25
March
2019
|
10:24
Europe/Amsterdam

Addressing social stratification

From left: Assoc Prof Tan, Mr Ee, Ms Fu and Prof Goh at the forum discussion

Topics of national conversation — stratification and social inequality — were in the spotlight at the latest NUS Social Policies Forum, organised by the NUS Students Political Association on 19 March. Some 300 NUS staff, students and alumni along with students from other educational institutes interacted with representatives from academia, industry and policy-makers at the annual forum. Eagerly engaging the panellists, they raised questions such as how social mixing and volunteerism can be encouraged and ways to empower the less privileged.

The panel comprised Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture Community and Youth who was also Guest-of-Honour at the event; Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from NUS Sociology; and Mr Gerard Ee, Executive Director of Beyond Social Services, a charity that helps underprivileged youth. Professor Robbie Goh, Dean of NUS Arts and Social Sciences, moderated the discussion.

Meritocracy is threaded through most of Singapore’s social policies, said Ms Fu, and though it has its trade-offs including stratification, she believes that it still remains the best option, allowing “a fair shot at opportunities, regardless of background”. This is particularly so when compared to other policies based on prescribed attributes like the class one is born into, race and religion. It also strengthens self-motivation and personal responsibility.

The system has to ensure that the position of those who have resources and are doing well is not entrenched, she said. She shared various policies that Singapore has in place, including a progressive tax system, income supplements, bigger social spending on healthcare and ageing, as well as diversified education pathways and student care facilities. Ms Fu also spoke about programmes organised by the Youth Corps, such as leadership programmes, overseas attachments and volunteering.

“Many of the things we do… it’s to try to provide access to opportunities in society but more importantly, it’s to send a strong message to Singaporeans that the system of meritocracy and self-reliance will only work and be sustainable if the successful Singaporeans would look beyond their own success and care for people that are less successful than them. The test of the people is not about how we treat successful people but rather how the successful treat others. I’d like Singapore to be that. While we have the motivation to do well for ourselves, do well for our children, at the same time we have the empathy and the care for people that perhaps need help,” she concluded.

Many of the things we do… it’s to try to provide access to opportunities in society but more importantly, it’s to send a strong message to Singaporeans that the system of meritocracy and self-reliance will only work and be sustainable if the successful Singaporeans would look beyond their own success and care for people that are less successful than them. The test of the people is not about how we treat successful people but rather how the successful treat others.

Assoc Prof Tan highlighted social mixing as one way to reduce stratification. “It can produce greater social network diversity, social integration and strong national identity; something to be treasured and developed. We don't want Singapore to become two nations, one rich and one poor, we want one nation, one Singapore, not two nations divided by wealth,” he said.

Social mixing does not come simply from being together, he continued, but from coming together to pursue a bigger goal. “When you come together as equal then you are more likely to be integrated, not only mixed but be greater,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

While both meritocracy and self-reliance are fine, it is important to equalise opportunities, he added. “You must help people to help themselves. Self-reliance has a limit…There are social injustices that need to be addressed, through redistribution and equalising and our role is to ensure that every citizen has access to a decent quality of life regardless of class and background,” he said.

Drawing from his experiences working with underprivileged youth in the charity he runs, Mr Ee shared some society narratives he has observed that could hinder bonding and cooperation. These include the tendency to think that lack of success means not working hard enough. “Generally most people work and they want to work. Maybe the problem is that no matter how hard they work they don't get enough money,” he elaborated. Other narratives included viewing society in terms of transactions and winning and losing, as well as the frequent need to assert legal rights.

Prof Goh also shared personal anecdotes on volunteering with underprivileged families, making a case for early intervention, for example, working with families to foster an environment where children can accumulate the social capital that will allow them to become more socially and economically mobile. Other possibilities included providing a quiet conducive place to study, removing causes of psychological trauma and distress, and nurturing more privileged students to help their peers.

It was a thought provoking evening that had many looking at issues from different perspectives and gaining a more holistic understanding of them, a goal of the annual forum which hopes to give a platform for youths to voice their opinions on social issues of importance.

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Guests were eager to hear the panellists' thoughts on various issues