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PM Lee : Singapore’s poor should have a chance to ‘improve their lives’

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On October 14, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke with 530 grassroots leaders at a post-National Day Rally dialogue organized by the People’s Association. In the closed-door talk, PM Lee underlined the need for “social mobility”, saying that as Singapore continues to progress as a nation, it is vital that we do not leave lower-income Singaporeans behind but instead afford them the chance to “change their lives”.

In notes from the closed-door meeting released to the media, PM Lee spoked concernedly of inequality and, more importantly, the lack of social mobility, calling them threats to Singapore’s philosophy of improving the lives of each and every citizen.

In meritocratic Singapore, inequality has been a point of interest, especially after the release of recent Oxfam study titled “The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index 2018”, where Singapore placed a dismal 149 out of the 157 countries whose efforts to reduce inequality were scored.

On October 14, PM Lee echoed Minister Lee’s statements, saying that through “high quality and affordable housing, education and healthcare for everybody” as well as a progressive tax system, the Singapore Government has worked tirelessly to reduce inequality and “raise the base level up” to keep Singapore’s society fair and just.

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PM Lee acknowledged that inequality is not just a problem in Singapore. “In every society, there is a certain amount of inequality and there is no society where the top and the bottom are the same,” he said.

But while reducing inequality is necessary, PM Lee stressed that it is more pertinent for Singapore to preserve and encourage social mobility.

Every effort should be made to bring everyone to a good starting point and a level playing field where they each have a chance to “do well and compete”, regardless of whether or not they have wealth or connections, he said.

“Because people can accept that some are rich, some are poor, provided if I am poor I have a chance to work hard and get better off.

If I am poor, my children have a chance to study hard and improve their lives. And if they improve their lives, they will improve my life.

But if it is not like that, if people are poor, say, there is no hope, the doors are closed, that they will always remain poor, and their children too, no matter what they do, then I do not think people will accept it,” said PM Lee.

PM Lee cited the previous generation as an example – many successful people today grew up in poor families but through hard work and ambition were able to change their situations. The ability to move through the social and income strata is vital for a progressive and meritocratic society.
Many government policies have been put in place in order to prevent social stratification from setting in Singapore, said PM Lee.
The government has been focusing on pre-school education in Singapore, which is critical to the city-state’s fair and just playing field. If parents cannot afford to send their child to a “posh place, you still have a good and affordable pre-school, which will bring you to a good point when you reach Primary 1, and you are at a good point to start your formal education”, said PM Lee.
Additional efforts to encourage social mobility have been undertaken by the Housing and Development Board, which laid out towns so that rental blocks and sold flats of various sizes are mixed, in order to facilitate the interaction between people of different income groups.

“Because we want high- and low-income families to live together side by side, get along with one another, interact with one together,” he said.

What really needs to change are the “social attitudes” and the way we treat each other, said PM Lee.

“We want to, and I think we generally do, live in a society where the ethos is open and informal. We want people to interact freely and comfortably as equals and we must have regard and respect for one another, regardless of income or status,” he added.

The Independent reported on a recent survey conducted by another media source, the results of which found class to be the biggest dividing factor in Singapore, above even religion or race. Many lower-income citizens who were interviewed for the survey said they were treated poorly and sometimes even felt “invisible” in their lower-earning jobs.

PM Lee said that it is this very attitude that is threatening to hamper social mobility. The responsibility to change it lies on everyone – successful, wealthy citizens, especially ones who grew up privileged, should not boast and flaunt their wealth, and citizens from lower-income families should not feel that they are being discriminated against in any way.

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