Friday, 8 June 2018

Differentiate between relative and absolute poverty to fight inequality

Associate Professor Teo You Yenn describes the desire for decent jobs, better housing and other conditions as "basic needs" (Let's talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity; May 30). These needs are absolute not relative.

Whether 10 per cent or all of the population have these needs unmet doesn't change the fact that our Government should strive to provide better jobs, better housing and better lives for the people.

Inequality does not change this.

When Singapore was young and undeveloped, there was less inequality, as many people were equally poor - in fact, it was probably even more urgent for the Government to make sure that basic needs were met, because more people could not meet them.

Just because inequality has worsened does not make these priorities any more or less important.

It is important to distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty when thinking about inequality because it affects the sort of policies we implement.

If we believe that absolute poverty should be ameliorated, policies should gear towards some redistribution to ensure that those at the bottom of society get a minimum standard of living.

The challenge for all societies is to define what that minimum standard is and how much to redistribute. These disagreements are the reason for divisions in political ideologies and parties.

Relative poverty, or inequality, is a lot more complicated.

One could, for the sake of a thought experiment, imagine a nation of millionaires where everyone's basic needs are met, but a predominance of billionaires causes income inequality to be very high.

In such a scenario, it would be absurd to argue for a redistribution of income to equalise outcomes.

However, it does not mean that all is well in such a state.

Inequality causes division and stratification in society.

In this instance, the right policy will not be redistribution per se, but rather, to reduce stratification.

For example, building better houses per se in such an imagined nation will not be as urgent as ensuring that people of all income levels reside in close proximity with one another, and are forced to interact.

The priority will not be to equalise outcomes, but to ensure that society remains cohesive.

It is, thus, imperative for us to think clearly about inequality and not mistake relative poverty for absolute poverty.

Mixing up the two will result in inappropriate policy responses that solve neither problem.

Calvin Cheng Ern Lee
ST Forum, 6 Jun 2018









Kindness in an age of elitism
There will always be haves and have-nots. But while the rich stay rich, it's their responsibility to help the less fortunate
By William Wan, Published The Straits Times, 15 Jun 2018

The recent national conversation on elitism and meritocracy has made for a robust public discourse, but one point deserves more attention - that perhaps social stratification is inevitable, and thus should not be the focus of our attention.

I am not ignorant of the plight of the underprivileged, nor do I mean that I do not believe in the concept of meritocracy and equality. But the reality is that wealth and social status are never equally distributed across all strata of society, no matter how hard one works. No matter how perfect government policies are, there will always be the haves and the have-nots, and very often the haves will have an easier path in life simply because of the family they were born into.

I do not advocate tearing this system apart in pursuit of an idealistic notion of equality and meritocracy. While the consensus is that social stratification is the antithesis of social harmony and inclusiveness, the crux of the matter is not that there are elites in our society, but that these elites conduct themselves uncaringly towards others.

Elitism is more than a privilege, it is also a responsibility. And the more elite you are, the heavier your responsibility. As the saying goes: "Much is given, much is required."

Without this mindset, the concept of meritocracy takes a perverse twist. It breeds the thinking that if you are not successful in life, it must be because you didn't work hard enough. This, too, is wrong. For every story of the son of a taxi driver becoming a millionaire, there is another about someone who did not receive the opportunity to excel because of the circumstances he was born into.

There is no denying that part of the reason why there is such a heated discourse on inequality is that some elites come across as uncaring and entitled. This is unfortunately exacerbated by the human tendency - reflected in social media - to spread stories about very bad behaviour, rather than stories about kind or good behaviour. If inequality as a social ill is the function of the haves mistreating the have-nots, the elites can help remove the perception of inequality by treating the have-nots with respect, kindness and consideration.

If the attitude among the elites is an uncaring judgment - "You are not me because you are lazy" - I suggest that it be changed to a caring question: "How can I help you get to a better place?"

In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the elites - whether one got there by hard work or by the hand of fate - to help others live as comfortable a life as possible. The elites' station in life is blessed with many privileges, and it is these privileges that enable them to have the resources and ability to help those who are less fortunate.

And to be fair, there are many instances where this is already happening. Some do it with charitable donations; others volunteer their time and expertise; and yet others set up organisations that offer opportunities for upward mobility. But is all that enough?

Well, no. And it should never be.

It is a commonplace narrative that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Arguably, the first part of the statement is due to the wealthy's relentless pursuit of profit, often at the expense of the poor.

If the pursuit of profit is never enough, then neither should the pursuit of avenues to help be considered adequate. If equitable time and resources are spent pursuing both, then surely we can move towards a new narrative where the rich stay rich while the poor get richer.

In an increasingly politically correct world, top educational institutes such as Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong now feel the need to be more "inclusive", with both trying to justify their values by stating that a percentage of their students come from lower-income households.

There is merit in that approach, of course. Creating a melting pot of youth with different family backgrounds will facilitate better integration, as they form lifelong friendships and helpful networks.

At the same time, however, it is impossible for kids from low-income families not to feel patronised when they are told that special efforts are needed to ensure their inclusion. It is understandable why institutions choose to take this approach - to placate those who feel the minority should have special consideration. But having rules that make allowances for a special group may not change underlying attitudes.

Having a law that requires a certain number of Housing Board flats to be reserved for minority races does indeed facilitate some degree of integration and racial harmony, just like schools' efforts to ensure some degree of social inclusiveness.

But if you truly wish for the barriers of race, religion and social status to be dismantled, you have to go beyond setting rules, and trust people to be able to embrace diversity on their own.

To do that requires the elite to be more other-centred, maybe even more so than the rest of society. Raffles Institution can, and should, carry on being an elite school. In return, the school should focus more on how to teach its students kindness, compassion, respect and consideration, and maybe even educate them on their responsibilities in being the future elite class.

If we can do that, then maybe stratification will cease to be such a social ill.

Dr William Wan is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.


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