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Reducing Social Inequalities in Singapore

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Photo by Roslan Rahman / AFP Photo

Over the past 50 years, Singapore has established itself as a regional economic powerhouse, moving from Third World to First World within one generation. From a country that was merely known as once being a part of Malaysia to one that the whole world knows for its glamorous city skylines and beautiful greenery, Singapore has come a long way in such a short span of time.

Singapore’s development has been firmly built upon the unwavering ideals of equality, meritocracy and justice. Yet, one of the most controversial issues that we face today challenges the very foundation that our Singaporean identity is built on. The root cause for our sharpest, most glaring social divisions is no longer based on race, language or religion, but “class” as defined by the social economic status of a person – one’s educational background, how much one earns, where one works, etc. In the words of Dr. Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, “Today, it’s the divide between the haves and the have-nots that’s creating the most tension”. It is thus important for Singapore society as a whole to take a deeper look at this issue of reducing social inequality.

I am the product of parents who have done well over the past decades under meritocratic principles. Growing up in a single income household that had to feed the mouths of three kids, my dad juggled academics and a part-time job in hopes of achieving a better future for his family. After a long day at school, he would sell shoes, often needing to burn the midnight oil in order to complete his school work. As someone who adhered to a strict bedtime of 10 PM throughout my Junior College journey, I could never imagine staying up to finish homework, let alone stress over a part-time job on the side. It is his determination that ensured his growth and his perseverance is the reason why I don’t have to worry about my next meal today.

I strongly believe that hard work is what determines a person’s worth, yet at the same time, I recognize that I do have access to certain privileges and resources that some others might not have. As the younger generation, we need to be cognizant of such undercurrents in today’s society. We need to understand that ingrained in meritocracy, lies a highly individualistic core that many have come to unquestionably accept. Yet, it is precisely this ideological bedrock that needs to be challenged in order to solve the emerging inequality problem we face today. We should step up and look out for things we can do in our own ways to make our society a better one, as Singapore Together.

Somewhat paradoxically, the manifestation of the “class divide” in Singapore is the result of a single-minded pursuit of meritocratic principles. Those in the previous generation who had worked hard in their younger days and had succeeded in society, are now able to confer head-start advantages to their offspring. Their children now have an edge over others from the get-go, fading the lines between what was once a less unequal starting point. As time passes, children with more parental resources will tend to do better than those without such advantages, and a divide emerges between a ‘high’ social class and a ‘low’ social class. Those who have made it in society might believe that they are where they are at now due solely to their hard work, and make no apologies for it. Some of them might even lack empathy for those who are less successful, attributing their poor situation to “their own laziness”. Concurrently, those who are in a less privileged position might feel that they are unable to improve their circumstances as the odds are stacked against them, such as lack of income to support their children or fractured family circumstances. As a result, they might lose hope and relegate themselves to their “assigned” role in society, creating a vicious cycle. Such a situation completely goes against our ideals of equality, dignity and progress for all.

As much as I hate to admit, this is a phenomenon that isn’t uncommon. I often use an analogy I dub ‘24-hours’ as an example of the flaw in our meritocratic system. Often, we see successful men and women preach about how everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. They claim that those who don’t succeed usually have a lack of time management. After all, if we all only have 24 hours in a day, what is their excuse for not being as ‘successful’ as others? However, this is an inherently privileged mindset. Let me explain.

A student who was born into a relatively well-to-do family would arguably have more time to prepare for exams in 24 hours. The student would have private transport to-and-from a tuition center and may have a domestic helper at home to help out with the housework. Without the need to do chores or waste long hours travelling via public transport, the student will be able to focus on their studies with little distractions. However, another student with less household income may have a job to attend to instead of tuition. In addition, they would need to focus their time and energy on chores as well, resulting in them feeling more tired and reducing their productivity. Though we all have the same 24 hours, how we get to spend it is largely dependent on the circumstances we were born in.

I believe that the “class divide” is not entrenched and pernicious in Singapore society yet, but if left unchecked, it can lead to social resentment and political instability. Hence, we need to start facing the issue head-on. Deliberate efforts will be required to push for change, especially as they require fundamental changes in mindsets and awareness. I feel that we do not lack the policies to help the poor, but what we need to do is to scrutinize the underpinnings of those policies and how they are executed.

Misrecognition, or “bifurcated consciousness” (Teo, 2018), is one of the key factors that currently undermines our social policies. On the one hand, our meritocratic beliefs support the “survival of the fittest mentality”, where we watch out only for ourselves and our family; on the other, we also recognize that we need to put the greater good of society above oneself. This lack of coherence in awareness has been counterproductive when it comes to helping the needy: we subconsciously live the former, resulting in individualistic ideals being inculcated into our society, to the detriment of the latter, namely community cohesion and social stability. Those who are on the lower end of the social status spectrum could end up crafting themselves as inferior and trapped, while those who have succeeded look down upon those who are deemed to be ‘not good enough’ or have failed, resulting in pervasive stigmatization.

Stigmatization that arises from poverty amidst such societal attitudes often results in the poor choosing to exhaust all other avenues rather than seek the needed help from the social service offices, as they strive to retain their sense of self-worth and dignity. Such unintended consequences need to be tackled at their roots in order for any policy to be of help to those who need it most. Social assistance policies should not come with so many conditions and requirements that the needy find it demeaning to seek help, which will cause the policies, which look good on paper, to fail. A balance needs to be struck to ensure that those who need help receive it readily, without fearing unnecessarily that this will lead to a crutch mentality amongst the people.

We thus need to carefully consider how policies that are intended to benefit those who need help could be systematically working against them. Poverty in Singapore lacks visibility and its manifestations are obscure, which could be attributed to the fact that we “do not (want to) look'' (Teo, 2018). I believe that the key to moving forward lies in allowing ourselves to acknowledge the underlying issues that plague the surface of our pristine society. Especially in a world that is constantly developing with new ideals and values, evolving our train of thought is the only way we can move forward and continue to grow as a nation. To surmise, we cannot shy away from calling inequality an ethical issue. Instead, we must look at our systems more broadly and understand that profound changes have to be made rather than tweaking repeatedly at these policies.

What are your perspectives? Comment down below.

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