The Straits Times says

Keeping a class divide here at bay

A recent study suggests that Singapore has shifted from a society based on race to one based also on class. While the first half of that revelation is good news for a multiracial society, the second half is not. Hence the need for citizens to take an introspective look at the results of the Institute of Policy Studies' Study On Social Capital In Singapore. It shows that Singaporeans who live in public housing have, on average, about one friend or fewer living in private housing. In spite of the vast majority of Singaporeans living in public housing, private-housing dwellers have more ties with others who live in private homes than with those who live in public flats. People who study in elite schools also tend to be less close to those in non-elite schools, and vice versa. Education and housing being two important markers of social identity, it is important to acknowledge the problem of class divisiveness before it grows into a runaway national problem.

A distinction must be made between income divisions and class consciousness. The first are natural in a market economy, which rewards winning capabilities unequally, as it must. Indeed, social hierarchies are natural in any system. Even the former communist states of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and Vietnam were characterised by the existence of political elites who wielded a disproportionate amount of power and enjoyed a corresponding degree of social privilege, not in cash but in kind. That, too, was class in operation in all but name.

However, all societies, no matter what their political complexion, must guard against the emergence of class consciousness and resultant claims to social exclusivity and entitlement. The danger is that income divides will get entrenched, be passed down the generations, and calcify over time into insurmountable gaps in social status. Winners in such a system delude themselves into believing that the rest of society owes them a position of privilege because of their wealth or merit. Soon, a charmed circle forms, entry to which is guarded by jealous ties of family and class. Elites "capture" entry to good schools, which produce the next generation of elites, who send their children to the same schools, which perpetuate a self-serving system that moves towards oligarchies of education, wealth and status.

Singapore must never arrive at that sorry state. Official initiatives on preventing schools from becoming class enclaves, and efforts to promote social mixing among people from different backgrounds, are important. However, they must be complemented by Singaporeans themselves, particularly the better-off. They must treat the country as an economic and social ecosystem in which every part needs the others for its long-term survival and success. Social mobility and cohesion is in everyone's enlightened self-interest.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2018, with the headline 'Keeping a class divide here at bay'. Print Edition | Subscribe