Singapore fares well in health and education on global social mobility index

But it is below average for social protection and fair wage distribution: WEF report

In the Global Social Mobility Index, Singapore was the best performer in Internet access in schools, learning outcomes and the low proportion of disadvantaged students who reported lacking education material.
In the Global Social Mobility Index, Singapore was the best performer in Internet access in schools, learning outcomes and the low proportion of disadvantaged students who reported lacking education material.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singapore is ranked 20th among 82 economies for social mobility, but among South-east Asian nations, it is in the top spot, according to a new report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week.

Though it came in behind countries such as Japan, Germany and Australia, it fared better than the United States, Britain and China.

The ranking in the Global Social Mobility Index 2020 considers how countries scored on indicators across five areas: health, education, technology, work, and resilience and institutions.

The Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland are, in that order, the top five on the list in a report, launched to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the WEF's annual meeting in Davos this week, with income inequality as a focus.

Explaining the significance of the index, WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab said: "Traditionally, social mobility is measured across generations, thus capturing only the effect of measures taken decades ago.

"The (index) focuses on policies, practices and institutions that collectively determine the extent to which everyone in society has a fair chance to fulfil their potential", regardless of their background, he added.

Low social mobility has an opportunity cost, the report noted.

Everything being equal, if all countries increased their scores by 10 points, the resulting growth would convert into an additional US$514 billion (S$693 billion) for the global economy each year.

For Singapore, the increase would be US$2.4 billion.

Still, the Republic did especially well in health and education, coming up tops for inequality-adjusted healthy life expectancy, learning outcomes and the low proportion of disadvantaged students who reported lacking education material.

It was also the best performer in Internet access in schools, cooperation in labour-employer relations as well as government and public services efficiency.

 
 

But it was below average for social protection (61st) and fair wage distribution (51st).

Social protection indicators include guaranteed minimum income benefits, social protection spending and social safety net protection.

There is room for "significant improvement" in fair wages, said the report, noting that the income share of the bottom 50 per cent of the population represents only 25.7 per cent of that of the top 50 per cent.

The report also recommended that social diversity be expanded in Singapore schools.

In general, countries should shift towards policies that focus on protecting people throughout their working lives even if they move into non-standard work such as freelancing, said the report.

"There is an ongoing need to integrate workers following periods of inactivity such as long-term care responsibilities, protracted unemployment or migration," it added.

Businesses, too, should be more inclusive and promote a culture of meritocracy such as through omitting names, ages and locations from curricula vitae, and expanding their pool of candidates beyond top universities and traditional networks.

On social protection, Associate Professor Irene Ng of the National University of Singapore's Department of Social Work said Singapore's model anchors on developing individuals through investments in education, healthcare and housing, among others, rather than on giving handouts. This is to prevent dependency.

She added: "Such a system will naturally provide less protection than a system that guarantees a higher minimum standard of living, which then absorbs some beneficiaries who might be deemed 'undeserving'."

She added that one area of improvement could be to provide more and longer assistance for low-income earners in stagnant low-wage jobs or who are drifting from one contract-based job to another.

 
 

Associate Professor of economics Jamus Lim of ESSEC Business School suggested that instead of dismissing unemployment insurance entirely, Singapore could look at designing the system to encourage people to return to work, such as by requiring them to show evidence of job applications to receive benefits, or by imposing a sunset window on payouts so that they are less likely to choose long-term unemployment.

Singapore University of Social Sciences Associate Professor Randolph Tan said the Workfare system - which tops up the incomes of low-wage workers - is promising and can be further refined by linking it to achievements in skills upgrading.

Everything being equal, if all countries increased their scores by 10 points, the resulting growth would convert into an additional US$514 billion (S$693 billion) for the global economy each year.

For Singapore, the increase would be US$2.4 billion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore fares well in health and education'. Print Edition | Subscribe