Inequality confers innate advantages on the rich

General view of the Singapore skyline.
General view of the Singapore skyline.PHOTO: ST FILE

The opinion piece by Mr Yaron Brook and Mr Don Watkins (Why we should care less about inequality in S'pore, June 1), however thought-provoking, fails to recognise the realities of poverty and inequality in Singapore.

Despite Singapore's outward affluence, poverty continues to exist. Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, at the Institute of Policy Studies' conference last year, highlighted that while absolute poverty numbers are low, an estimated 20 per cent to 35 per cent of our households live in relative poverty - with income below 50 per cent of the median income.

Poverty is exacerbated by inequality, which widens the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots". This growing gap is concerning, because research has found it to be socially corrosive and potentially divisive.

While meritocracy has been our de facto principle for social mobility, it has become increasingly difficult to level the playing field because higher-income families are better able to provide their children with a head start through their economic, social and cultural capital.

On the ground, we continue to encounter families who face challenges with putting three simple meals a day on the table, giving school pocket money to their children or even buying a pair of school shoes for their children.

Inequality also puts a dampener on the aspirations and world views of these children. Labels such as "low motivation" conveniently become the disguise for the children's poor academic performance.

Can we, in good conscience, say it is because of their personal lack of effort and merit that they do not do well?

Most people are not asking for a redistribution of income that equalises outcomes but, rather, hoping to see lower-income families have their basic needs met, that they retain their dignity, and that their children break out of the poverty cycle.

Mr Brook and Mr Watkins, who lean very heavily on an "individualising discourse", completely omit the advantages that inequality confers on some families over others.

Such a mindset keeps us inward-looking and unable to ask the right questions about poverty and inequality and, ultimately, makes us poorer for it as a society.

We need to move beyond economic models and theories.

A good place to start is to delve into the ethical question of what vision we want for our society, and to ask ourselves if we are truly prepared to look the other way in the face of mounting inequality.

Alfred Tan Chwee Seng

Chief Executive Officer

Singapore Children's Society

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2019, with the headline 'Inequality confers innate advantages on the rich'. Print Edition | Subscribe