In the past week, Singapore’s inequality and class divide problems were met with a familiar, yet problematic chorus of anecdotes. The point, it seems, is that the country’s brand of meritocracy still allows hardworking Singaporeans of any socio-economic background to succeed. ST featured the only son of a full-time Grab driver who secured a place in Raffles Institution (RI) and a Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) student who was inspired by a President’s Scholar from his primary school – both of whom are on financial assistance – though these anecdotes preceded an argument made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, that anyone in Singapore can succeed regardless of their family circumstances. In this vein, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung were held up as examples who “overcame relatively difficult backgrounds to get to where they are”.
It is a familiar chorus, because ST’s headline “Can a taxi driver’s or hawker’s son still make it to Raffles Institution?” echoes another one it published last year, on the President’s Scholarship: “Son of taxi driver among this year’s President’s Scholars”.
And it is a problematic chorus, because we lose sight of the big picture about socio-economic mobility. The question, therefore, is not whether children from low-income families can make it to RI, become President’s Scholars, or succeed in life (answer: they can), but the proportion of children who actually do. Mapping out the extent to which these children and their families make it and the extent to which a level playing field exists – assuming that it is equity, not equality, we desire – are moreover useful for understanding the structural challenges they face. This also underlines a second opposition to the disproportionate emphasis on anecdotes (even well-meaning and meaningful ones): That structural problems demand structural solutions, not just piecemeal calls for changes in mindsets or stereotypes.
To their credit, ST and TODAY did press for specifics (even if RI is taking the brunt of the attention, and even though TODAY’s headline is not entirely fair). ST reported that RI declined to reveal the number of its students who live in three-room HDB flats or qualify for 100 per cent financial assistance, and that HCI gave the vague figure that 50 per cent of its students live in public housing. TODAY pointed out that inter-school projects mooted by top schools such as HCI and RI involve only a select number of students from each school, notwithstanding the likely superficiality of such initiatives. Yet even more details are needed. Besides the top schools, it is not unreasonable too to expect more information from the Ministry of Education and the Public Service Commission, respectively on the distribution of students across schools and of its scholars, based on socio-economic indicators such as housing types and financial assistance status.
As I previously wrote, even without accounting for the types of public housing, the 53 per cent of RI students – and the 50 per cent of HCI students – who live in public housing still compares poorly to the approximately 80 per cent of Singaporeans living in HDB flats.
In the even bigger picture, we should be looking at inter-generational income mobility – which Mr. Ong referenced in his inequality speech – as the more instructive indicator. The Gini coefficient is a great headline figure, and can be useful when used in comparisons in the same country across time (for instance, how has Singapore’s income distribution changed every year since 2000), or in comparisons of different countries, at the same point in time (how does Singapore’s income distribution compare with that of other equivalent countries, in 2017). Singapore’s Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers was 0.417 in 2017 (0.356, after taxes and transfers), but how does one interpret or make sense of the 0.356 or 0.417 figures? Are they too high? Too high, compared to what? What is an “ideal” Gini coefficient?
Inter-generational income mobility (above), on the other hand, offers more intuitive interpretations. It refers to the degree to which income levels change across generation; that is, is a poor child (in a low-income household) likely to become a rich adult (in a high-income household)? In Singapore, according to the Ministry of Finance: “Given a father in the first quintile [or bottom 20 per cent of income earners], the son’s odds of reaching the top quintile [or top 20 per cent of income earners] is 10 per cent; and given a father at the median (third quintile), the son has fairly even odds of reaching every quintile”. The important caveat is that these positive findings apply to cohorts born between 1969 and 1978, and this rate of movement might not apply to subsequent generations, especially as social capital accrues.
And as we amass and keep track of such data and information, more structural solutions can be explored. With KidSTART, a pilot programme for low-income and vulnerable young children, the government has acknowledged the importance of early childhood and family intervention, and with changes to the PSLE – in particular, the new scoring system with wider scoring bands – there is some momentum focusing on the education system. Tied to this is the concern over economic disparities “between and within neighbourhoods”, as highlighted by Dr. Leong Chan-Hoong of the Institute of Policy Studies, with the need to enhance social-class permeability for meaningful interactions. Even HCI and RI are taking steps to enhance inclusivity, yet in the face of entrenched interests and practices the scepticism persists.
Chipping away at the scepticism starts not only with those in positions of power, but also with those – like myself – who have been privileged by the education system and by socio-economic backgrounds or class status. In the last week too, as the inequality and class divide discourse continued in Singapore, an essay in “The Atlantic” wrote about the American class divide and how a meritocratic class of the 9.9 per cent passes its privilege to their children at the expense of others. There are so many parallels to Singapore, with the outsourcing of parenting and caregiving, college-counselling services and enrichment experiences, the exclusivity of top schools, as well as the college premium and its relationship to social mobility. To not confront these problems is to acknowledge our collective complicity.