Dr. Janil Puthucheary, the chairman of OnePeople.sg – the national body promoting harmony – worked with Channel NewsAsia to commission a survey which questioned whether Singapore’s society is still based on equality, justice and meritocracy. The findings were worrying – class was the number one cause of division, overtaking race and religion.
Out of 1,036 citizen respondents, nearly half felt that inequality of income is the likeliest cause of social division.
“What we’re seeing here is that if you compare between race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality (country of birth) and class, class matters,” said sociology professor Tan Ern Ser, who analyzed the data.
Class matters so much that only about 20 percent of the survey’s respondents pointed to religion being the cause of the social divide, while nearly the same number felt that way about race.
Dr. Puthucheary expressed his worry over the survey results, calling them “unsettling”.
He pointed out that “the divide between the haves and the have-nots” is producing “the most tension”, calling it an “explosive issue” as it challenges values that Singapore holds in high esteem.
These values include meritocracy, fairness, justice and the “founding ideal that there’ll be no such thing as a second-class citizen” in Singapore.
While those values are great in theory, there is a growing discrimination in how people are treated based on their class standing, which encompasses their professions, income bracket and educational attainment.
Channel NewsAsia’s Regardless of series covered the class divide in an episode called “Regardless of Class”. Dr. Puthucheary, who hosted the episode, spoke to different people across the class spectrums.
One security guard told Dr. Puthucheary that the way he is treated by people varies from resident to resident at the condominium where he works, but some are “harsh” and look down on him because of his “low-paid profession”.
“Sometimes, even when the barrier isn’t open properly, they’d start shouting at us. They’d say ‘useless security’ and ‘stupid security’ and things like that,” he said, saying that he was “a bit shocked” by the mean comments he received.
“They’re treating us like not humans but like slaves,” he said.
According to Dr. Puthucheary, stories like that are sadly not few and far between – “I hear them all the time in my work as a Member of Parliament, from waiters, security guards, cleaners [and] salespeople. They tell me about a deepening class divide.”
A cleaner working at McDonald’s cleaner feels “invisible” to other people, saying, “I have to get used to this, and learn to stop caring.”
Another security guard wondered why people judge others because of their jobs, arguing that “work is work”. He said that people have told him, “Ah, you’re only a security guard.”
“Little things”, said Dr. Puthucheary, like the looks people give or the comments they make cause a sense of separation in society. “And it’s these social cues that slowly widen the divide.”
Class is generally defined by income, education and housing type. But people unknowingly create unfair class markers out of anything, from what we wear to the way we speak. Occupation, confidence levels and social etiquette have also been cited as contributing determinants to the perception of socio-economic class in Singapore.
The survey found that 70 percent of the higher classes felt a strong sense of belonging in Singapore compared to 46 percent of the lower classes, while 76 percent of the higher classes were proud to be Singaporean and only 50 percent of the lower classes concurred.
“This class gap is really an inclusion gap,” said Dr. Puthucheary. “This is the gap that really matters to me, that the rich feel connected to Singapore, and the poor don’t.”
“Tackling this divide is central to what makes us Singaporean – that no one should consider themselves a second-class citizen.”
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