SINGAPORE - Social networks are natural structures in society that form when people interact, but they must remain open and permeable, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (May 16).
If they close up, he warned, social mobility will be frustrated and the results would be disastrous for Singapore.
He said the elite would have failed in their duty if they do not ensure that those with talent and ability, but lacking the right backgrounds and connections, are welcomed into such networks and have a chance to rise to the top.
"If this happened, not only would social mobility be frustrated, but soon the elite group would start to only look after their own interests, and fail in their duty to lead and care for the rest of society," he added.
Mr Lee was speaking about the issue of social mobility, which has featured heavily in the debate on the President's Address, which started on Monday. Members of Parliament and ministers have suggested ideas and spoken about the Government's work to ensure people can move upwards, in light of the dangers of growing inequality.
Many had warned about elite schools such as Raffles Institution (RI) and Raffles Girls' School becoming less diverse, with students from privileged backgrounds congregating there by virtue of the head start they get in life.
Mr Lee, sharing an anecdote told to him by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, said some parents had balked at sending their children to RI, even though they could make the cut, for fear that they would not be able to fit in with the more well-off students.
He said this fear was unfounded as RI students still come from varied backgrounds, and just about half of its students live in public housing.
He pledged that the Ministry of Education will work with popular schools to ensure they never become self-perpetuating, closed circles.
"No parents need to worry that they can't afford to send their child to RI, or that their child will feel out of place," he said.
Focusing on the role of society's elite - who occupy key leadership positions in government, academia, business, and the professions - Mr Lee said they have a responsibility to keep their social networks open and must not form glass ceilings.
While such networks are an important part of a country's social capital and are useful for people to know one another and to get things done informally, they also share a collective sense of responsibility to society, he added.
Ensuring there are no obstacles to able people moving up in life is crucial if Singapore's meritocracy is to work, he said.
"Individual Singaporeans must see progress in their lives, must feel that the future is bright, and must know that each one of us has a stake in it," he added.
He outlined four factors which are required for meritocracy to work: ensuring that every child has a good start in life regardless of the family they are born into; recognising and developing every talent to the fullest; making sure opportunity is open to people with the right attitude and ability; and minimising the social impediments to capable people being accepted and becoming leaders in society.
The last factor is the most difficult to maintain in the long term, he said, adding that it is beyond the Government's ability to bring about alone.
"Society itself has to be open and permeable," he said.
Acknowledging that societies tend to stratify after some time, he said that Singapore, being a relatively young country of 50 years, has not seen entrenched notions of class and caste which are common in older countries such as Britain and India.
He urged people to ensure that social cues, markers and norms, which are still evolving, do not contribute to class divisions and rigidities, here.
Citing the example of Britain, where a person's accent can define his or her status in society, Mr Lee said schools here teach students to speak good English to avoid such distinctions. "Without everyone being proficient in English, Singlish will become a class marker," he said.
Lifestyle choices, such as where people go for holidays and how they dress, can also become separators in society, he said.
To maintain social cohesion in Singapore, people should emphasise their commonalities and be discouraged from flaunting their social advantages.
"We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well off or privileged," he said.
But the general tone in Singapore is still one of restraint, added Mr Lee, saying to laughter: "If you wear a chunky gold watch and dress flashily, instead of being impressed, people may think you are a loan shark! This is as it should be!"