Sunday, 22 April 2018

Singapore tackling inequality early from pre-school: K. Shanmugam

Stepped-up spending in sector to give every child a good start and chance to succeed
By Jose Hong, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2018

Just as it casts its shadow over the rest of the world, inequality also remains one of the most serious issues now facing Singapore - with one difference.

Here the Government wants to tackle it early and believes that the best chance of addressing it is during a child's pre-school years, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

The idea is to give every child a good start and the chance to succeed right from the beginning, he said. That is why the Government is levelling the playing field by providing more assistance to those in danger of being left behind during the pre-school years.

It will double spending on the pre-school sector to $1.7 billion by 2022 and open 40,000 more childcare places by then, said Mr Shanmugam.

Explaining the rationale behind this approach, he said that while Singapore remains wedded to meritocracy, children have different starting points in life.

"At the point of birth, there is already a gap. That gap widens because of the difference in the families. And inequality will manifest itself in many intangible ways," he said. "Therefore, the pre-school years are crucial - the best chance that the Government has to give our children a good start… and a decent chance to succeed in life and to close the inequality gap."

Those from less privileged backgrounds have limited networks and fewer opportunities to develop their talents.

The Government is now stepping in to offer these opportunities.

"The focus should be on lifting up others, not penalising those who have done well," said Mr Shanmugam. He was speaking at Our Tampines Hub at the launch of the Red Cross Junior club, a programme by the Singapore Red Cross and early childhood education specialist Kidz Meadow, which teaches five-to six-year-olds first aid skills.

He used the occasion to stress that it was from early childhood onwards that inequality, an issue looming globally, needed to be tackled.

The challenge here is even greater. He said that in a small country like Singapore, the richest live in bungalows while the poorest dwell in rental flats no more than 15 minutes away, a situation where inequality can be seen by all.

"Inequality that grows unchecked will impact social cohesion in the long run."

Globally, the divide between the elite and those left behind has already had serious fallout. Voters in the United States Rust Belt, where people lost jobs to cheaper centres overseas, vented their anger by sweeping President Donald Trump to power.

In Britain, one of the most unequal of all developed countries, the poorest households also turned their backs on globalisation by embracing Brexit and voting to leave the European Union.

In Singapore, the leadership has always been aware of the dangers of inequality in a small economy vulnerable to globalisation, said Mr Shanmugam. If people are denied opportunities by an entrenched majority, the society will fracture, he said.

He stressed that the Government has always aimed to help Singapore's disadvantaged progress upwards, through programmes such as education bursaries and healthcare and housing subsidies.

Singaporeans, too, had kept their trust in the Government for the past 50 years, but this cannot be taken for granted.

"(There is) no room for complacency - trust has to be continually earned. And it can easily be lost."

The next step was to go upstream and address the issue at the pre-school level.

"We need to believe that meritocracy actually works... It is not just a concept," said Mr Shanmugam.

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