Watch out for emerging faultlines rising from ideological and regional rifts

How is Singapore divided? Let us count the ways.

First, there are the established faultlines of race, language and religion.

The existential facts of Singapore society have not changed for our diverse, multi-faith, multi-ethnic community. Most of us are immensely proud of our polyglot yet coherent national identity, but we recognise that differences in worldviews remain.

Established rifts are like tectonic faultlines deep in the earth: they exist; we adapt; and we build civilisation around them. The greatest danger is to see only the surface and forget the rifts underneath.

Second, there are "recognised rifts": newer social divisions that have been recognised and are being dealt with, as the government adapts its policies to bridge these gaps.

These include the income gap, being tackled by the Workfare Income Supplement; setting minimum starting wages in the cleaning and security sectors; and getting companies to raise productivity to boost wages. Taxes have also been shifted to weight the burden more on the high-income group.

Another "recognised rift" is the gap in educational performance and opportunity between children from privileged homes and those from less advantaged homes. Broad-based pre-school subsidies help address this opportunity gap, as does the Education Ministry's attempt to level up all schools so there is no "bad" school anywhere. But more can be done to help level up poor children and those from broken families.

Even as Singapore recognises and grapples with established and recognised rifts, it must also keep a lookout for emerging rifts in our small, yet highly diverse and increasingly complex society.

I would argue that there are two sets of emerging rifts we ignore to our future peril: ideological rifts and regional divides.

In a recent thoughtful article for The Straits Times, Professor Tommy Koh asked if there is an ideological cleavage in Singapore. He concluded that there is still a consensus to support free trade and investment, meritocracy and free enterprise in Singapore. But there is a rejection of the "market society", he observed. "People want to see a greater emphasis on fairness in our society."

I agree with Prof Koh that people want more fairness.

But I also fear that there is a growing divergence in worldview centred on precisely that point: People have a different view of what constitutes fairness. And whether or not people think a system is fair depends on their life opportunities and their life prospects. That holds whether the system they have in mind is the current one of meritocracy in school, balloting of public housing, or access to subsidised health care.

The healthy will probably consider it unfair to pay higher premiums to subsidise the unhealthy.

Parents of straight-A students will find it unfair if their kids are denied the last place in a brand-name school that has been reserved for kids who exhibit special characteristics of drive, resilience or leadership from less advantaged homes.

As for housing, which is fairer? Build five-room subsidised flats first for a young couple in their 20s, who have good jobs paying a joint monthly income of $10,000, so they can move out of their respective parents' condos to set up home together?

Or give priority to building two-room subsidised flats so that a woman in her 50s with no family, who never married because she was caring for aged sick parents before they died, who earns $2,000 a month of which $800 goes to a rental room, can have a home?

Ironically, as the Government becomes more flexible in its policies, responding to and adapting to a more diverse set of needs, the contestation and competition among citizens to have their special needs attended to and prioritised will get stronger. And each group will argue: It's only fair to attend to me.

As for regional rifts, I have long wondered if geography will become another divide, if the part of Singapore we live in shapes our education and job choice, health and outlook.

Enclaves can of course be good things, although over-concentrations of people can pose law-and-order problems. Enclaves give rise to identity and interesting local culture. Think of Little India and Geylang, with foreign workers, food and booze. Joo Chiat's food haunts; Tiong Bahru's un-self-conscious urban chic charm; or Holland Village's cosmopolitan-heartland buzz.

Beyond these known enclaves, are there other regional rifts? For example, in areas in the west of the island close to industrial estates, is the air quality worse? Do western denizens suffer worse health outcomes? As regional health clusters develop, this data can be gleaned.

Are regional variations developing in income trends? Household structure? Ideological views? Are there more low-income people living in Jurong West than in the central and eastern districts? Are there differences in school performance by region?

If so, what are the implications?

Some of these data can be found on the government's onemap portal, a geospatial initiative that breaks down population data by planning area.

Indeed, it shows there are many more people whose monthly income is below $1,500 in Jurong West (31,382) than in Tanglin (479). But the west doesn't have an undue concentration of low-income workers. The clearer pattern is that many low-income workers live far from the city centre, in Bedok (33,469) and Woodlands (28,867). Near the city centre, Bukit Merah, a very old Housing Board estate, is an exception with its 21,510 low-wage workers.

This throws up another emerging rift: that between people who can afford life in the city and its fringes and those relegated to the more far-flung heartland estates.

Will higher-paying jobs in the city centre be out of reach of those in Jurong West and Woodlands, no thanks to long commutes? If some get jobs in swanky Orchard, are food options there affordable?

As Bukit Merah's Housing Board residents age and die, will it be only the very rich who will be able to afford living in the city-centre, given the absence of new public housing?

In Singapore's early years, racial riots erupted, aided by race-based living enclaves. HDB estates then sprang up, and have become bastions of communities that cut across race, religion and income.

It's important, as Singapore's city-centre becomes ever more global and cosmopolitan - and pricey - that attention is paid to emerging geospatial rifts. Big Data can tell us stories about those emerging rifts. But first we must be looking for them to spot the trends.

muihoong@sph.com.sg