more pronounced in the recent years, due to family background or class origin coming to the light as a significant influence on social mobility and opportunity. This emerged, even as the Lion City had to face the reality of an aging citizenry, loss of income and job obsolescence, as well as slower economic growth.
Inequality in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and can even “be good for motivating people to want to do better”, according to Mr. Tan.
However, in Singapore, accumulated generational wealth has given the children of wealthy families advantages that have helped them get ahead, wherein those from more disadvantaged households have had to work even harder.
As Member of Parliament Walter Theseira, an economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, says, “If you can buy advantages for your child, such as tuition and enrichment, they are going to end up doing better in terms of meritocratic assessments.”
Former associate dean at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and associate partner at Centennial Asia Advisors, Donald Low, says that the country’s universal and meritocratic educational system worked in favor of social mobility for the first few generations, but later, society “settled” into strata. He further explained, “This is amplified by marriage sorting. That is the well-educated marrying one another and passing on their advantages to their children.”
The Institute of Policy Studies, a Singaporean think-tank, published a report in December 2017 showing that the biggest class divides were not along the lines of religion or race but economic class, which began the current debate on how inequality affects society.
Shortly afterward a book on inequality was published, This is What Inequality Looks Like, written by Teo You Yenn, a sociologist from Nanyang Technological University, exposing the systemic issues that cause the poor to remain that way.
And this month, CNA Insider released a documentary called Regardless of Class, with an excerpt on Facebook going viral as Singaporeans began to realize that “there may well be two Singapores in our midst,” according to law professor at Singapore Management University, Eugene Tan.
The video showed several students from various education streams discussing their aspirations, as well as the inequality they experience at school. While others aimed for studies abroad, others just wanted to get through school.
Chua Mui Hoong, Straits Times opinion editor said, “It got me thinking; how did we become a society that looks down on people for the work they do or the grades they get? Are we all complicit in this? Can anything be done to turn our society inside out so that we are all less disdainful, more respectful, of one other?”
While many applauded the documentary for sparking the discussion on inequality, others believe that a deeper look should be taken at its root causes.
Donald Low found Regardless of Class to be troubling, as “the root causes of economic inequality, an elitist education system, and the government’s anti-welfarism are not interrogated, and that a complex issue [of structural inequality] is reduced to people not having enough empathy or being snobbish. All this class consciousness and implicit bias is a function of our systems and policies.”
On her part, Teo You Yenn said, “We must not focus on perceptions – whether of ourselves or others – at the expense of real differences in daily struggles and well-being. The perceptions exist in response to those differences. Just as thinking about gravity differently would not stop a ball rolling downhill, pretending differences don’t exist isn’t going to magically make the differences disappear.”
And Eugene Tan has also said that policy change is what is needful, “It can’t be just about telling people to be nice and respectful toward one another.”
The government has launched initiatives to curb growing inequality, from raising social spending with supplementary income for low-wage earners, universal health care, higher income taxes for the wealthy. Social services have also been added to, as well as reforms made in education.
But in comparison to Nordic countries, social spending in Singapore is still on the low side. Also, wealthy foreigners find Singapore’s personal income tax system attractive enough to relocate there.
This caused Desmond Lee, Singapore’s Minister for Social and Family Development, to react strongly, arguing that housing, education, and healthcare in the Lion City are still better than in other countries, despite lower spending. Singapore’s top officials pointed to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, which put it at number one in helping citizens come to their full potential.
However, everyone agrees that Singapore’s educational system needs further reform. According to Mr. Tan, “the education system needs to ensure not just equal opportunities but endeavour to provide for equal access to opportunities. There is a world of difference between the two. We may have focused on the former but not enough on the latter”.
Mr. Low has talked about the state funding a national easy childhood system of education that takes away segmentation, removing the national examination for children aged 12, and extend the school day to match parents’ working hours.
MP Theseira’s suggestion is even more radical—affirmative action for the disadvantaged. “It basically says that somebody from a disadvantaged background who achieves the same thing as somebody from a privileged background should be given much more credit because that is actually a much bigger achievement given the starting point. Are we willing to contemplate that? I don’t think we are at the moment but it’s a very obvious policy that addresses this problem with the definition of meritocracy.”
Singaporeans should wake up further to the realization that the class divide is harmful for the whole nation, says Eugene Tan. “A class divide could threaten Singapore’s existence because it would pit Singaporeans against Singaporeans. The divide would render Singapore to be rife with populism and to be consumed by sub-national identities. The class divide is also likely to reinforce existing cleavages based on race, religion, and language.”