Ensuring true equality of opportunities: Shanmugam

President Tony Tan celebrated Singapore's National Day with Singaporeans from all walks of life on August 9, 2013.

In a speech at the Singapore Corporate Awards 2013 held last Wednesday, Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam referred to how relentless globalisation has sharpened awareness everywhere about the impact of social forces, including gender and social inequalities.

The edited excerpt here addresses social inequality, success and fairness, and what needs to be relooked.

Relentless globalisation since 2009 has thrown up some phrases which keep coming up, which I think signal a larger trend in society.

The phrases are dual economy, widening income gap, the imperfections of meritocracy, the elite control of the economy, the 1per cent versus the 99 per cent, inequalities, inequities, the moral limits of the markets, market distortion and social injustice.

These are large social forces at play the world over which cannot and should not be ignored because they signal a real feeling of a significant section of society...

Let me move on to the issue of inequality; of inequality in general in society. The approach of complete free-market capitalisation was not something we have ever practised in Singapore in the way it has been practised say, in Hong Kong, or some other countries.

We have intervened in education, housing, health care and other areas. Over the last few years, undoubtedly with the growing income inequality, there is a mood in society which is less celebratory of success.

People question success more. There is a change in Singapore's society and we have to pay attention to this. And those who have succeeded, all of you here, have to think about this.

Otherwise, the pressures can build up that can seriously damage society. Increasingly, for example, questions are raised about something that has been a fundamental tenet for us: meritocracy. It's only one example.

Getting a fair shake

There are many other examples. But, fundamentally, if you think a little bit more, look at the questions that are raised: When people question meritocracy, they don't actually question meritocracy; they question the fairness of the system.

Because underlying it, they don't believe they are getting a fair shake out of the system. And so, fairness is the key that runs through everything.

In that context, take the example of schooling - entry to desired primary and secondary schools. Many have commented that the existing structure favours those who are already well-off, who have succeeded. It's again only one example.

The sense of unfairness leads people then to question; and the sense of unfairness is coming from the fact that they can't get into schools because of some structure, alumni relationships or where (geographically) the school is located.

Who can afford places near such schools? Who can afford to have one parent volunteering in such schools? This sense of unfairness leads people to question meritocracy as a whole.

What I think the answer is, is to make sure that there is true equality of opportunities. This is fundamental.

And we have to try and achieve that. It's not good for society - including for those who have succeeded - if the system is seen as unfair or not providing equal opportunities.

One of the most important elements in a child's success, I think most of us know, is the quality time that parents spend with their children and how they spend it.

Middle-class parents tend to, as a general rule, provide a lot of quality time. And their children obviously benefit from that. The state cannot do much about that, about the outcomes that come from that.

Issues to think about

But we can look at other areas, and where we can create a more even field, we should and we will do so. For example, the state can play an important role in providing quality pre-schooling for the less well-off. I emphasise that this is only one example.

These are issues that I think we need to think about. In the same way, if you talk about globalisation and the resultant wage pressures, how has that impacted people?

We had the Our Singapore Conversation over the last year, with views from more than 40,000 people. There is a strong desire for security, peace of mind. There is a whole range of issues, from health care and housing to many others.

If you ask the elderly, for example, they are concerned about the cost of health care.

People want a social contract which is worked around these concerns. We in Singapore have to pull together as one on this.

The Government's essential philosophy all these years has been that that social contract must be to take care of people's needs in specific areas, to help them achieve their full potential, achieve their best without seriously impacting or killing off the work ethic and individual enterprise.

As our external environment changes, with the pressures of globalisation, we need to relook the safety nets.

We have to consider carefully people's concerns and relook that social contract while remaining true to the fundamental philosophy that has guided us.

We have to adapt, as the world changes and as the needs of Singaporeans change. One cannot be dogmatic about it. That's the only way for Singapore to succeed, and for all of you to succeed.

Those in this room, you have succeeded. You will also have to play a bigger role in this new social contract. It is not possible for you to do well if the 99 per cent are unhappy and feel unfairly treated.

Thankfully, we have not reached that situation, unlike in some countries. We must avoid that outcome.

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