SINGAPORE - Tackling inequality is a national priority, with social stratification already threatening cohesiveness, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (May 15).
In one of the strongest statements by a government leader about the issue, he said a lot more needs to be done to develop even more pathways and opportunities in the education and training systems, and to change people's mindset about academic qualifications.
To this end, the Government will actively look out for fresh ideas and try out interesting and promising solutions, he said, but this does not necessarily mean making major changes and undoing what has worked well in the past.
"We must be bold and we must also be wise," he said, pledging to "put our ears close to the ground" to listen to views from all segments of society.
Mr Ong invited people to offer their ideas on how to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots, saying: "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 and be able to defend well publicly."
He said: "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 keeping Singapore together."
Inequality has featured heavily in the first two days of the parliamentary debate over the President's Address, which started on Monday.
President Halimah Yacob's speech at Parliament's reopening last week, drafted by the fourth-generation ministers, had highlighted it as a problem to be dealt with "vigorously".
Focusing on the issue in his speech, Mr Ong said Singapore's transformation from third world to first has brought prosperity to people, but also created new problems and new forms of inequalities.
He cited three problems which he said have been made worse by the success of existing policies:
- Material progress is getting increasingly difficult for the middle class, given the high base now
- Stratification risks becoming entrenched with families that are faring well passing down the privileges to their children, and low-income families finding it difficult to uplift themselves
- Some among the higher-income segment are becoming socially distant from the rest, with groups predominantly forming along sociology-economic status
Sketching out what the Government has done to counter these developments - such as boosting pre-school education to better help children from disadvantaged families, and introducing SkillsFuture to encourage the recognition of skills - Mr Ong said the results of such policies will bear fruit in the years to come.
He also cautioned against implementing universal welfare as a solution to inequality, saying that it could undermine people's motivation, and also result in higher taxes.
"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," he said.
But he stressed that each country's situation with inequality is different, adding that it is important to "unpack the issues" to understand how to fix the problem.
He set out the four dimensions of inequality - the income gap in society; the distribution in the middle; whether there is social mobility; and whether different groups mix with one another.
Elaborating on each in turn to explain how inequality is playing out in Singapore, he sought to show that the situation was not as dire as in other countries.
While studies elsewhere have shown that gross domestic product growth exacerbates the income gap, Singapore's experience has been to the contrary - the fall in the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, coincided with periods of growth, said Mr Ong.
"The reason is because ours is a model of inclusive growth that benefitted the masses, where there is tripartite co-operation between workers, employers and Government. And when there is a belief that we share the fruits of success, we all eat from the same rice bowl," he added.
On social mobility, a Ministry of Finance study comparing the incomes of young Singaporeans in their 30s to the incomes of their parents, also found that 14 per cent of those with parents in the lowest income quintile managed to move up to the top quintile of income earners, he cited.This rate is much higher than the 7.5 per cent in the United States, 9 per cent in Britain, and about 12 per cent in Denmark.
"In many developed countries, inequality had been characterised by stagnation-of wages and economic opportunities for the masses. Median incomes stayed still. There is a growing underclass," said Mr Ong.
He said: "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."