Sunday, 26 October 2014

Moving on from Lee Kuan Yew's shadowy prediction: social mobility in Singapore.

Is there social mobility? Is there not? The general consensus seems to be "no". In the past, the Singapore government would still pretend that there was a semblance of intergenerational mobility by insisting that education can help students to level up but it will be more difficult. It used to claim that if we worked hard, we would be able to move up the social ladder. Not anymore. Now they're not even pretending, and they are just turning a deaf ear to public feedback, the opinions of Opposition representatives in Parliament, and even the advice of sociological experts.

Notice how many times Workers' Party NCMP Yee Jenn Jong uses the words "reiterate" and "repeat" in this short speech on education and mobility. It appeared that he was re-emphasizing points that he had already raised eons before, but that the government had failed to address. Apart from the oft-repeated points about stratification through education, the fact that high-income households are grossly misrepresented in PSC scholarships, there is also the seemingly illogical Baby Bonus CDA scheme where instead of giving more to low-income families with children, the government decides to match dollar-for-dollar the amount that a family can deposit into a bank account. This means that the children with richer parents who are able to save more will get more funds from the government, whereas the children who are needy to begin with and do not have parents with high savings will get less funds.

(From a purely self-centred point of view, this is good news for my child, since my husband can probably afford to get the most out of the fund. But as someone who grew up in a low-income home, I cannot help but feel that this is another one of those schemes by the government to make Lee Kuan Yew's belief a self-fulfilling prophecy: that the children of low-income families will be inadequate in their studies and do not deserve more investments by the government.) The details of the Baby Bonus are available here. The cash gift seems logical but the CDA does not. But I would contend that far from illogical, the policy is insidious. This is another attempt to encourage richer parents to have more children, while basically telling poorer families, "We are not going to support you, because your kids are going to suck anyway, so take contraception now."

The awkward fact is that if Chan Chun Sing's or Peter Lim's parents did not have them because of the Baby Bonus scheme restrictions on poorer families, Singapore would be short of two capable men (though there might be some objections about Chan Chun Sing).

Consider the Baby Bonus CDA travesty with the recent revelation that 73% of low-income households are saving less than 10% of their income ($100 for every $1000 of income), it effectively means that the child of a low-income worker earning $1000 a month can expect to receive a meagre $100 from the SG government, while the child of a high-salaried professional earning $10000 a month can receive in excess of $1000 from the SG government. Baffling and contradictory to the government's claims that it is providing targeted help for the needy. 

As noted in the details on the government website cited above, the funds are used to pay childcare, medical and insurance expenses for the child. The further sinister implications of the Baby Bonus CDA are that a child from a poor family may then have to settle for substandard caring facilities (or languish at home while the parents work), poorer healthcare, and worse, no insurance protection. It looks painfully obvious to me that this is going to perpetuate a cycle of poverty, where the vicissitudes of life caused by financial problems are going to get to the child, which may affect his or her academic performance and subsequent chances at rising up the social ladder. 

But of course, some of my peers who are comfortably well-off will not care, and they will go on supporting the PAP, because they never had to worry about school fees. They never had to miss out on a school trip for financial reasons, yet pretend to their friends that it was because they didn't want to go. 

Perhaps the apologists of Lee Kuan Yew in the government might be naturally averse to taking advice from an Opposition member. I also dug up a relatively recent presentation at Singapore's Civil Service College about intergenerational mobility in Singapore given to future policymakers (?), where in addition to bemoaning the lack of long-term data from Singapore, the experts concluded that there was a need to make braver changes rather than "peripheral tweaks". For example, the differentiation of schools where privileged children can have access to better academic pathways while the needy children may end up in the "less desirable streams" is an obstacle to social mobility. 

The government's answer to a parliamentary question last year reveals that as of 2012, the educational levels and salaries of residents in Singapore have gone up, implying that as a whole, Singaporeans are better-educated with better incomes. However, there is no data to measure movements between different social classes. It is possible that despite all these educational improvements and salary increments, the status of the low-income families have remained the same over time. They are still low-income and they can't afford to move to bigger flats or send their children to university. 

How is that possible? Higher income = better life, right? 

Wrong. In order for intergenerational mobility to take place, better education and higher income are not enough. Since there are no studies from Singapore, I will share an anecdote from my life. Despite having the trappings of a middle-class life, owning a five-room flat, having access to expensive leisure like holidays, being able to eat out at nice restaurants, opting for private medical care, etc, much of what I currently have can be credited to my husband. While it can be said that I have been "socially mobile" in moving from being born in a low-income family to middle-income status, this has only been achieved because I happened to be married to a guy from a middle-class family, and he is paying for the bulk of our expenses as a couple (he partially sponsored some of my holidays before marriage as well). Without getting married and combining finances with my spouse, I would not have been able to acquire a five-room HDB flat and renovate it. Neither would I have been able to pay for a much-needed operation and private gynaecological care during my pregnancy.

After graduation from university, much of my earnings went into paying for my university tuition fee loan. At the moment, much of my earnings are going into supporting the groceries, utilities and healthcare expenses of my parents as well as paying the mortgage for their HDB flat. These expenses made it impossible for me to improve my quality of life. Life would have been more or less the same before and after attaining a degree, which is to say, the quality of life of someone from a lower-income background. Living in a small flat, minimal entertainment, no holidays except to Southeast Asia, no eating out at expensive places. And with increasing healthcare bills for my parents, possibly having to take a second job to make end meets. In short, without the existence of a strong social safety net, educational qualifications and jobs aren't going to move people from the low-income group to the middle income group. 

Can individuals from low-income families move up in the social ladder if they were very good at their studies? I am doubtful. Even if they were above-average in their studies, it would be tough in present-day circumstances with inflationary prices for homes, healthcare and other basic goods. Regardless of their capabilities, after graduation from a tertiary institution, because of a prior lack of social assistance from the government, the family would expect their children's earnings to resolve the financial problems that were accumulated over the past generation. The salaries earned by the younger generation will likely have to be utilised to pay for the bills and costs of the older generation, so they wouldn't have much left for themselves. This would be the majority experience, save for the rare few from the low-income group who do well enough to attain scholarships. But statistics show that such people are far and few between. The majority of the younger generation from poor families will remain poor. 

And not to forget the increasing standard for entry into good schools, which is partly caused by the substantial educational investments that parents who are more well-off are able to afford. This will shut out poorer students from the better schools, which will impact their future career advancements as they would be excluded from the social networks required to help them get ahead. Statistics have proven time and again that the children from lower-income families are having problems gaining entry into good schools. Those who can't score in exams are shut out from the Express and NA streams. They may end up in the NT stream, which then limits their career choices. And it's not because they have bad genes, Lee Kuan Yew apologists, it's because the yardsticks for academic abilities have been redefined by monetary investments that they are deprived of. And if uni grads have problems transcending social status boundaries, what more can be said for the experiences of poly and ITE grads?

Although it looks like the Minister Mentor has stepped out of the political limelight, his personal beliefs are still deeply entrenched in the PAP's policies. To create equal opportunities for all Singaporeans, Singapore must move away from the negative perceptions of the poor that he perpetuated when he was the Prime Minister. A sign of intense brainwashing: it's easy to find PAP supporters who take the idea of self-reliance to extremes and draw the conclusion that the more help the government gives, the more poor people will demand from them and be ungrateful. What happens is actually the opposite. The more help the government gives, the more people will be loyal to it. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the PAP's policies that perpetuate social inequality and restrict social mobility have helped the Opposition win more votes. A scan of the pro-Opposition community pages online will reveal a slew of supportive comments written in simple English, often with bad grammar and spelling, or Mandarin. What does this tell us about the education levels of people supporting the Opposition?

Finally, I found this prescient 1973 speech by former NTUC chairman and SG president Devan Nair that foreshadowed the tensions caused by social inequality today. It's evident that many of the reasons cited by Nair for social stability in the 1970s are no longer present.

It is hoped that the suggestions and proposals of the Opposition representatives and sociological experts will be seriously considered and implemented by the government to resolve the new tensions that have arisen. And it has to be a sincere effort, and not done grudgingly with your Cabinet Ministers and friends backstabbing the effort by claiming that it's a capitulation to "populist demands".

PM Lee appears really sincere here.

A few months later....

Law Minister Shanmugam suggests that the government's shift to providing more welfare is a horrible mistake, by sharing a negative portrayal of the elderly as wheelchair-bound and incapable of contributing to society.
Of course, many of my peers who are comfortably well off will not care. Their priorities revolve around accumulating more wealth and career advancements for themselves. They believe what the government is telling them: that there's enough help for Singaporeans and those who want more are just too demanding. They believe so even though they have never had any close friends who are poor, because they believe that the government will never lie to them...

Note: The days of double-digit economic growth that helped the rise of rags-to-riches businessmen like Peter Lim are gone. (Mr Lim was born to a fishmonger father and housewife mother and one of six children raised in a two-room flat, yet he managed to complete his secondary education at the prestigious Raffles Institution. An experience that no doubt shaped his illustrious future. How many in RI today live in two-room flats?) This blogpost is about the present, the younger generation and youth of today. I believe the low-income kids of a later generation than me will be worse off if we do nothing.

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