Social divide becoming more entrenched, warns Ong Ye Kung

PHOTO: Screengrab of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung from YouTube
PHOTO: Screengrab of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung from YouTube

Social stratification is starting to become entrenched in Singapore, and this is aggravated by a “perceptible reduction” in social mixing in recent years, warned Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Tuesday (15 May).

Alluding to Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh’s speech on cost of living issues on Monday, Ong told the House that the government had been successful in raising the living standards of Singaporeans over the years through a policy of inclusive growth.

For example, between 2006 and 2016, real median household income either stagnated or experienced close to zero growth in countries such as Japan, the US, UK, Denmark and Finland. In contrast, over the same period, there was healthy growth in Singapore’s median real household income as a result of income growth across the board.

“The strongest evidence of a healthy middle income group is changing lifestyles over time – birthday and festive celebrations in restaurants, living in bigger HDB flats and ECs, family vacations overseas. These are not enjoyed by an exclusive few but the broad masses,” noted Ong.

“(This is) one of our biggest achievements: Singaporeans are able to transform the lives of their families over one generation.”

This is all down to public policies such as ensuring universal access to good general education and broad access to tertiary education. The Minister added that today, seven in 10 of each Primary One cohort progress to publicly funded degree or diploma programmes.

However, even as income disparity has mitigated through policies such as the Workfare Income Supplement and GST vouchers, the 48-year-old conceded, “Singapore has wrestled with the issue of inequality since the birth of our nation (and it) remains unfinished business today.”

More money, more problems

The success of public policies has also led to a new set of issues. While some families who have done well are able to pass down the privileges to their children, “for families who cannot move up despite the stronger and better support that is available now, we find their circumstances more dire and challenging than poor families of the past,” said Ong.

“Social stratification is starting to become entrenched.”

Some have suggested that for low-income families who are finding it difficult to uplift themselves, universal welfare can solve their problems by making assistance broadly and easily accessible, Ong said.

Pointing out that the view is erroneous, he said, “No handout is actually free. Someone has to pay for it. Taxes will have to go up.” The government must and will continue to help those in need but “handouts are not the answer”, he added.

Ong, who is also Second Minister for Defence, also highlighted a related issue of concern. “There is a perceptible reduction in social mixing in recent years,” he said.

The Minister noted Singaporeans have always been “relatively blind” to race, income and family backgrounds, a culture that has been “carefully nurtured and reinforced”. This is the result of at least three policies: ensuring a good mix of residents of different races and backgrounds in housing estates, National Service and the education system.

But it is in the third policy that a “nascent class divide” has begun to be reinforced, said Ong. He pointed to elite schools that have “large proportions of students from higher income groups”.

“People are free to choose their friends and who they want to be with, but when groups are predominantly formed along socio-economic status, whether one is rich or poor, it’s the start of stratification, and that poisons society over time.”

He added, “Our policies will need to work against this trend to actively bring Singaporeans of all background together.”

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