Thinking Aloud

Class divide and inequality make for poor mix

It's hard to blame people for wanting to hang out with their own kind, but being insular can be a form of poverty

The first study on social capital carried out in Singapore suggest that the sharpest social divide may now be based on class, rather than race or religion. PHOTO: ST FILE

It took place a long time ago but my family still remembers the snub by a relative who said the road our home was on was so narrow, it was a tight fit for his car. He lived in a far fancier neighbourhood just off Orchard Road while we lived on the outskirts of town.

My parents had no response but an uncle who was present stepped in. He issued a sharp retort, saying: "C, don't complain that the road is narrow when it's your driving skill that's lacking."

That I still recall the exchange shows the sting of a class insult fades slowly. Class clearly divides, even within families.

And that gap has come to the fore of late with the release of the first study on social capital to be carried out here. Its findings suggest that the sharpest social divide in Singapore may now be based on class, rather than race or religion.

Some 3,000 citizens and permanent residents were asked about their social networks for the study by the Institute of Policy Studies. Its researchers found that people were able to easily name a friend of a different gender or age, and even race or religion, but they more rarely named someone from another class.

The two markers of class used were school and housing type. The study found that someone who lives in private housing has ties to an average of 3.05 people who live in private homes and 2.6 people who live in public housing. That's despite the vast majority of people - about 80 per cent - living in HDB homes. Someone who lives in public housing has ties to an average of 4.3 people who live in public housing and 0.8 people who live in private housing.

As for schools, someone who went to an elite school has ties to an average of 2.7 people who went to an elite school and 2.1 people who went to a non-elite school. Someone who went to a non-elite school has ties to an average of 3.9 people who went to a non-elite school and 0.4 people who went to an elite school.


What has social capital got to do with such ties and why does it matter?

Social capital is defined by the OECD as the "networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups". The OECD is an intergovernmental organisation that studies policies and tracks socio-economic progress worldwide.

Despite debates over how best to measure social capital, the concept is drawing interest among politicians and policymakers due to rising concern over marginalisation in societies. Recent events, including the Brexit vote and Mr Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, have shown that the sense of marginalisation among significant segments in developed societies is a problem now too big to ignore.

"The knowledge economy," the OECD says in a book on human capital in its Insights series, "puts a premium on human capital and can worsen the job prospects of people with limited education, who are also often the least well-off in our societies." Some analysts speak of the emergence of an "underclass" in developed countries, a group that is outside the mainstream of society and has little chance of re-entering it, both because of a lack of human capital and, arguably, the "right" sort of social capital.

"Indeed, that twin absence may not be a coincidence. A case can be made that human capital and social capital are inextricably linked."

This is the broader context against which it makes sense to keep tabs on social capital here. The emergence of a class divide is hardly surprising given how Singapore society measures success in terms of material wealth and educational achievements.

Who can blame people for wanting to hang out with others who share their lifestyle, interests and outlook? The similarities help ease conversation and aid understanding.

Socialising also tends to take place within structures that limit chances for inter-class mingling, and that includes elite schools, country clubs and professional associations. As a child, I learnt how to swim in a public pool but I have not stepped into one since I could afford a club membership. Even religious organisations can be segmented along class lines; a church in the HDB heartlands looks and feels very different from one in a landed estate.

While it is hard to fault individuals for mixing mainly with their own kind, at the national level, such a trend bears watching, given significant income inequality and slowing social mobility. That mix could well sow class tensions.

A quick check of household incomes gives a sense of how large the gap is between top and bottom. Government data from 2016 shows that the Gini coefficient - a measure of income inequality - fell last year and households across the board enjoyed real increases in income from work per member.

And yet, the average monthly household income from work per household member for the top 10 per cent of households was $12,773, and for the 10 per cent of households just below that, it was $5,958. By contrast, the average monthly household income from work per household member for the bottom 10 per cent of households was $543 and for the 10 per cent of households just above that, it was $1,064.

Given the wide income gap, do the privileged in society have a duty to reach out to the rest of society? Raffles Institution principal Chan Poh Meng believes they do. In August 2015, he issued a timely warning against insularity when he said RI had become a middle-class school catering largely to affluent families and was no longer truly representative of Singapore.

Observing that Singapore's meritocracy was working less well than it used to, he said wealthier families have been able to give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment classes, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination(PSLE) no longer being the level playing field they once were. RI has also long measured its success by how high its PSLE cut-off was, how many Olympiads it won and the number of top scholarships and places in Oxbridge and Ivy League universities its students secured but that risked making it "insular - a school unto ourselves".

"A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face," Mr Chan said. "RI has become a middle-class school - that is the current reality. What matters more now is what we do with this reality and this knowledge."

That is the crux of the challenge - how to get people to mix more across class lines? To do so takes effort, and requires folk to act almost against their instinct about how best to make sure they and their families get ahead in this competitive society.

Experts have suggested more volunteer, sports, arts and heritage activities to deepen community ties and bring together people of different backgrounds. Elite schools also need to think harder about how to ensure diversity in their student population, as well as devise ways to get their students to mix with those of a different socio-economic background.

But with everyone so time-starved, is it realistic to expect people to make time for such activities? Even as these doubts surfaced, a colleague offered a different way to frame the issue.

To live in a class bubble - elite or otherwise - is to suffer a poverty of experience, she said, because the world is made up of people of many different backgrounds. She has friends at both extremes: those who are very class-conscious and those who are not. It was obvious to her that the latter led lives rich in meaning and friendship.

That strikes me as a persuasive argument for reaching out to others who are different from us, even if the initial contact is discomfiting. The value of these human connections may well be priceless.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline Class divide and inequality make for poor mix. Subscribe