In an article “Can money buy class?”, Dodgson (2019) writes about findings from a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) survey that sought to identify what “high class” and “low class” meant to citizens. It is important to note that the survey included two open-ended questions with light prompting that asked respondents to “imagine” and describe a person they would consider as being of a high or low class. This suggests that respondents had to internalise class concepts, displaying a form of “class consciousness” (Marx & Engels, 2002), in order to provide qualitative answers.

How does one make sense of the answers though? An understanding can be achieved by framing the survey findings against the backdrop of Singapore’s birth, development, and society through a sociological lens that sees respondent answers as having been influenced by society and the environment (Mills, 2010). Merton’s (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, pp 382-394) approach to Structural Functionalism, and his theories on manifest and latent functions, will be used to illuminate survey findings.

In the report, 77% of participants identified themselves as middle class from three options: High, middle, and low. Interestingly, researchers noted that “participants with the highest incomes self-identified as middle class” (LKSYPP, 2019, p. 11). Survey findings seem to reveal the fluid nature and hazy definition of class in Singaporeans.

Then, researchers funneled the descriptions into common class markers. Evidence of the commonality is found in income as the most frequently cited item with housing, education, family, cars, holidays and travel, language, networks, and domestic helpers as determinants of class in order of citation (“CARS, CONDOS AND CAI PNG”, 2019, p. 5). 61% of respondents saw class in material terms while 36% saw it as comprising material and behaviour. Only 3% saw class in behavioural terms. These statistics are crucial as it points to Singaporeans seeing material functioning as class markers.

Dodgson (2019) states that researchers saw class attitudes in Singapore as divided into two camps: Confucian and Marxian. She adds that Marxian respondents saw class as a “reflection of wealth” while Confucian respondents saw class as being tied to one’s behaviour. This does not mean that respondents were Marxists or Confucians but that their answers were broadly categorised into one of two views. Dodgson also points out that no respondents mentioned “explicitly political conclusions from their observations”. This might be evidence of Singaporeans not outwardly manifesting class conflicts in Marx’s conflict theory. He wrote of a class conflict with the working class proletariat eventually rising against the bourgeoisie (Marx & Engels, 2002). However, such a conflict has not happened in Singapore. Furthermore, she states that no one linked their own perspectives on class to social inequality. This seems to suggest that Singaporeans do not frame their perspectives through rigid racial, political, class, inequality, Marxian, or Confucian viewpoints, echoing earlier sentiments of hazy class definitions.

Though few respondents mentioned race and language, the answers centered largely around tangible things, with branded goods seen as class markers lending credence to the theory of “conspicuous consumption” (LKYSPP, 2019, pp. 32-33; Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, p. 382). European cars were commonly cited as high class while Japanese and Korean makes were associated with low class markers. If the manifest function of a car is to transport people, then its latent function might be to signal the opulence and prestige of its owner. Likewise, certain schools were associated with high class status. Like brands, the latent function of a school served to broadcast its prestige and honour, through association or being a graduate.

Further analysis of the survey findings necessitates a brief understanding of Singapore’s history and development; Unfavourable circumstances birthed the independence of Singapore as a constructed nation-state which necessitated deep and broad control from the government in dictating the way of life for its citizens. The Singapore government espoused Multiculturalism as the Singaporean ethos, recognising different ethnic groups and their equal rights to society regardless of race, language, or religion (Benjamin, 1976; Lian, 1999). Evidence of Singapore’s successful multicultural and multiracial stance lies in the low number of reported respondents who mentioned race in their answers (LKYSPP, 2019, p. 34). It would seem that race and ethnicity is not a commonly thought class marker or signal. Still, race is a sensitive topic in Singapore and that might explain the occasional mentions.

Despite a good majority of answers bearing material items, respondents rarely linked high or low class to race and ethnicity. This may be attributed to the government’s relentless pursuit of an egalitarian and meritocratic society which promotes upward social mobility and downplays race-based politics and societal stratification along ethnic lines (Chua & Tan, 1999). Its citizens are largely apt to walk the path laid out by the government that stresses the importance of education and hard work in moving up the socioeconomic ladder (LKYSPP, 2018). Regardless of class, 35.32% of answers mentioned education. Indeed, it acts as a key factor with the manifest function of arming Singaporeans with knowledge to eventually enter the workforce.

For most Singaporeans too, active employment is key to earning an income since jobs, and source of income, were the most frequently cited item at 65.99%. Jobs in the private sector managerial roles, medicine, law, civil service, and even passive income streams were mentioned as high class markers, suggesting that not only did they pay well, job titles were themselves a status to achieve. In essence, a job had the manifest function of securing an income and livelihood while its latent function acted as a class marker. 

As a secular state, the Singapore government made it abundantly clear that religion would have no business in politics and industry (Wee, 2005; Kwang, 2019). Through the “Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act”, the government actively curtails religious tension to avoid societal fragmentation and strife, all to maintain peace between different religions and order within society. With a “Cartesian scientistic rationalism” approach, the government splits religion into mind and matter, recognising that one does not interact with the other (Wee, 2005). In practice, the Singapore government depoliticised religion in order to handle religious affairs while recognising the manifest function of religion as that of providing “educational, social and charitable work”, a “spiritual ballast”, and a “moral anchor” to its followers. That religion was only brought up by two respondents in the survey may hint to it as an institution that cannot transmit class stratification and widen the inequality gap (LKYSPP, 2019, p. 34). It is worth noting that religion is also a sensitive issue among Singaporeans, and may explain the few mentions in the survey.

Drawing meaningful observations from the survey requires a deeper understanding of Singapore as a still relatively young upstart and its history. It is understanding what is said, and what is not, that reveals the underlying social psyche manifested in Singaporeans on class markers. It would also appear that Singaporeans stratify themselves through income level and see class as a projection of wealth. Taken together, survey answers reflect a Singaporean culture that is constructed by the government hinging on a meritocratic ethos to enable social mobility in its citizens (Benjamin, 1976).


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