Singapore society must maintain ‘informal and egalitarian tone’: PM Lee on tackling inequality

18-May-2018 Intellasia | CNA | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong outlines government’s efforts to support social mobility and meritocracy, such as keeping education system open.

How does one know if Singapore’s system of meritocracy is working?

In his speech during the debate on the President’s address on Wednesday (May 16), prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said there are four indicators: When every child has a good start in life, regardless of which family they are born in; when every talent is recognised and developed to the fullest; when every opportunity is open to anyone with the right attitude and ability; and when a capable person faces minimal social impediments to be accepted, to contribute and to lead in society.

However, the last part is the most difficult to sustain in the long term, Lee added.

“We want Singapore society to maintain an informal and egalitarian tone, where people interact freely and comfortably as equals and there are no rigid class distinctions or barriers that keep good people down,” he said.

This, however, is beyond the government’s ability to bring about alone; society has to be open and permeable, the prime minister pointed out.

Society should also be aware of markers that can signal and entrench class differences, such as language and lifestyle choices, he added.


“We must discourage people from flaunting their social advantages,” Lee said. “We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well off and privileged.”

“We should emphasize our commonalities, not accentuate our differences.”


Lee also addressed the issue of elite groups that become closed circles and prevent others from being admitted.

He said every society has its elite and they occupy the key leadership positions in society, whether in government, academia, business or as professionals. They share similar backgrounds, interests and social spaces, and may be alumni of the same schools, have done business with one another or worked in the same professions, he added.

Such social networks are “natural structures” in society and are useful for people to know one another, get things done informally and feel a collective sense of responsibility for the society, the prime minister said.

“But social networks must always remain open and permeable,” he cautioned. “They must not close up; they must not form a glass ceiling.”

He added: “It must not be difficult or impossible for others with talent or ability but lacking the right backgrounds and connections to be welcomed into the elite group, to rise to the top.”

Citing the example of Raffles Institution (RI), Lee said Education minister Ong Ye Kung had shared with him that the popular Singapore school, with a strong tradition of accepting eligible students from diverse backgrounds, has become less diverse over the years.

The school principal is addressing this by speaking to parents of potential students in primary schools across Singapore to encourage them to apply to RI, but some parents told him they did not want to do so, the prime minister said.

And it’s not because their child cannot keep up with academic demands, but because of the fear that they might not fit in with other more well-off students, he added.

But “this fear is actually unfounded”, Lee pointed out, as RI students still come from varied backgrounds with just over half or 53 per cent living in public housing.

He said the Ministry of Education will work with them, and other popular schools, to make sure they never become “self-perpetuating, closed circles”.

Additionally, measures such as setting aside places in primary schools for children without affiliation are in place, and Lee said the government “will do more if necessary”.

The prime minister also said the government is non-ideological and pragmatic, willing to try anything that works to improve social mobility, but it “must also be realistic”.

Suggestions like a universal basic income and abolishing the PSLE have been mooted in the past, he noted, but the former has so far been “unproven anywhere” while the latter is “very hard to do”, and educators and parents have very different views on it.

In the end, the government “must focus on practical, effective policies”, he said.


As for social cohesion, Lee said Singapore has made “much progress” in nation-building over the past 50 years, and the nation is much more cohesive now, but it will always be a work in progress because the forces that pull Singaporeans in different directions “never go away”.

Race, language and religion are “enduring fault lines”, the prime minister pointed out.

For instance, the influence of China and India on the ethnic groups here continue even as these nations grow in strength and confidence. “It will be a very long time before we become immune to their ethnic, cultural or economic pulls,” he said.

As such, the country must work at building bridges in these areas, as well as between different groups in society such as those between unions and management, and between citizens old and new.

On the latter, Lee said immigrants are “part and parcel” of Singapore’s history and identity, and the country needs a steady flow of immigrants to top up its population.

But first-generation immigrants will always take time to settle down and understand the nuances of Singaporean culture and character as did the previous waves of first-generation Singaporeans, he said.

“The new arrivals have chosen to make Singapore their home, and will contribute to our country, our society. They have to make every effort to mix and interact with everyone else,” Lee said.

“For our part, we should welcome them, we should support them in their journey to becoming Singaporeans, as others have helped us and our forefathers.”


Category: Singapore

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