Long-term task to fix winner-take-all mindset

A former Member of Parliament once related to me how, after he retired from politics, one of the first things he did was to buy himself a spanking new luxury car.

And he relished the moment he pointed out his car to the then prime minister, to make the point that his years of toeing the party line of maintaining a modest lifestyle in public were finally over.

His story came to mind when I heard Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speak of keeping Singapore an open, egalitarian society where the rich do not flaunt their wealth but remain low-key and unassuming, and people are not judged by the cars they drive, brand of clothes they wear or the way they speak.

I am not sure if such a society would appeal to today's affluent Singaporeans. Or would they - like that retired MP I met - chafe at such restraints on their lifestyle choices?

Mr Lee has a point when he says social behaviour can impede social mobility, and make it more difficult and more unlikely for those who are less well-off to access opportunity.

The clearest example is schools.

Last month, Nominated MP Eugene Tan spoke passionately in Parliament about how the Raffles Institution of today has a far less diverse student body than in his time, an observation confirmed by the chairman of the school's board, Mr Choo Chiau Beng. My colleague Sandra Davie also reported that a scholarship scheme to draw more students from non-brand name primary schools to RI has worked with only a handful of boys.

One worry is that even when their PSLE results are strong enough, some children from poorer homes do not feel comfortable taking up places in Singapore's top secondary schools because they will be outnumbered by their wealthy peers.

A teacher in a non-elite secondary school summed up how children from the HDB heartland now think about schools like RI and Raffles Girls' School: "Our kind don't go there."

That may explain why there is now a conscious effort on the part of the Government to try to reshape the culture in schools, so that students from poorer homes will not be put off from studying in top schools "because they feel left out, out of place or socially uncomfortable", to quote PM Lee.

Addressing Parliament last month, he cited a new rule that from this year reserves at least 40 places in every primary school for children with no prior links, to "prevent our schools from becoming closed institutions".

He also touched on a more controversial area of change. He said: "We are also exercising restraint in school spending and activities, sometimes having to restrain the schools and ask them not to go overboard in their enthusiasm. For example, raising funds to build infrastructure, which must not be lavish, or planning study trips to exotic and expensive destinations. It is not necessary to go to the other side of the world to learn about the world; there are many things you can learn just in our own neighbourhood."

The protests from wealthy alumni and parents have been muted, but one young Singaporean summed up what some of them may be thinking when she asked me after Mr Lee's speech: "Isn't that anti-meritocratic, an attempt to level down those at the top rather than pull up those at the bottom?"

I find her candour revealing, for it shows how the competitive meritocracy we have had in place for decades has shaped how we as a society think about performance, excellence and reward.

For the most part, Singaporeans who have succeeded worked hard and smart to get to where they are today. They also live in a meritocracy which has to date stressed that the talented deserve to be richly rewarded for their efforts.

And the People's Action Party Government's policies in a whole range of areas, from schools to incomes to ministerial pay to foreign talent, enabled and encouraged such thinking. But those policies belong to a different era in which free-market capitalism reigned supreme.

Now, it is time to change and to correct the weaknesses of the winner-take-all meritocracy of years past, but even if the Government is ready to move quickly on policy, people's values and norms will take far longer to change.

And there will be strong resistance from those who have planned their lives and their children's future on the basis of the old rules.

But if we as a society are agreed that growing income inequality and slowing social mobility are big problems that we need to tackle head on, we must also be ready to change even where it entails sacrifice on our part.

A key question is how best to bring about this cultural shift.

It will probably be faster and easier to enforce new norms through government fiat, but change enforced from above tends to breed resentment and drive people to seek ways to circumvent what they see as unjust restrictions.

A slower, more sustainable way to reshape culture is through persuasion and education, by showing people that there is a different way to view success and the good life beyond branded clothes, fancy cars and big houses. That way, the rich themselves will want to change and rethink how they spend their time and money.

We need to celebrate the choices of people who have gone ahead to redefine the good life in terms beyond the material, and found happiness in serving others.

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah

Kian Peng recently held up one such Singaporean as an example: Dr Tan Lai Yong, a medical doctor who spent 15 years in China's Yunnan province caring for the poor. He and his family returned to Singapore in 2010 because after he received an award from then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the Chinese started treating him like a VIP.

He is now a senior lecturer at a National University of Singapore residential college, where he teaches a course that helps undergraduates better understand the plight of hidden communities, such as the elderly who live alone, former convicts and migrant workers.

Not all of us are called to such a spartan life but one form of service that many of us can perform is to close the gap between ourselves and those who are less well-off, by thinking hard about how best to put them at ease.


This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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