Fighting inequality a national priority, says Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said a lot more needed to be done to develop even more pathways in the education and training systems.
Singapore’s education system will continue to adapt and evolve to prepare current and future generations of Singaporeans for a changing economy, said Minister Ong Ye Kung at the Debate on the President’s Address on May 15, 2018.
Singapore’s education system will continue to adapt and evolve to prepare current and future generations of Singaporeans for a changing economy, said Minister Ong Ye Kung at the Debate on the President’s Address on May 15, 2018.PHOTO: GOV.SG

Social stratification threatening cohesiveness already, so a lot more needs to be done, he says

The task of tackling inequality has taken on a greater urgency, with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung describing it as a national priority in the strongest statement yet by a government leader on the issue.

Social stratification - when people are grouped based on how rich or poor they are - is already threatening cohesiveness in Singapore, and a lot more needs to be done not just to bridge the divide but to help people move upwards and encourage mixing, he said in Parliament.

To this end, he pledged that the Government will actively look out for fresh ideas and try out new and promising solutions.

"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," he said.

MPs have zoomed in on inequality during the debate on the President's Address, which started on Monday. President Halimah Yacob's speech at Parliament's reopening last week highlighted it as a problem to be dealt with "vigorously", amid growing concern among Singaporeans.

Yesterday, Mr Ong said that while the situation here was not as dire as in other countries, Singapore's transformation from Third World to First has created new forms of inequalities. He cited three of them:

•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.

•Material progress is getting harder for the middle class, given the high base now.

•Some among the higher-income segment are becoming socially distant from the rest.

In promising bold moves, Mr Ong also sounded a note of caution, as he explained why calls for abolishing streaming and the Primary School Leaving Examination are not taken up. "We must be bold and we must also be wise," he said, warning that being reckless could undo what has worked well in the past.

Mr Ong stressed that each country's situation with inequality is different, adding that it is important to "unpack the issues". He set out four dimensions - the income gap, the strength of the middle-income core, social mobility, and social mix - elaborating on each to explain how inequality is playing out here.

Sketching out what the Government has done so far, he said the results of policies like SkillsFuture and boosting pre-school education will bear fruit in the years to come.

In a nod to MPs such as Ms Denise Phua, who have long championed a system to cater to different learning needs and interests, he said that changes have been made including cutting down on rote learning and ringfencing spots in schools for students without affiliation.

But a lot more still needs to be done to develop more pathways and opportunities in the education and training systems, he said. Employers' hiring practices also have yet to wake up to this new mindset, he added, noting: "Societal mindset will take even longer to evolve."

He said: "We will continue to improve our policies and we will not stop at these measures."

Tackling inequality, he said, is "unfinished business". It requires "ceaseless striving" in today's Singapore, where much wealth has been created but much inequality still exists, just as in the past when squatters coexisted with wealthy traders.

"It demands something from all of us, because there is no more vital task than bringing Singapore and Singaporeans together," he said.

MPs reacting to his speech said they were glad for the increased focus on tempering inequality. Rising to speak immediately, fourth-term MP Cedric Foo (Pioneer) said: " It's heartening to hear what kind of society... the 4G leadership intends to forge for the future of Singapore."

During the sitting, MPs also spoke about labour issues. In his maiden parliamentary speech as incoming labour chief, Mr Ng Chee Meng said he intends to focus on three groups of workers, including the elderly.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2018, with the headline 'Fighting inequality a national priority, says Ong Ye Kung'. Print Edition | Subscribe