Society must keep social networks open: PM

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 May 16.

He says MOE to ensure popular schools do not become self-perpetuating, closed circles

The Education Ministry will work with Raffles Institution (RI) and other popular schools to ensure that they do not become self-perpetuating, closed circles, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Announcing this yesterday, PM Lee recounted an anecdote he heard from Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. Over the years, RI has become less diverse, and its new principal Frederick Yeo has sought to encourage parents of potential students in primary schools across the island to apply to RI.

But some parents baulked at doing so - because they feared their children would not be able to fit in with the more well-off students, said PM Lee.

This fear is unfounded, as RI students come from varied backgrounds, said PM Lee. Over half - 53 per cent - of its students live in public housing. Bursaries and scholarships are readily available.

"But if such a perception exists and discourages promising students from applying to the school, it is not good for RI, it is not good for Singapore," said PM Lee.

The Prime Minister was taking up on a theme that has emerged strongly in this week's debate on the President's Address.

Some MPs had warned about elite schools like RI becoming less diverse, as students from privileged backgrounds are more likely to get admitted by virtue of the head start they get in life.

Yesterday, PM Lee said social networks must always remain open and permeable. If they close up or form a glass ceiling, "not only would social mobility be frustrated, but soon the elite group would start to only look after its own interests, and fail in their duty to lead and to care for the rest of society".

"That would be disastrous for Singapore," he said.

In a pointed message to Singapore's elite - those who occupy key leadership positions in government, academia, business and the professions, PM Lee said they cannot allow their groups to become closed circles, where outsiders with talent or ability but lacking the right backgrounds and connections cannot enter.

For Singapore's meritocracy to work, it is vital that no obstacles prevent able people from moving up in life, PM Lee said. He outlined four key factors: Ensuring children have a good start regardless of family background, developing every talent to the fullest, providing opportunities to those with the right attitude and ability, and minimising impediments for capable people to move up.The last is the most difficult to sustain in the long term, he said, adding that the Government alone cannot bring it about. Society itself must be open.

Singapore, being young, has not seen entrenched notions of class and caste, which are common in older countries such as Britain and India, he added.

Citing accents, a social marker in Britain, for instance, Mr Lee said schools here teach students to speak good English to avoid such distinctions. "Without everyone being proficient in speaking standard English, Singlish will become a class marker," he added.

Lifestyle choices, such as holiday spots and dress, can also become separators in society, he said.To counter this, Singaporeans should emphasise their commonalities. "We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well-off and privileged," he said.

But the general tone here is still one of restraint, he noted, adding to laughter: "If you wear a chunky gold watch and dress flashily, instead of being impressed, people may think you are a loan shark!

"That is as it should be."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Society must keep social networks open: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe