Monday, 22 February 2021

A class apart? Meritocracy, social mixing and effects on national unity

By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2021

A friend told me that having lived in a condominium all her life, she grew up thinking she was poor.

"You see, all my classmates lived in landed houses," she said.

Like her, going to a top school was, for me, an eye-opener. Some of my peers seemed to inhabit a different world - one where it was possible to have never set foot in a hawker centre, or visited a classmate in his HDB flat.

Do Singaporeans of different socio-economic backgrounds now mingle more readily? Or do they live in distinct bubbles that have drifted further apart?

What can be done to encourage diverse social networks, and how do they affect national identity?

These are questions that a new book by National University of Singapore associate professors Vincent Chua and Tan Ern Ser, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh and urban planner Drew Shih seeks to answer.

Paradox of meritocracy

Titled Social Capital In Singapore: The Power Of Network Diversity, it draws insights from fieldwork involving some 3,000 Singaporeans.

It begins with the observation that for a country with no natural resources, meritocracy has been the best way to grow Singapore's human capital. As founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "We treat everybody equally. We judge you on your merits... If you can perform, you get the job."

The alternative is a system based on social connections.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said at a conference in 2019 that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism. "Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to resurface and weaken our system."

But the paradox of meritocracy is that its winners and losers increasingly enter their own social orbits, with little mixing between them.

Early on, meritocracy brought people of different socio-economic backgrounds together in common settings such as elite schools. As this meritocracy matured, and the positions of earlier winners and their descendants became more entrenched, it has become more class-segregated.

Former Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng put this across starkly at the school's Founder's Day six years ago, saying that the school "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore".

He said its students must lend a hand to those who need help, such as foreign workers, the elderly and the poor. "I put it to you that this is our wider duty... to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other."

Tightening class circles

To track how interactions have changed over time, the book explores network diversity, or how different or similar people are relative to one another.

Its study of 13 dimensions of diversity, such as gender, age, race, educational level, attendance in elite schools and housing type, throws up three notable results.

First, it is class segregation - a lack of social mixing between elites and non-elites, and between public and private housing residents - which emerges as the most prominent fault line, not race or religion.

Schooling diversity (elite versus non-elite) and housing diversity (public versus private) score the lowest among all the diversities, while gender and age diversity have the highest scores. This shows that class closures have become prominent features of the social networks of Singaporeans.

Second, and more worryingly, class closures have strengthened among younger Singaporeans born between 1982 and 1995.

This is unlike those born before 1981, who experienced a rising trend in inter-class ties over time.

Can schools, workplaces and voluntary associations boost social mixing and network diversity?

Yes, but again, the results vary according to age.

For example, the rate of increase in network diversity due to schooling is slower for more recent cohorts (those between 21 and 34 years old) than those 35 years and older, suggesting that class circles have tightened in younger cohorts.

Third, network diversity has a major impact on social trust and national identity. Those who report high levels of network diversity are also likely to report a high level of national identity.

This reveals a simple yet profound truth: It is relationships that make a nation. While values such as multiculturalism, meritocracy and tolerance may be able to rally people, it is only by connecting people from different parts of the social structure that national unity becomes a lived reality.

Breaking down silos

How can government policies minimise the social silos created by meritocratic sorting?

A significant move has been the introduction of subject-based banding in schools. By letting students study subjects at different levels based on their aptitude, it blurs the lines between academic tracks and allows for more social mixing between tracks.

Today, seniors from one school can conduct activities for juniors from another within the same co-curricular activity (CCA). The Strategic Partnership CCA pilot programme, launched in 2019, lets secondary school students pursue a CCA that their schools do not offer, thus providing them the opportunity to interact with their peers from other schools.

The Housing Board mixes residents of different socio-economic classes by having a range of flat types - rental and non-rental - as well as unit sizes within the same precinct or block. Community-based events help draw residents out into common spaces.

At the national level, 2012's Our Singapore Conversation, and more recently the Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations (ESC), has canvassed the views of tens of thousands of Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Forging common goals

There are, of course, limitations to what the state can do. Elite circles have intangible barriers to entry such as culture and habits.

Well-resourced parents will continue to enrol their children in programmes where they meet other privileged children. Workplace interactions across class lines, while helpful, are not as deep as family and friendship ties.

In a speech eight years ago, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong stressed the importance of individual action: "The solution is not to hold (those who have done well) back in the interests of equality of outcomes, or to do away with meritocracy altogether... It is up to those of us who can, to reach back and help those behind to climb the ladder with us, and not to pull up the ladder behind us. Those who have risen to the top owe the greatest responsibility to help the weaker in society."

There is certainly greater awareness of social issues today. The top topic raised by ESC participants was social support, such as helping vulnerable communities, volunteering and financial aid.

But is it enough to rely on personal initiative, I asked Prof Tan, one of the book's authors.

He said that birds of a feather flock together, hence intervention is needed if mixing does not happen organically.

But physical proximity does not automatically translate into social closeness, nor is social mixing about being "civil, nice and friendly".

Rather, he said, people must interact meaningfully in order to form a cohesive group with a common identity. This could mean working together towards a larger goal or project, where their diversity becomes an asset to achieve this common goal.

"If you combine students from an 'elite' school with a 'non-elite' one, and require them to form a team to compete in a quiz on a topic which the 'elite' school students are good at, you would end up with the 'non-elite' ones feeling alienated and vulnerable," he explained.

"However, if it is, say, a game of soccer where the students could complement one another in the different positions, you would then have them strategising with one another and respecting each other's strengths."

A good starting point could be to expand the size and scope of existing initiatives in schools and housing estates.

Others have called for more radical moves: Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan said recently that pre-schools should be nationalised to ensure social mixing early in life.

Whatever the landing zone, a silver lining of the pandemic has been to shine a light on the divisions that exist in society.

Policymakers and Singaporeans alike are at an inflexion point, where they have to collectively decide what to do as the pandemic enters its second year. How they choose to respond will have lasting implications for social and national cohesion.


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