Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee wrote in a Straits Times review that ‘social mobility carried three Tans to the Istana gate’. In it, he described how Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian were from humble family backgrounds but made it in life to qualify to challenge for the highest office in the land.
Professor Koo argued that Singapore practices a system of meritocracy, where it is possible for those from humble family backgrounds to rise to the top through performance. Hence, there is social mobility.
The question is, has it become harder over the years to be socially mobile?
The three Tans mentioned by Professor Koo came from an earlier era in Singapore when most Singaporeans were poor. Opportunities were there for those who strived hard. Most people did not receive high education. Career possibilities were opened to those who have a fair command of the English language. For those who were not academically inclined or were forced by circumstances to enter the workforce early in life, they may end up operating a small business after accumulating modest savings. The cost of doing business was much smaller then. Many prominent businessmen started that way and went on to build extensive business empires.
Our world has become very different since then. Change is necessary as our country and the world progress. It takes a lot more to move ahead today, or even just to keep pace.
Education continues to be an important avenue for social mobility. Today, a bright and diligent person can still move up socially by doing well academically and thereafter secure a good job. What has happened though is that over the years we had branded and ranked our schools and had greatly increased the pressures on students. These have created a system that has made it harder for those in the lower income group to bridge.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew observed recently that more than half the students at top schools like Raffles Institution had fathers who were university graduates. On the other hand, he noted that among the four neighbourhood schools he had obtained data on, the highest percentage was at Chai Chee Secondary where only 13.1 per cent were university graduates.
Mr Lee had earlier visited RGPS and Punggol Primary School and remarked that admission to primary school is not meritocratic, as it is based on the social class of the parents (one just needs to observe the queue of cars outside branded and neighbourhood primary schools at dismissal time to see the distribution of students by social class in primary schools). Mr Lee added that this gap will be bridged by the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), where those who do well will have the chance to enter a good school.
In a forum letter in February this year, NUS Assistant Professor of social work, Irene Ng reported her team’s findings that correlated young people’s earnings with their parents’ earnings. She compared Singapore and USA data on ‘intergenerational mobility’, or the extent to which children’s economic status depends on their parents‘. If the children of rich parents grow up to be rich, while the children of poor parents stay poor, then intergenerational mobility is low.
They found that Singapore‘s intergenerational mobility was similar to that of the United States, which is low compared with other developed countries. Low intergenerational mobility implies that those whose parents were at the bottom tend to also remain at the bottom, while those whose parents were at the top tend to stay there.
Assistant Professor Irene also cited research on intergenerational mobility that found that the type of education system has an impact on mobility.
She reported that countries with private and varied education systems tend to have low mobility, while countries with public and universal education systems tend to have high mobility. Also, low mobility is related to expensive tertiary education, and high mobility to low–cost tertiary education.
Our education system has changed a lot from the time I was a student. Tuition was rare then. I went through school without tuition. We had PSLE but we did not quite care about the branding of the secondary school we went to. Most of us chose schools out of convenience and to be where friends were. University fee was then about $1,000 a year.
We have since moved streaming down to primary three for selection of gifted students and to primary four for subject-based banding. We further streamed them at the end of primary six for secondary schools into special, express, normal academic and normal technical tracks.
With the exercise to rank schools, we have made the branding of schools more conscious to parents. Over the years, as better students moved to the more known schools and weaker students to the less known schools, branding became more distinct. Most parents today feel it is impossible for their children to do well without tuition. They feel helpless when their children are streamed into undesired tracks and when their children have to go into unpopular schools.
Students are enroled into primary schools mostly based on social class. In secondary school, it is possible for good and diligent students to move into good schools. Indeed, many have done so. However, as Mr Lee had observed, secondary schools were still very much divided by social class. This is due to the advantages accorded to children from better families in our competitive education system.
When the social classes do not mix much, it will in turn lead to greater elitism in society. The ‘haves’ will not understand the ‘have-nots’. This divide is not good for society.
Late developers who end up being streamed into slower tracks may have their confidence destroyed or may mix with the wrong company, making it harder for them to climb out of the situation.
Interestingly, Finland has gone the opposite direction from Singapore and from most other countries. The Finns have delayed streaming till the end of 9 years of compulsory education. They have moved away from concentrating resources on branded schools and have moved resources evenly to all schools. Their schools mix good and weak students together in the same class rather than separate them. Finnish students also spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world. Rather than suffer a decline in standards, Finland is scoring consistently high in the world ranking of students’ results in international tests. Finland also has a high degree of social mobility compared to other developed countries.
I am not advocating that we blindly adopt Finland’s model. Education is complex and culture dependent. The issues are not easy to solve. It is useful for us to pause at this stage of our development to critically question the path we have taken and see if there are alternative ways for us to still achieve good academic results with lesser stress on students and which will encourage greater social mobility.
Entrepreneurship is another way to raise social mobility. It has been so in the past, with poor immigrants making it good through shrewd business operations. However, in Singapore, there are two main challenges now when it comes to starting businesses:
- A risk averse culture. SMU Assistant Professor Chung Wai Keung in an interview with The Straits Times on 6 Apr 2011 pointed out that Singapore’s risk averse culture weighs down its social mobility because it discourages entrepreneurship, a crucial means by which the low-income can scale the social hierarchy. He stated that while the government encourages Singaporeans to take risks, the whole system discourages students from doing so. It becomes more rational for students to just find a job after leaving school.
- It is not easy to start a new business. Cost of doing business has increased greatly due to rents and manpower. Also, we have a small domestic market and an overbearing presence of government-run businesses that often compete with local enterprises. These factors have discouraged would-be-entrepreneurs.
Singapore has come a long way in its economic development. Experts in this field have also noted that social mobility has become more difficult now. Nominated MP and National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan noted the path to upward mobility is not closed. In every cohort, there will be somebody from an underprivileged background who has made it. At the same time, she pointed to a reality that exists in all developed countries: Mobility declines with development.
While we congratulate those who have made it through the lower income ranks, we must also be aware that certain factors have now made it increasingly more difficult for social mobility to take place. By being mindful of these, we can hopefully give those who are less privileged a better chance to succeed.