Social mobility in Singapore


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Happy kids in Bhutan

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17 comments on “Social mobility in Singapore

  1. Dear Mr Yee
    You make a very tenuous presupposition in your thesis.

    You assume that the elites would welcome healthy competition from the grassroots.
    This assumption remains untested, unchallenged, unexamined and “un-discussed”.

    You also failed to define “meritocracy”.
    If meritocracy is defined by exam results, then yes, we have a meritocracy.
    This is Meritocracy by output indicators.
    also called “the rich get richer” or “trickle down economics”

    If meritocracy is defined by how much each parent can afford tuition to give their kids an extra edge in exams, then maybe we are not so meritocratic.
    This is Meritocracy by input indicators.
    This is called egalitarianism.

  2. Good article. I have always found it somewhat ironical that while Singapore prides itself on being a meritocratic society, the starting point for Singaporeans is not the same. By starting point I refer to the entry into primary schools for our kids, which depends greatly on the resources/social class of parents. Those who have the resources and ability to “volunteer” are in an advantaged position to get their kids into the best schools.

    I wonder why we can’t have a system that is fairer. Consider a bidding system where we allocate parents 100 points to bid for five schools they want to send their kids. If they have set their sights on one school then they could allocate more points to that school. If demand for places exceeds supply then it goes to a ballot. This way, not only can parents exercise their right to choose what’s best for their kids, the system also levels the playing field for those in the lower class since they would also have a chance to send their kids to the best school.

  3. @Alvin

    Proposing any alternative balloting/bidding system for school entry only solves a symptom of the larger problem–that schools have become largely unequal in facilities, fees, and quality of the teaching, and thus, some schools, including primary schools, being (seen as) better than others. We need to face the truth that competition among Singapore schools has NOT led to better schools or even better education for all. (Eg. In the chase for rankings, schools cut “difficult” subjects like humanities from their curriculum–subjects that, in my opinion, while difficult, encourage critical thinking–and have become even narrower in their definitions of success, and more impatient with students that need more help and enouragement.) Classes are still too large, and teachers overburdened with work, and these two areas are not improving as school administrators merely worry about budgets and scores. To make matters worse, schools that could use more help are doubly punished–by MOE awarding them less money and burdening them with more “fundraising” projects, and by being lower-ranking and thus, undesirable, which means fewer volunteers or donations for them from, ahem, highly motivated parents.

    The original post is not only right, but needs more attention. In this environment, only the rich and better off can afford better education. The answer is to make better education accessible to all, regardless of neighbourhood, parents’ income and free time (did those who implemented the volunteering system ever THINK about how it’s only the well-to-do parents who have time to volunteer?). Unfortunately we seem to have a government now which isn’t showing much concern about growing inequality in Singapore in ANY area, much less education. Private and privatised education is not seen as part of a growing problem–it’s just another money-making area for the government now.

  4. Jenn Jong

    I do not think we should allow the good to become the enemy of the perfect. The larger problem you highlighted should indeed be addressed but it will take time as it involves a massive reallocation of resources. The bidding system that I’ve proposed is a quick fix if you like but it will go some way towards helping address the root problem. For one, parents will no longer feel compelled to “volunteer” to get their kids into the best schools since the quality of the students will be equalized to a certain degree. MOE could then also randomize the allocation of teachers so that the quality of teachers are equalized over time as well. Then every child in Singapore will have an equal head start. The outcomes will always be different but we should at least try to ensure that the starting point is the same as much as possible.

  5. Rich parents will always find a way to give their children an edge. Even if you leave streaming till later, this will also happen. In Singapore, most resources are given to the top and bottom in education. I can’t quote statistics but a lot of money is invested into the ITEs.

    In my opinion, in order to increase inter-generational mobility, some form of inheritance tax needs to be considered.

    • Thanks Calvin. Agree that parents who can afford it will generally try to find a way to push their kids to the top. Streaming at a later age may be useful to consider as students are more matured by then and more ready to handle the stresses that come with major examinations.

  6. You made an interesting comparison here between 2 countries. They are quite similar in some aspects. Colonised twice, first by the Swedes (hence all road names have Finnish and Swedish names and both are official languages) and then by Russia before going for independence. Politically however, they are worlds apart. There’s a 3 bloc government, left, centre and right. To add, not all MPs are from top schools and have university degrees. There is at least one MP who has just high school credentials. Things still run smoothly like clockwork. Public transportation runs smoothly even in harsh winters. Policies still get passed with strong debate. There’s a high degree of transparency (read wikileaks of Embassy Singapore and Embassy Helsinki, you can see the difference)

    As for education, they can afford to offer high mobility because the ecosystem here is significantly different. Graduates from universities or even high school will always find jobs ahead of foreigners because of language. Foreign talent is restricted to the very high tiers (expert level) or to the very low level (cleaners and related although they still need mastery of language). It’s an ecosystem that feeds itself. There’s no national obsession with GDP growth, just people’s well being and employment. Education is free for all inclusive of university places. On a separate note, you will not find any of the Finnish universities in the top 100 global ranking. Kids here truly have a childhood with a good balance of studies and play. In fact, the kids here enjoy learning, something of a rarity in Singapore. Adults make time to go for night classes and companies give plenty of support to learning and upgrading. Very little is required of by the government in this aspect.

    This much I know from living here for 4 years. I have a degree from a global top 50 university but I struggle to get any job because primarily I am a foreigner and have not mastered the language yet. I rather let my son have a decent chance here where the government truly puts the welfare of the people at heart and first.

  7. Thank you for bringing up an alternative model of education. For those of us who are less informed, this is a refreshing read. It also challenges our thinking & the current model in a very constructive manner. 🙂

    On intergenerational mobility, i think nurture has a big part to play with it. I had the priviledge of observing a class in a neighbourhood school do remedial for maths. All the students, thirty something of them, covered basic math from division, muliplication to fractions & percentages at P5 level. In that one-hour lesson, they covered 6 questions but with alot of depth & clearing of any misconceptions. And even though the ground covered was small i.e 6 application of math knowledge, everyone was learning. Many of the pupils, did gain content knowledge at the end. And their results in tests demonstrated that as well.

    This begs the question, why then is this group not doing well in its regular class? It’s the same boy or girl. My hypotheses are, in school the group probably learns at a slower pace (but can still learn!) & at home, the environment may not be condusive to learning. In other words, if the parents do not make any attempt at encouraging good learning experience at home, it is hard for any child to do well in school. I grew up in an environment where i had to fight to concentrate at home to study amidst all the distractions caused by my parents, who were pretty well educated to begin with! My dad, who is in his 70’s has a master’s degree.

    I am, as you can tell, an advocate of smaller class size. And a healthy learning environment at home cant hurt either. I hope that parents, before they pack their kids off to tuition centres & private tutors, look at what they are doing at home to make the home (where the child spends more time vs school) a much better learning environment.

    • Yes, smaller class sizes will be useful. It’s at 30 now for P1 and P2 but back to 40 once they reach P3 onwards, and reduced again in JCs.

      With 40, especially in neighbourhood schools, sometimes teachers spend half the time disciplining and controlling rather than teaching.

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