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Any lingering doubts that socio-economic inequality is – or will be – a problem in Singapore were probably laid to rest in the past week, when President Halimah Yacob, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made inequality and social mobility key themes in their speeches in parliament. In comparison, neither “inequality” nor “social mobility” featured in former President Tony Tan’s three addresses to parliament in 2011, 2014, and 2016, and social mobility in the context of Singapore has only been referenced in two of Mr. Lee’s 14 National Day Rally speeches, in 2005 and 2017 (inequality was mentioned in two other speeches, in 2008 and in 2013, in the Malaysian and global context). This year, that Mr. Ong’s speech centred on inequality also points to a belief that education is the site for intervention.

In the past year too, a study on social capital and class divide published by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the widely reviewed “This is What Inequality Looks Like” by sociology professor Teo You Yenn have advanced the public discourse on inequality.

Yet the speeches of Mr. Ong and Mr. Lee (in fact, the IPS study too) were scant on substantive policy solutions. Part of this stems from the way the government talks about inequality, either by hedging (the “there may be some inequality in Singapore, but we have not fared that badly…” approach) or by lacking precision with measures of inequality. Another part of the problem are the principles which undergird the government’s approach to social policies – that of self-reliance, familial support, and “many helping hands”, which were characterised most recently in 2015 by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as a “trampoline” – which as a result of our general prosperity have rarely been challenged. Finally, and relatedly on these perceived sacred cows, an apprehension towards policy experimentation.

Instances of hedging and the lack of precision can be gleaned in these latest speeches delivered in parliament. The prime minister spoke about how Raffles Institution (RI) has become less diverse – presumably in terms of the demographic and socio-economic backgrounds of its students – noting that: “Just over half the students live in public housing, 53 per cent, and all the students get along confidently and comfortably”. Notwithstanding the observation that “public housing” is a broad category which does not necessarily speak to the actual distribution of students (since they could be living in bigger apartments) as well as the proposal for the Ministry of Education to work with top schools like RI so that they “never become self-perpetuating, closed circles”, the 53 per cent still compares poorly to the approximately 80 per cent of Singaporeans who live in public housing. Remember the brouhaha in 2008, for instance, when it was revealed that just 47 per cent of public service scholars lived in public housing. More critically, the systemic reasons causing these disproportions remains unexamined.

More at https://www.domainofexperts.com/2018/05/enough-talk-about-singapores-inequality.html

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