SINGAPORE: The principle of meritocracy is not to be blamed for the issues of inequality and social mobility facing Singapore, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah on Thursday (Jul 18) as she spelt out the approach taken by the 4G team to tackle such challenges. 

The crux of the matter, in fact, is that while Singapore has worked “very hard” to provide equal opportunities, those from the lower income and disadvantaged backgrounds might find it harder to access these opportunities, she said. 

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Speaking at a social service research conference organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS), Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Education, questioned the “common call” to rethink meritocracy as the Government addresses the issue. 

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“If that means that we should do away with letting people advance on merit, that we should abolish the principle of choosing the person best able and best equipped to do the job, then the answer is no, that cannot be the right approach.”   

Those who can achieve more should also not be held back in a bid to equalise outcomes, she added. 

“Which parent doesn’t want their child to be the best they can be? Students too have their own aspirations. Each new generation will want to reach for the greatest possible achievement for themselves. It would not be right to hold them back.” 

EARLY GENERATIONS LIFTED BY POLICIES

She highlighted several statistics to show the progress made in the quest for a more just and equal society as a result of meritocracy, along with heavy investments in education and people, as well as policies aimed at economic development, job creation, income growth, affordable quality healthcare for all. 

READ: 4G leaders will work with Singaporeans to design, implement public policies: DPM Heng

Today, less than one per cent of the Primary 1 cohort did not complete secondary education. The proportion was a higher 45 per cent in 1980. 

More than 90 per cent of Singaporean youths go to the Institutes of Higher Education today compared to just 10 per cent who made it to post-secondary education in 1965. 

More than 90 per cent of Singaporeans own their homes today, compared to less than 60 per cent in 1980. 

“The cumulative effect of these policies was to generate a rising tide that lifted all boats. The early generations saw significant improvements within their lifetimes and were able to give their children a better life than what they experienced,” said Ms Indranee.

But economic progress has also resulted in different levels of resources, creating low, middle and higher income families. 

“It is natural for families to want to use their resources to help their children advance, be it in the form of extra educational material, enrichment programmes, or social networks,” she added.

However, she said this disparity will translate into “very different outcomes and hinder social mobility”.

Ms Indranee noted that there other “deep-seated” forces at play.  

CHANGING ECONOMIC STRUCTURE, SLOWER GROWTH 

“In an era where growth is driven by the knowledge-based industry in which the well-educated and exceptionally talented reap more rewards than others, economic and social benefits quickly accrue to those at the top,” she said. 

Changes in Singapore’s economic structure have widened differences in wage, she added.  

Referring to the changes driven by rapid technological development, automation and artificial intelligence, she said: “Some of these changes have had the effect of worsening wage dispersion, threatening to deepen the divide between higher-skilled and lower-skilled workers.”  

Lower-skilled workers risk being shut off from the new opportunities being created, she added.  

In addition, Singapore’s economy has “naturally slowed” as the nation has become more developed and caught up with more advanced economies around the world. 

“A slower pace of economic growth directly translates into how much progress each new generation is likely to see,” she said, adding that it could also lead to stagnation for-lower skilled workers who are unable to adapt. 

Together, the trends and tendencies pose new challenges to society that did not exist in earlier decades, Ms Indranee said.  

ISSUES AND CONSEQUENCES  

Left unchecked, the social mobility and inequality issues will cause less advantaged Singaporeans to be left behind, and to feel that the opportunities available can only be accessed by a privileged few, Ms Indranee said.  

“As the needs and viewpoints in our society continue to become more diverse, such a situation will make it easy for new fault-lines to emerge between the haves and have-nots, or the will-haves and the won’t-haves,” she said.  

In order to prevent the sense of being “one united people” from eroding, there has to be active intervention to mitigate inequality and enhance mobility, she said. 

TWO-FOLD APPROACH 

Explaining how the 4G leadership will tackle the issues, she said support will be strengthened to uplift the bottom of society – “to improve access to these opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities on offer, to bridge the shortfalls and narrow the gaps so that all can rise together – an enabling meritocracy if you will”. 

She cited assistance schemes in areas like housing, education, health and employment.  

Ms Indranee also assured the audience that the Government will strive to ensure that no one will be denied opportunities to improve the condition of their life.  

“We will make sure that all are enabled to take advantage of the opportunities we provide in education, skills training, housing and other relevant areas,” she said. 

Ms Indranee emphasised the need for lower income and disadvantaged families to make the most of opportunities.

In order to change their lives, mitigate inequalities and ensure social mobility, players like social service agencies, individuals and communities at large have to work with families to look at the factors that land them in their situations, which are “myriad and complex”, she said.

“They range from unemployment, financial difficulties, poor health, disability, family problems, among others. Often these problems are beyond the families’ control. Their circumstances can be overwhelming, and sometimes, it is difficult for them to even reach out for help,” she said.

In helping such families, the work of MOE and the Ministry of Social and Family Development converge, she said.

She pointed to “Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce” (UPLIFT), set up by the the Ministry of Education (MOE) to examine problems and issues faced by underperforming students from disadvantaged families, understand what exactly prevents them from doing better, identify gaps and devise practical solutions as one way of helping underperforming students from disadvantaged families.

The Education Ministry is looking to expand partnerships between citizen volunteers and schools, Mr Indranee said.

“When the community is involved, it works two ways: it strengthens the ecosystem of care and support for disadvantaged students and at the same time, offers people an avenue to give back,” she said.

Touching on the consequences of failure, Ms Indranee said: “If we fail – if widening income inequalities result in a rigid and stratified social system, with each class ignoring the others or pursuing its interests at the expense of others – our politics will turn vicious, our society will fracture and our nation will wither.” 

“This is not just the task of government. It is the task of everyone because it affects all of us,” she stressed.