As Indranee Rajah sets out what the government is doing about inequality, the LKY School of Public Policy has just released an interesting study on what is perceived as “high class” and “low class”.
The solution to inequality lies not in abolishing meritocracy, regarded by some as a class-consolidating system, altogether but to create an “enabling meritocracy”, the Second Minister for Education and Finance said on Thursday (July 18). In such a system, those at the bottom are uplifted, without capping the growth of those at the top.
Sounds very much like Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s upward moving escalator: “It is much harder to address the inequality or to spur social mobility if the escalator is stationary… We need a moving escalator where everyone is moving up because that is the best way you can get the fluidity in society as well.”
We get it, Indranee and Tharman. Better to keep the talented and the capitalists among us than to have a society of only have-nots in a stagnant pool of equally miserable and resource-less people.
The LKYSPP seems to indicate that that there are not many miserable people at the lower end of the social ladder in the first place. Social inequality was “simply not central to citizens’ views of life in society”. One of the study’s researchers, Dr Jennifer Dodgson, said: “While Singaporeans may like or dislike their own place on the social ladder, they do not necessarily see this as a problem inherent in the system itself.”
Titled Cars, Condos and Cai Png: Singaporeans’ Perceptions of Class, Wealth and Status, the study was based on feedback from 538 people who took part in an online poll in February. (For the uninitiated foreigner, Cai Png is not the latest Chinese Singaporean semi-finalist in the Sing! China singing competition but the humble low-priced mixed vegetable rice dish popular among lower-income locals. Surely not among the 5Cs much coveted by higher-income Singaporeans).
The survey was conducted by Vox Dei, a research start-up based in the National University of Singapore and founded by Dr Dodgson and fellow LKYSPP researcher Pei Junjie.
So what do 538 not so unhappy Singaporeans consider as high class and low class? Some of the individual general answers on what would be high or low class people are worth reproducing for us to understand the thinking of these Singaporeans.
LOW CLASS: HDB flat, low income, no savings, bet on 4D. Could have up to university education, but holding a $3-5k job. Working class parents, speaks bad English, reads Lianhe Wanbao, dreams of
winning Toto. Holiday in Bangkok, Taiwan, HK. Cuts coupons to shop at NTUC.”
– Female respondent, born 1972, defining low class
Menial jobs, public housing, uses public transport, reside in heartlands area, blue collar jobs, little or no opportunity to travel overseas on holidays. Probably the farthest is Malaysia. By coach instead of
by air.” (Travel destinations appear to be a reflector of one’s status: Low status destinations mentioned elsewhere in the survey included Bali, China, Johor Bahru, Batam and Bintan.)
– Female respondent, born 1956, defining low class
HIGH CLASS: Depends on their age. Generally lives in landed property, likely Bukit Timah/Orchard. If still studying, will not necessarily wear expensive clothes/bags/watches. Not self-conscious about
speaking at all. Mostly speaks Singaporean English with ‘lahs’ and ‘lors’, etc, but without mixing in dialect words. Will be in white-collar profession but may be heavily involved in artistic endeavours. Will invariably have domestic helper(s). Is aware of Western cultural
canons (literary/musical/artistic) even they can’t be bothered with them. Owns books, willing to buy books, or at least visits the library.”
– Female respondent, born 1996, defining high class
The house you own, the schools you went to (more than universities) and the language you speak will, according to the study, show who you are in the social totem pole.
PROPERTY: Low class would be HDB flats, of course. For the high class lot, particular regions cited by respondents are, no surprise too, Bukit Timah, Nassim Road, Tanglin, Orchard, Botanic Gardens, East Coast, Beauty World, Sentosa Cove, Marine Parade, River Valley, Sentosa, East Side, Oxley Road (probably next to Wei Ling’s house), Sixth Avenue, District 9, District 10, District 11, District 16 and Dover.
Schools are important for 124 respondents, compared to universities which had only 37 mentions. I believe the reason is that you have to get into the right “high class” schools – Anglo-Chinese or Raffles Institution – or even the best international schools to make your way to the best universities. And, unfortunately for local universities, they are not regarded as high class as foreign universities – just four mentions versus 15 for foreign institutions. (Or have our true-blue young Singaporeans given up any hope of not depending on their parents to fund their tertiary education abroad with their hard-earned savings, hence the contempt for local varsities with their free education for foreigners – all at the expense of locals?).
They work in F&B, retail, nursing, jobs with long hours, low flexibility and low pay. They may have grown up in small HDB flats, speak more Chinese or mother tongue language.
– Female respondent, born 1989, defining low class
English speaking with convent/ Katong accent or old Chinese elite business family.
– Male respondent, born 1981, defining high class
Around 9 per cent of respondents identified language as a signpost of class status. Those who speak mainly English are seen as belonging to a higher class, particularly when they have a foreign accent. Remember the old inappropriate joke among WOGS (Westernised Oriental Gentlemen) about the second-class status of Mandarin: “I thought he was educated until he started speaking in Mandarin.”
But it is a fact that English is generally perceived as the language of progress and the elite. The LKYSPP researchers also noted that respondents had indicated fluency in a language as a more important characteristic than the language being used, with two respondents saying that the ability to code-switch between English and Singlish is a sign of having a high class status.
Best in Singapore, JB and some say Batam? Guess Phua Chu Kang, who can’t code-switch, will be struggling badly in today’s Singapore.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.