A Pertinent Issue of Class

Even before its independence in 1965, the tiny island of Singapore faced a slew of challenges and struggles. Foreign press wrote Singapore off while neighboring countries stood ready to express aggression towards a barely minted republic in a post-British era. However, shrewd leadership and an impregnable government transformed Singapore from a fishing village into a modern metropolis. An astute Lee Kuan Yew (2014) proclaimed that Singapore went “from Third World to First World standards in one generation.” Singapore had made dramatic progress against insurmountable odds. But, that progress spawned issues and tackling them requires an understanding and acknowledgment of the visible and ethereal forces acting upon people throughout history.

To dissect the issues that afflict Singapore, the spotlight turns to a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which suggests a “social class divide among Singaporeans” (Mokthar, 2018); this is a people related problem. However, divorcing issues of class from that of race is no simple matter as the two factors share inextricably linked characteristics. Though Singapore sets itself apart from its neighbors with its strategic location and a world-class harbor, people remain Singapore’s greatest and only resource (Lee, 2014). It is the people that make or break Singapore’s economy which is the backbone of its progress. Positive traits such as determination, perseverance, grit, and tenacity embodied by the people were key to nation building in the early days of Singapore.

However, people are also fallible and express negative qualities such as prejudice, hatred, and racism. Left unchecked, these attributes can spark conflicts such as when racial riots struck Singapore in July 1964. That prompted Prime Minister Lee to resolve in building a multiracial society (2014). Lee knew that the survival of Singapore and its people hinged on political and societal stability. Thus, he mandated that Singapore’s government be resolute, unflinching, honest and dedicated to its people with zero tolerance for corruption (2014). This, he accomplished through an unwavering stance on policies.

The circumstances of today’s society rested in the policies of yesteryear. To further understand the makings of social conflicts requires a still deeper inspection of Singapore’s past and human history. This is to comprehend the intricate machinations of people and draw applicable lessons. From there, policymakers can enact laws and policies for a just and equitable society; such is the hallmark of modern democracies.

Emergence Of A Socioeconomic Class Division

From early hunter-gatherers to modern city dwellers, a rudimentary working society consisted of groups and organizations of human beings coming together to function either in mutual participation or subjugation. Hunt and Colander (2017) state that, “By about 35,000 years ago, they were exhibiting cultural sophistication”, with increasing evidence of “complex social organization” (p. 42). Human beings created and harnessed technologies that shaped the formation of work and human society as they progressed through the ages. The Age of Agriculture was a pivotal moment beginning about 11,000 years ago in which humans domesticated animals, cultivated the land and established the practice of people living in fixed places (Hunt and Colander, 2017). Diamond (1997) noted that sedentary food producers and hunter-gatherers did not exist separately, nor did land cultivation and farming arise as a conscientious effort. Yet, it is this practice and concentration of inhabitants in a fixed locale that must be examined to deepen an understanding of a rise in social friction and strife.

The subsequent development of cities, commerce, entertainment, religion, politics, education, warfare, and enslavement necessitated the organization of society in ensuring social and political stability. In turn, this allowed for the consolidation and projection of power at the individual and national level towards the local populace or external adversaries. The formation of society consequently birthed classes such as kings, leaders, military, landowners, peasants, the rich and the poor (Hunt and Colander, 2017. pp. 45-63). Whether by consequence or design, the emergence of social classes drives conflicts instigated by class differences and asymmetrical expressions of power. Diamond (1997) states that “the roots of inequality in the modern world lie far back in prehistory.” Inequality had sunk its roots and institutionalized itself into the very fabric of Singapore.

The organized society of today demands that no individual exists alone but alongside others instead. Through societal conflicts and shared experiences, inhabitants shape the social and natural environment with their behavior and actions. To deal with the pertinent issue of class and concomitant byproducts of stratification and class warfare, social scientists should investigate and understand how institutions wield power, how institutions exert control over people, and how humans interact with such systems and others across social lines (Teo, 2018. P. 153-177).

With 80% of Singapore’s citizen population living in public housing and the majority of them living in high rise apartments, opportunities for regular close contact between one another can be expected. However, the IPS survey reveals that over half of Singapore residents stand a higher chance of mixing with people of different races and age instead of different social standings (Mokhtar, 2017). One of the researchers in the IPS study, Sociology professor Vincent Chua states that there are fewer private residents. Dr. Gillian Koh, IPS’ deputy director adds that it is a “natural tendency for people to gather like with like.”

Furthermore, in a densely populated city-state such as Singapore with 7,804 people per square kilometer (Department of Statistics Singapore, 2018), the likelihood of social friction between individuals, cultural groups, institutions, and even the same social class is high. The failure to mingle between people of different classes also points to a worrying trend of increasing social stratification (Yap & Lu, 2018). Teo (2018, p. 44) states that high density is the cause of tensions among residents in rental flats. Thus, the issue of class is not merely that of people, but of geographical location, and power that the well-heeled can express, and power that the disadvantaged lack. Put together, these issues take on a multidimensional nature through which sound policymaking and a change in attitudes across all socioeconomic classes could begin to fix.

National Policies On Class Division

Singapore prides itself on its meritocratic society where determined citizens can work hard and better their quality of life through equal opportunities presented to all. Here, education serves as the main vehicle for social mobility. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance of social attitudes and also highlighted the importance of government policies in protecting social mobility (Yusof, 2018). He backed the meritocratic system and added that citizens must have “a fair chance to do well and to compete”, regardless of their background. While such a statement is laudable, more must be done to ensure that the disadvantaged be given the assistance to spar on equal grounds (Ng, 2018).

Next, Tan, E. S. & Tan, M. W. raised a geographical issue where “elite” schools are concentrated in Bukit Timah (2016). Inflated housing prices in the area reflected the parents’ intense desire to live close to the schools and solidify the chances in sending their offspring to prestigious institutions and into an illustrious future. Affluent families can readily subscribe to the meritocratic ethos so proclaimed by the Singapore government; it also allows them to seize and create opportunities at moving further up the social ladder. The grouping of elite schools perpetuates a vicious cycle of academic concentration, achievements and wealth. Whereas, poor neighborhoods find themselves intertwined with schools outside an elite club all while brawling against a ruthlessly rigid meritocratic system that now seems to have turned against earnest people.

Yap, D. & Lu, L. claims that Raffles Institution (RI) is elitist as the school practices discrimination through the selection of top students in academics, sports and arts (2018). Teo (2018, p.31) states that meritocracy is the systematic process of selecting and sorting people with rewards that commensurate with one’s achievements as a result. Yet, the “elitist” label cannot simply be branded upon RI for the school exercises the very meritocracy that Singapore espouses. Institutions must realize themselves as being both problem and solution; they must also champion equitability, equality, and fairness if Singapore is to close the gap between social divisions.

In 2013, MOE (Today Online, 2013) announced that 40 places in all schools at the primary 1 level will be reserved for those without blood ties to the school. Recognizing that social diversity is not adequately represented, Minister Ong Ye Kung stated that “a fifth of school places will be reserved for students without affiliation” in 2019 for the Secondary 1 posting exercise (Ng, 2018). These signal the government’s changing stance on meritocracy on Singapore society (LKSYPP, 2018).

Social scientists must acknowledge that the meritocratic system contains elements of inequality resulting in uneven outcomes for people in different social groups, status, and divisions. Without a deep understanding of human history and Singapore’s past, breaking down negative attitudes and tackling inequality head-on remains an arduous task. But, if Singaporeans can adjust their mindsets, there is potential for change and a big change at that too.


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