Working towards a more equal society

This is an excerpt from a speech by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament yesterday, during the second day of debate on the President's Address. He described inequality as "unfinished business" that Singapore has to tackle. He then identified four dimensions of inequality:

 • Income gap - the difference between the top and bottom income segments;

 • The strength of the middle core: This looks at median income and income distribution between the extremes, to see if a society has a strong middle-income core;

 • How dynamic or static this distribution is, and whether there is mobility, especially from the bottom upwards; and

 • While accepting that there is inevitable income disparity in every society, do different groups interact well with one another?

Or as he summed it up: The four dimensions are gap, core, churn and mix. In the excerpt below, he elaborates on what more Singapore can do to tackle inequality, especially via the education system.

In many developed countries, inequality has been characterised by stagnation - of wages and economic opportunities for the masses. Median incomes stayed still. There is a growing underclass.

In Singapore, our median income is still rising. Low-and middle-income families continue to experience real income growth and social mobility. Singaporeans have been enjoying a rising standard of living and are motivated to do well. This is both a result of our culture, who we are, as well as our public policies.

But transforming from Third World to First has created new problems and new forms of inequalities.

 • First, a rising middle class which aspires to do even better, but material progress is getting increasingly difficult, given our high base;

 • Second, some low-income families find it difficult to uplift themselves, and stratification risks becoming entrenched; and

 • Third, some among the higher-income segment are becoming socially distant from the rest.

Some think that universal welfare can be a solution to all these problems.

What does universal welfare mean? This means making assistance broadly and easily accessible not just to the low-income, but also the middle-income. Proponents argued that with universal welfare, there will be no stigma associated with social assistance, and the dignity of the low-income will be preserved.

A few countries have implemented universal welfare. But make no mistake, no handout is actually free. Someone has to pay for it. To support universal welfare, taxes need to go up. For these countries, average income tax on a typical worker is about 30 per cent. The goods and services tax (GST) is typically 20 per cent to 25 per cent. In Singapore, half of our population do not pay personal income taxes, and GST is still single digit. If we want universal welfare, taxes on ordinary folks, including the middle-income, will have to be much higher.

But the greater concern is the impact on motivation. I noticed Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) also alluded to it, and this is a concern that should not be dismissed.

One young man left a comment on my Facebook page. His name is Chee Kian. He is a teacher. His father was a taxi driver, his mother a cleaner. He said: "I benefited from the meritocratic system in Singapore… I worked hard through the education system to achieve what I am today… However, I notice that it is getting harder for poorer students to break through the system like (in) the past as privileged kids garner (many) advantages since young... and stay ahead… (We need to) bridge the gap between the rich and the under privileged through education so that more Singaporeans are able to succeed through working hard."

This is a young man who clearly empathises with the challenges of the low-income. But his solution was for the system to enable people to help themselves, not welfare.

What's the difference? We make help available to them, but we also preserve their motivation, so that they continue to strive, instead of being passive recipients of welfare.

At MOE kindergartens, where one-third of places are set aside for children from low-income families, the children do not just study and train academically, says Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. They learn through play and conversations. Through these
At MOE kindergartens, where one-third of places are set aside for children from low-income families, the children do not just study and train academically, says Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. They learn through play and conversations. Through these activities, they develop confidence, social skills, as well as a foundation in literacy and numeracy. ST FILE PHOTO

Members of this House have worked with the low-income families and understand their plight. But let's not forget the ethnographies of those like Chee Kian, who worked hard and bounced back, thanks to the social trampoline we have.

The Government must continue to extend assistance to the disadvantaged, and it will. But making handouts easy and unconditional is not dignity. Self-reliance is.


What can we do in the next phase, especially for education?

How should we do it?

The phrase "bold changes" in the President's Address received a lot of attention. While we should be bold, we should not be reckless - for this would undo what had worked, undermine the fundamentals of our system, and what has served students well in the past.

We must be bold and we must also be wise. To do this, we need to put our ears close to the ground, and listen to the voices of all segments of Singaporeans. And if we listen close enough, we will also realise that the "voice of the people" does not deliver a singular message - rather, it offers a diversity of views, conflicting and complex, even as they remain compelling.

Take for example the call for streaming to be abolished.

The argument is that it will remove the label and the stigma of the Normal streams.

But we also need to put ourselves in the students' shoes. We cannot assume students all want to be in the Express stream. Some prefer the pace of learning in the Normal streams. Many students will tell you they prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond, rather than a small fish in a bigger pond. Many students in the Normal (Technical) course also like the more applied and hands-on curriculum, which they feel plays to their strengths.

We cannot ignore how these students feel. Stigma is not an education policy, but a result of our own attitudes and biases.

There is also the call for the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) to be abolished so that we take away the stress and the unfairness, because those from better family backgrounds can afford additional help and prepare their children better for the examinations.

But if you speak to enough parents, you also realise that many support the PSLE system. Because the PSLE experience teaches their children to work hard, and to demonstrate what they have learnt throughout their primary school years.

Many parents are also not overly stressed by it, because they don't see PSLE as an exercise to chase for high marks but, rather, as an objective and transparent way to decide which secondary schools their children will go to. And for many families and students from humble backgrounds, PSLE is their way to do well and go to a school of their choice. The alternative, which is to go by residential location, is even more unfair.

From 2021, we will replace the PSLE T-score system with wider Achievement Levels. With this change, we will not differentiate students so finely for Secondary 1 posting.

If the scores are no longer so fine, how do we then allocate secondary school places? For students with the same scores, we will use tie-breakers - citizenship first, then your choice and, finally, ballot. I am confident that this will reduce the stress of students and help them enjoy learning more.

This is a big-step change, and it is coming in three years' time.


We also heard many considered views and arguments on how we can improve the education system, better help the disadvantaged, and we have acted on them. We will see results in the coming years.

One strong view which has resulted in a consensus over the years is that one of the best ways to help children from lower-income families is through quality pre-school education. These are their formative years, and will have lasting impact.

We have been growing the capacity and quality of the pre-school sector, including introducing MOE (Ministry of Education) kindergartens, where one-third of places are set aside for children from low-income families.

At MOE kindergartens, children do not just study and train academically. They learn through play and conversations. Through these activities, they develop confidence, social skills, as well as a foundation in literacy and numeracy.

We heard the voices of people such as Ms Denise Phua, who has always championed a programme-based, rather than class-based, approach, to cater to the different learning needs and interests of students.

And so we are ensuring more porosity between such classes and streams. For students in the Normal stream, we introduced subject-based banding where they can attend certain classes together with students in the Express stream. We introduced the Polytechnic Foundation Programme where good-performing students in the Normal (Academic) stream can articulate directly to polytechnics, and they did very well. I think more can be done in this area.

We received so much feedback about stress in the system and too much rote learning. So over the years, our curriculum and pedagogies have continuously evolved.

Non-essential curriculum was cut down drastically. Long gone are the days where students are expected to do well just by memorisation. Today, primary school students face their first examinations only at the end of Primary 2. We embedded 21st-century competencies, which are critical soft skills, into the curriculum.

The way higher education is being delivered in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and universities has been drastically transformed, and is nothing like what parents remember them to be.

We have also put in place more help for the young from vulnerable families.

KidStart builds all-round support for these children. The Ministry of Social and Family Development has roped in social workers, counsellors, nurses, paediatricians and educators to provide holistic support to these children. The target is to help 1,000 children over a period of a three-year pilot programme.

In lower primary, we will continue our efforts, including through the Learning Support Programme. Through the programme, which is conducted in small groups of eight to 10, we dedicate resources to help weaker students.

This is why even though our student-to-teacher ratio is at the levels of other developed countries, MOE has refrained from implementing a general reduction in form class sizes.

Smaller form classes across the board can be beneficial to students, but it will deprive weaker students of the more dedicated support that we are able to provide today. So embedded in our class size practice is also our social compact.

After-school environments matter too. Students need a supervised and secure environment to complete their homework, study for tests, and seek counsel and guidance. By 2020, there will be student care centres in all primary schools.

Admission policies greatly affect diversity in our schools.

For Primary 1 registration, 40 places in each school are set aside for Phases 2B and 2C - which are for children who do not have prior direct connections to the school.

From next year, secondary schools with affiliated primary schools will have to ring-fence 20 per cent of the places for students without affiliation.

We also work with many community partners. The major education and assistance programmes are funded and run by the Government in an ethnically neutral way. Self-help groups complement the effort by reaching out to vulnerable members of their communities, and offer additional help.

Let me share two stories. First, Madam Sharinna Tan, a single parent to four children. They used to live in a one-room rental flat in Bukit Merah. Madam Tan worked as a part-time clerk earning about $1,000 a month.

Various organisations - government agencies, The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, public hospitals - stepped in to assist her. CDAC - the Chinese Development Assistance Council - reached out to her, and her children benefited from one-to-one tuition under the Supervised Homework Group Programme.

Today, Madam Tan is working as a sales coordinator, earning about $2,000 a month. She is the proud owner of a two-room Housing Board flat. Her eldest son just graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and won an award for the most outstanding academic performance in his course. Her other three children are studying in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, ITE and secondary school, and are all coping well.

The second story is of Mr Hairul Hakkim Khuthibutheen.

When he was 14, his father passed away. The family downgraded their flat. The mother had to return to the workforce to support the family. She worked as a factory operator and a service staff member in a fast-food chain.

Mr Hairul received help from various schemes, including Mendaki, Sinda (Singapore Indian Development Association) and bursaries from the Muslim Trust Fund. That helped him to complete his studies. He graduated as the top student of the NUS (National University of Singapore) law faculty in 2016. Today, he is a justice law clerk at the Supreme Court.

These are two of many Singaporeans whom our system has helped.


Finally, one of the best counters against inequality is SkillsFuture. If meritocracy is confined to academic excellence; success is defined narrowly as being a university graduate holding a professional or managerial position; then pathways will be limited, possibilities reduced and opportunities curtailed.

There is a pertinent question in Chinese: Why ask an entire army to cross a river using a single plank? Why can't we have many pathways to success?

In Switzerland, 35 per cent of youth go to universities, while the rest enrol in upper-secondary vocational and apprenticeship training. Children, together with their parents, make those choices at a fairly young age, based on their talents and interests, with little or no stigma associated with any of the choices. The society respects everyone.

Through SkillsFuture, we want to help everyone discover their strengths and talents, build the pathways to help them achieve skills mastery, through lifelong learning and honing of their craft.

We have made some progress. Today, we can celebrate our children choosing to be a coder, cyber-security expert, chef, event organiser, creative designer, hospitality professional nurse, early childhood educator, film-maker or craftsman. And they have to undergo the requisite training, not necessarily in a university. This was not the case 10 years ago.

But a lot more needs to be done.

We will have to develop even more pathways and opportunities within our education and training system.

Employers' hiring and human resource practices have to wake up to this new mindset. Some employers have and I applaud them. Societal mindset will take even longer to evolve.

We will continue to improve our policies and we will not stop at these measures. My invitation for ideas and suggestions remains open.

From the multitude of voices, we will discern that singularity of action, a choice that is right for Singapore, and one which we must explain well, persuade people of, and be able to defend publicly.

So bold moves need not always be major changes. They can be a change in a way of thinking, a spark to add to the Singapore flame.

This has to be supported by an entrepreneurial attitude towards tackling problems such as inequality. We will actively look out for fresh ideas, and try new solutions. If we come across an interesting and promising approach, we will be prepared to consider it, develop it further, run a pilot programme and assess how well it works.


I started this speech by committing ourselves to tackling the "unfinished business" of inequality. I do not mean that it will ever be finished. It will always remain a work in progress.

Today, we may be in a better situation than many other developed countries. But tackling inequality requires ceaseless striving. It was so for the first men and women who sat in this House when our country was mired in turbulence, violence and uncertainty.

Today, we live in an era of peace and prosperity. An era where much wealth has been created, but much inequality still exists.

To tackle this challenge, we must once again pledge ourselves, as one people, no matter the circumstances of our birth, no matter the luck of our draw, no matter the successes and failures that attend our lives - to create a more equal society.

We must keep working at it. We must do so by appealing to the sense of unity of Singaporeans; never by pitting one group against another, or pandering to the divisive forces in society.

Tackling inequality is not just a long-term challenge for tomorrow, but a national priority today. Fixing this is not the responsibility of any one segment of society. It demands something from all of us, because there is no more vital task than bringing Singapore and Singaporeans together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2018, with the headline 'Working towards a more equal society'. Print Edition | Subscribe