Social mobility 'must be part of Singapore identity': Tharman

Society here is more fluid but keeping it that way will become tougher: Tharman

Someone who comes from a low-income background has a better chance of making it to the ranks of the richest in Singapore than in the United States, Britain or the Scandinavian countries.

But while society is more fluid here than in other advanced societies, sustaining this mobility will become more challenging as the country matures.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday said social mobility "has to be part of our Singapore identity", as he sketched out the Government's efforts to build a fair and inclusive society.

Wrapping up the Budget debate in Parliament, he said: "Social mobility is the defining challenge in every advanced country today. We're fortunate that Singapore has so far done relatively well. It is actually still a more fluid society than most."

Among young adults in their mid-20s to early 30s in Singapore, 14 per cent of those from families in the poorest one-fifth have moved into the top one-fifth of income earners, he said.

This compares with 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in Britain. Even in the Scandinavian countries, reputed for their comprehensive social welfare programmes, only about 10 per cent to 12 per cent of those in the lowest income quintile end up among the richest one-fifth.

Citing these figures yesterday, Mr Tharman said that sustaining social mobility will be more difficult as society gets more settled.

"But we want to give the best chance for someone who starts off with a low-income background or middle-income background to move up," he said.

To do so, the Government has been deliberately putting in place six initiatives in the past eight years that aim to help Singaporeans at every stage of their life.

First, it has made a good education available to all, he said.

Enhancing social mobility "means starting earlier, finding every way to help every kid who has a weak start to gain confidence and to get a strong start".

To this end, the Government has increased spending on education, made school fees more affordable, and is creating more different paths to success, Mr Tharman said.

A second initiative has been to promote home ownership.

Stressing that it is especially critical to help young people own a home, he noted that the Government has built more HDB flats and given out more housing grants, among other things.

These measures are "unmatched" in nearby cities such as Shanghai, Seoul and Sydney, he said. "Homes are more within the reach of our young than they are in any other leading Asian city."

A third move to preserve social mobility is by helping Singaporeans upgrade their skills and fulfil their potential at every stage of their lives, said Mr Tharman.

He said initiatives such as SkillsFuture, which he described as a "major force for social mobility", are precisely for that purpose. The programme pays for Singaporeans to learn new skills.

Fourth, the Government has "taken significant moves to temper inequality", said Mr Tharman.

Over the years, it has introduced various measures to redistribute income and shrink the rich-poor gap. These include Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to help raise the income of low-wage workers, and GST Vouchers to help poorer families cope with living costs.

The fifth move is to provide older Singaporeans with "greater assurance in old age" so they "can make the most of life".

The Government has offered companies incentives to hire and retain older workers, and is giving more help to low-income retirees.

One of this year's Budget measures, Silver Support, will help in "tempering inequalities through life" by giving the poorest elderly folk cash payouts for life.

Lastly, the Government has also made it easier for people to pitch in to help one another, by encouraging donations through tax breaks and matching grants.

"If you take it all together, it has been a set of major moves at every stage of life, strengthening our policies, providing greater assurance and opportunities in education, in work, in health care, in retirement," said Mr Tharman.

yuenc@sph.com.sg