Sunday, July 22, 2012

Moving up in life, the Singapore way

Straits Times: Sat, Jul 21

ENTREPRENEUR Kenneth Li, 26, never doubted he would make it to university if he worked hard. That was so even when his divorced mother's $1,200 monthly salary as a hawker could barely support him and his three siblings.

In Henderson Secondary School, he was demoted to take N levels after struggling in the Express stream. He was then 15 years old. He felt indignant that students from top secondary schools had an 'easier path' with the resources and teachers they were given.

Mr Li, a Nanyang Technological University business school graduate, now runs a corporate gift company that makes $350,000 in revenue a year.

The reason he never doubted that he would be successful, he says, is that he was Singaporean. 'Here, everyone is equal. If I worked hard, I knew I would have a chance.'

In fact, his humble beginnings have given him an edge, he says. 'I coped with my studies and worked at the same time. I was more adaptive and independent, and that gave me the feeling that I am different. I can achieve what others cannot.'

Stories of relentless upward advancement like Mr Li's are perhaps why, despite the stresses and strains of a maturing society, Singaporeans still believe that the country as a whole is on the rise.

In May, Insight asked 400 Singaporeans a range of questions designed to find out if they believe that the Singapore Dream is still alive and well.

Asked if their children's standard of living will be higher than theirs, 79 per cent said yes.

Asked if their children's opportunities to succeed will be better than theirs, 58 per cent said yes.

But amid the optimism, a gnawing worry has emerged - that the playing field is becoming too uneven. Seven in 10 respondents were worried about the income gap between rich and poor, and eight in 10 thought the gap would affect social mobility.

On the up and up

IN APRIL, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam made reference to a poll of 2,000 Americans that was conducted by the US non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts last year.

Only 47 per cent of Americans thought their children would have a higher standard of living than they did, a sharp fall from the 62 per cent that said so in 2009, when the survey was done for the first time.

The sharp drop was due to the 2009 financial crisis, which had caused US unemployment to spike to its highest level in 26 years.

Speaking at a Mendaki forum, Mr Tharman was unequivocal that Singapore 'must never' allow a similar situation.

It was the latest comment in a national conversation about growing stratification in Singapore, first sparked by data released by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew early last year.

These showed that in top schools like Raffles Institution and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), the percentage of students whose fathers are university graduates does not fall below 50 per cent.

In contrast, in neighbourhood schools like Jurong West Secondary and Bukit Merah Secondary, the number hovered around 10 per cent.

In March last year, then Education Minister Ng Eng Hen sought to reassure MPs in Parliament that mobility was alive and well in the education system. He disclosed that half the children from families in the bottom third socio-economic bracket actually score in the top two-thirds of their PSLE cohort.

Insight decided to ask Singaporeans for their perceptions of economic mobility. It commissioned a survey of 400 citizens aged 21 years old and above. They were asked similar questions to those posed in the US Pew study, such as if their children's standards of living would be higher than theirs.

By many markers, Singaporeans felt better-off.

The 79 per cent that said their children would have a higher standard of living was indeed, as Mr Tharman hoped, much higher than the corresponding number of Americans who felt so.

And when asked if they earn enough to live comfortably, 70 per cent of Singaporeans said yes, again higher than the US figure of 61 per cent.

But Americans seem more optimistic about their own immediate economic future despite the current doldrums: 54 per cent said that they will be better off 10 years from now.

In contrast, only 41 per cent of Insight's survey respondents felt that their economic circumstances would be better in a decade. An equal number thought it would be 'worse and somewhat worse'.

On the Americans' optimism about their children's standard of living, Economic Society vice-president Yeoh Lam Keong points out that the United States is wealthier than Singapore, 'so it makes sense that people there feel that their standards of living may not be going up as much'.

However, he adds that it is probably 'fair to say that compared to other Asian societies with similar levels of wealth and consumption, such as Taiwan, Singaporeans have more faith in the system'.

The Insight finding that Singaporeans are buoyant about the future but cautious over the immediate economic outlook echoes the findings from a 2001 survey of over 2,000 Singaporeans spearheaded by National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

In that survey, eight in 10 agreed that 'Singapore is a good place to raise children', but when asked what they thought their financial situation would be in five years' time, only 33 per cent said it would be 'better than now'.

Then, Prof Tan wrote that questions about their children's futures 'deal with a more deep-seated belief in Singapore as an entity, and is therefore not easily influenced by economic fluctuation'.

He believes that the Insight findings reflect the same reasoning, adding that this was surprising to him 'given the negative vibes over the last two years about the cost of living and the influx of immigrants'.

This seems to suggest that in spite of present difficulties, Singaporeans 'are confident that the economy has remained resilient, notwithstanding economic fluctuations, particularly when compared to other regions in the world'.

'If this figure indeed correctly captures Singaporeans' sentiment about Singapore, it suggests that Singaporeans still think of Singapore as a viable entity,' he says.

The meritocratic way

WHEN it comes to the factors that boost people up the socio- economic ladder, most respondents said 'hard work' and the 'attitudes and values a person's parents taught them' were the most important. Then came 'a person's drive and ambition' and 'quality education'.

But 84 per cent of respondents flagged 'knowing the right people' as key, more than the 78 per cent who flagged 'getting a degree or diploma' - a sign, say experts, that the invisible social capital that patterns mature societies is becoming more apparent.

'In an era of academic credentialism, where 'everyone' now has a degree, people are realising that formal qualifications are not enough, and that these may have to be supplemented by informal strategies,' says NUS sociologist Vincent Chua.

In a study of 656 Singaporeans, Dr Chua found that these strategies take different forms in a meritocratic country. Those who said they got their jobs through a connection actually had lower earnings, as having to pull strings in a meritocratic context may actually signal a lack of qualifications.

But it was those with the most 'potential social capital' - in the form of knowing university graduates or private home-dwellers - who were most successful in getting jobs in the public sector, the most meritocratic labour market in Singapore.

So, Dr Chua argues that it is being 'embedded' in resource-rich networks, rather than the active mobilisation of job connections itself, that boost people upwards in a meritocracy.

This awareness of how social capital and family background entrench opportunities for success was displayed among the low-skilled and mid-skilled respondents to the survey.

For example, 97 per cent of low-skilled respondents said that 'knowing the right people' was key in advancing upwards, compared to 77 per cent of high-skilled respondents.

But the less well-off groups were not disillusioned yet: 100 per cent of low-skilled respondents said that hard work was more important, as did 94 per cent of mid-skilled respondents and 90 per cent of high-skilled respondents.

Belief that hard work will pay off was also as high among those aged 20 to 29 as those older, a sign that faith in the system is not fading with time.

'The belief in meritocracy is as strong in the low-income as in the high, the young and the old,' says Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari. 'There is no permanent underclass because we believe in this system of meritocracy.'

The worrying gap

BUT a meritocratic system in a society with a large income gap eventually 'reinforces inequality', says NUS sociologist Irene Ng. For example, local schools are largely merit-based; results decide admission.

'But that first leg into a good school gets you much better results,' she notes. 'So that's why people try so hard to get their children into good preschools. The truth is that our school system has got many different types of schools with different resources.'

According to Insight's survey, this is not lost on average Singaporeans. A stark consensus of 83 per cent of respondents said that the income gap would affect social mobility.

Last year, Singapore's Gini coefficient - a standard measure of inequality - was 0.473, one of the highest among developed nations.

Seven out of 10 respondents said that they worried about this chasm between rich and poor; 61 per cent felt that the Government was not doing enough to help people move upwards.

Dr Ng is surprised by the finding as the level of support for more government help is much higher than in other countries.

In Britain, for example, a British Social Attitudes survey conducted last year saw over 70 per cent of respondents say that the gap between rich and poor was too large. But only 34 per cent of British respondents said that the Government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well-off, a four-point drop since 2000.

'In countries like the US and Britain, there are a lot of people who are politically conservative who will not say that the Government should do more,' she says.

Nominated MP Laurence Lien suggests that the clear consensus on greater government help from Insight's survey may have to do with the perception that 'the Government is rich and can afford it'.

The presence of the national reserves may prevent Singaporeans from making a link between 'higher social spending' and 'higher taxes for me', notes the former civil servant, who believes that 'there should be a conversation on tapping more of the reserves for social spending'.

The Government may find that it cannot have a conversation on higher taxes before conducting one on its coffers, he adds.

Insight interviewed a dozen high-income individuals and found that the bulk of them indeed believe that the Government should help the poor more, but that the current taxation structure should not change.

While most did not object outright to paying higher taxes, they emphasise that it should not be the first option.

Ms Yvonne Chan, a 30-year-old educator, notes for example that the National Health Service in Britain, for all its flaws, 'is definitely something we can learn from'.

'If taxes had to be increased, the Government will need to be very transparent about how they bridge the gap between the rich and the rest,' she adds.

But there were also those like Mr Gavin Woo, 44, a managing director who makes $400,000 a year, who say they will walk the talk.

'I'm willing to bear heavier taxes. If I can help others in any way, such as through paying more taxes so the Government can put in place more financial aid schemes, then I'm fine with that.

'There will never be enough money for the rich, and likewise for the poor. If the taxes result in more families being helped, then why not?'

Singaporeans who think like Mr Woo, says Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Lily Neo, are more common than is sometimes made out to be.

'This survey shows that the majority of Singaporeans will support the Government spending more on this group. And we can do it without Singaporeans saying, why are you spending on them and not on me?'

Mr Yeoh of the Economic Society says Insight's findings are significant because the respondents' perceptions are corroborated by empirical studies which show that a big income gap is a significant predictor of low social mobility.

The survey findings show that Singaporeans want the Government to intervene to keep society mobile in the face of a growing income gap.

For Mr Li, though, his faith in the system is still strong. He has no doubt his children's future will be brighter than his.

He says: 'There may be more competition, for example, for university places. But there are also more universities now. There is still so much opportunity in Singapore.'


SINGAPOREANS aged 30-39 are the most pessimistic about their children's chances of success. Some 45 per cent think their children's opportunities to succeed will be worse than theirs. Those aged 50 and older are the most optimistic.

Sociologist Vincent Chua said people in their 30s may seem less upbeat as they are still trying to establish their careers. '30-39 can be a very stressful time, having to juggle both a young family and work, coupled with conditions specific to Singapore, particular immigration,' he said.

Engineer Daniel Lee, 34, who has a four-year-old daughter, said: 'In Singapore it's very hard to get by. As a parent, most of us are concerned about the cost of child care, and education.'


THE high-skilled, which includes professionals and managers, are a tad gloomier about their prospects than the low-skilled. Only four in 10 think they will be better off 10 years from now.

The low-skilled, which includes cleaners and labourers, are slightly more optimistic. Some 45 per cent think their economic situation will improve.

Nominated MP Laurence Lien believes 'the reality of hope' is what makes the low-skilled optimistic.

Housewife Chaw Song Moy, 45, who has two daughters aged 21 and 18, and lives in a three-room flat, said: 'I'm sure they will have a better life. How can I not hope for that? As long as they can find a job it's fine... as long as they can do well, I have no worries.'


MALAYS are more optimistic than the other races about their children's future. Some 73 per cent say their children will have better chances to succeed in life than they did. And 81 per cent feel their children will have a higher standard of living.

As for their economic situation 10 years from now, Malays are also the most hopeful. A 2001 study by sociologist Tan Ern Ser also found them more optimistic than others. That study asked people about their finances over the next five years.

Mendaki researcher Muhammad Nadim Adam said more Malays have made it past primary school in the last 10 years. He said: '(It) may contribute to the overall optimism that their children will have a better chance to succeed in life than them.'


THOSE with a diploma or degree generally feel secure about being able to afford a comfortable lifestyle.

In the survey, 74 per cent of respondents in this category expect to earn enough money, but only 61 per cent of those with A-level certificates and below share this confidence.

For those with A-level education or lower, 39 per cent expect to struggle to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

Odd job labourer Mohd Shyam Hassan, 43, feels his lack of education is a major hurdle to finding work to pay the bills. 'I had only primary school education and my English is not so good. I went to prison and came from a family with a lot of problems. It's hard for people like me if we have no certificates.'

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