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Class – not race nor religion – is potentially Singapore's most divisive fault line

That is the finding of the latest, and one of the largest, surveys on this topic, raising questions on whether the society is still based on equality and meritocracy. The documentary Regardless of Class examines the issues.

Class – not race nor religion – is potentially Singapore's most divisive fault line

How people decipher the social class others belong to was one of the social experiments in the documentary.

SINGAPORE: The fault lines that have been the most worrisome in Singapore since the nation’s independence are, after 53 years, no longer so in the eyes of its people.

Instead of race and religion, what worries Singaporeans more is the class divide.

That is the finding of the latest, and one of the largest, surveys on this topic, which Dr Janil Puthucheary, the chairman of – the national body promoting harmony – worked with Channel NewsAsia to commission.

Almost half of the 1,036 citizen respondents felt that income inequality is the likeliest to cause a social divide here.

As sociology professor Tan Ern Ser said after examining the data: “What we’re seeing here is that if you compare between race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality (country of birth) and class, class matters.”

It matters so much that only about 20 per cent of the respondents felt that race was likeliest to cause a social divide, and an almost similar proportion felt that way about religion.

That is a “huge gap” between the worries over income inequality and those traditional fault lines, noted Dr Puthucheary, who found some of the survey results quite “unsettling”.

“Today, it’s the divide between the haves and the have-nots that’s creating the most tension,” he said. “This is going to be an explosive issue because it challenges some of the values that we hold so firmly and dearly”.

WATCH: Some key results (3:17)

Values like fairness, meritocracy and the “founding ideal that there’ll be no such thing as a second-class citizen”. But has the nation been living up to that standard for every Singaporean?

Do people believe that Singapore is a city of opportunity where they can make it so long as they work hard? Is education effective as a social leveller today?

Those are some of the questions explored on the documentary, Regardless of Class. And the answers reflect some “uncomfortable realities”, said host Dr Puthucheary.


The treatment that security guard Mohammed Syukri receives is instructive. It may vary from resident to resident at the condominium where he works, but they can get “harsh”.

Mr Mohammed Syukri.

“Sometimes, even when the barrier isn’t open properly, they’d start shouting at us. They’d say ‘useless security’ and ‘stupid security’ and things like that,” he related.

He was “a bit shocked” by this when he started out in this low-paid profession. “But after a while, I go site to site, and everything and everywhere is also the same, so I get used to it,” he added.

“When that kind of thing happens to me, I can’t vent my anger on anyone, so I just keep it to myself.”

When asked to voice his thoughts, however, he said nervously: “They’re treating us like not humans but … like slaves.”

Stories like his are not new. Dr Puthucheary said: “I hear them all the time in my work as a Member of Parliament, from waiters, security guards, cleaners (and) salespeople. They tell me about a deepening class divide.”

He asked some of them to write down their stories, to find out if people are guilty of creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ situation.

WATCH: Their stories (2:47)

One McDonald’s cleaner wrote: “I know I’m invisible. I have to get used to this, and learn to stop caring.”

Similarly, a public estate cleaner wrote: “I just sweep the floor, and then you throw rubbish from the top of the block. Then after that residents complain … The blame is always on me.

“We live our lives as if we’re apart. They go about doing their own work, I go about living mine.”

It is the “little things”, such as a look or a throwaway comment, that cause a sense of separation, said Dr Puthucheary. “And it’s these social cues that slowly widen the divide.”

Dr Janil Puthucheary is also Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information.

Another security guard, Mr Pugalenthi, can attest to that. “People think … a security guard is a low-class job. They say, “Ah, you’re only a security guard,’” he said.

“Sometimes I feel, like, alamak … This job, why do people look down on it? Work is work.”


The class divide has been a buzz phrase since an Institute of Policy Studies survey last year found the gap to be more pronounced than it seemed.

READ: More can be done to facilitate mixing among people of different social classes, IPS survey finds

Most researchers define class by income, housing type and education. But people can make class markers out of anything, from the way others speak to the way they dress, even if it may be off the mark.

That has been the experience of freelance actress Nadiyah Ramlan, who has received comments about her “low-class” dress style and has also been asked about her education level. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.

Ms Nadiyah Ramlan.

In the documentary, to determine a person’s social class, participants asked questions about the stranger’s hobbies, travel destinations, favourite brands and where he or she shopped, among others.

On the website Quora, some people have suggested that one’s occupation as well as state of mind, such as confidence level and social etiquette, can also contribute to the perception of socio-economic class in Singapore.

Recently, a social studies guidebook (not on the approved textbook list) even codified stereotypes of the classes into text, causing an uproar.

READ: Controversial Social Studies guidebook not on approved textbook list: MOE

So in July, the CNA survey asked the respondents, aged 18 to 74, what they thought of others from different classes.

Given a choice of over 20 characteristics, the top three perceptions Singaporeans had of the upper class were: Able to speak good English (chosen by 98 per cent); tended to plan ahead; and domineering (both 94 per cent).

As for perceptions of the lower class, most people thought they were friendly (92 per cent), caring and tended to speak Singlish.

The top perceptions of the lower class.

What Dr Puthucheary found more interesting were the differences between the ways people saw the upper classes versus the lower classes. Some 91 per cent thought the former were arrogant, versus 35 per cent who thought that of the latter.

People also thought someone from the upper class was likelier to be luckier than someone from the lower class (90 vs 48 per cent).

These are more than just perceptions, however; they also affect interactions between the different ends of the divide.

The middle and lower classes have to “be somebody else” to blend in with the upper class, which is “very uncomfortable”, said Malay language instructor Rohati Januri. But the alternative – being one’s own self – leads to feeling excluded, she admitted.

Ms Rohati Januri.


Is Singapore’s class consciousness starting in school, however? To find out, CNA interviewed several groups of nine- to 11-year-olds. And as Shievon Cheah put it, “If you have the most expensive things, you’re the most popular also.”

Asked what she thought of those who get a lot of pocket money, she said: “They’re rich or their parents just don’t care how much they give their kids.”

Grayden Tan, who classified himself as “a little above average”, said hesitantly: “I think rich people treat poor people badly … because they think they’re rich, so they don’t really know what it’s like to be poor.”

Asked how the poor treated the rich, he replied: “They don’t treat them badly. They don’t say anything. It’s just that they’re a bit hurt and sad that these rich people say these things like ‘go get a job’.”

WATCH: From the mouths of 9- to 17-year-olds (6:08)

Both Marcus Lee and Renee Phua have fathers who told them to study hard to earn more in future, or risk ending up with a low-paid job.

Asked what he thought of poor people, Marcus said: “They may be good socially, but maybe they don’t have the (job) skills.”

When another group of students, aged 15 to 17, from the Integrated Programme (IP) and the Normal streams came together, the differences were clear.

The parents of the IP students and the students themselves expected at least ‘A’s and to go to university, locally or abroad.

The parents of the Normal stream students and the students themselves expected a pass in all their subjects and a little bit of improvement, and also to get into the Institute of Technical Education.

Coming face to face from different educational tracks.

How much did they interact with students from a different stream? “Most of the people in the Express stream look down on us,” said Normal (Academic) student Joey Heng.

“They think we’re quite stupid, so they seldom talk to us.”

Normal (Technical) student Muhd Nadiy Razin has friends from the Express stream but does not usually hang out with them. “They’re very quiet and neat in school, not like us. We usually create chaos,” he said.

N(T) student Muhammad Sufa Aniq has tried talking to some Express students, and they have reciprocated. But the gap is hard to bridge. “The way they speak and the way I speak are very different,” he said.

Such friendships require a lot of effort, agreed IP student Maniyar Kareena Tushar. “The kind of activities my school may expose me to outside of school generally tend to be quite populated by the higher express streams,” she said.

She doubts that mixed-ability classes are a viable solution. “It might even increase the gap if the students feel as if they can’t cope, so they just give up completely,” she explained.

Nadiy and Aniq, on the other hand, think it could work, but only if the teachers are willing to help them.

If IP student Alexander Loh finds himself having the opportunity to go overseas for university, he said he would "definitely take that".


The discussion the students had was awkward, acknowledged Dr Puthucheary. “But I think the reality is that’s what they face every day – we want to remove ourselves from situations where we feel embarrassed,” he said..

“Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for kids of different backgrounds to interact regularly all the time and develop deep friendships.”

The class divide can have an impact beyond just friendships, however. Playwright Faith Ng, who was from the Normal stream, said worries at home about her family’s finances did affect her studies. She was not motivated and had poor self-esteem.

“The teachers would say things like ‘even though you’re from Normal’. And that ‘even though’ already would imply a lot. So you kind of deduce that it means you're not as good as everybody else,” she said.

Ms Faith Ng's play, Normal, about two N(A) students battling stereotypes, caused a buzz when it made its debut in 2015.

It took her a decade to get over the stigma, but she went on to get a master’s degree and is now a part-time university lecturer.

Dr Puthucheary saw her story as a “silver lining”, as not just one of class bias but “also one of social mobility”.

“That’s what we’ve always been proud of: People are given the opportunity to rise above their circumstances. And I’ve always believed in this too. It’s your ability, not your connections – your worth, not your birth,” he said.

But CNA’s survey showed that not everyone felt the same way. Asked what it would take to get them out of poverty, those respondents suggested, in ascending order: Knowing the right people; education; and, most importantly, hard work.

In contrast, when people from the upper class were asked how to get rich, they suggested: Hard work; ability; and, most importantly, knowing the right people. Education did not factor into their top three reasons.

When it came to social mobility, only half of the people from the lower class were confident that their next generation’s financial situation will improve.

Anglican High School literature teacher Samuel Chan said family “has a big part to play”, where some parents have the familial, cultural and financial resources to give their children a head start.

“We’re seeing a gap in achievement for different students,” said Mr Chan, who also teaches low-income students at non-profit organisation Readable.

Mr Samuel Chan.

Then there is the perception among parents that “unless you’re going to certain schools, your avenues for success are closed off to you”.

But he thinks that education is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the “felt sense that society is more unequal” and that it can still function “very much” as a social leveller.


Ultimately, however, why should the average Singaporean care about income inequality?

The Straits Times opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong thinks it should be because “so much of the Singaporean identity has been built on the idea that we can all have a fair go, that you can do well in life regardless of your family connections (and) wealth”.

Ms Chua Mui Hoong has compiled her articles on income inequality and class divide into the book, Singapore Disrupted.

And she wants to see this not only preserved but entrenched and enhanced.

“It becomes a problem if we’re increasingly having a society where people who are already privileged and with access to resources are able to pass on those advantages to their children,” she said.

A divided society, she believes, would be “a very unhappy one, full of resentment, full of envy, full of talk about the divide between the best and the rest, full of criticisms of the elite … (and) totally fractured politics”.

“That society could become quite ungovernable.”

Currently, people from the higher classes are likelier than those from the lower classes to participate in society by, for example, volunteering in labour unions, sports clubs, professional associations and non-governmental organisations, or engaging in arts and cultural activities.

Dr Puthucheary believes that probably explains why the survey found that class affects people’s feelings about the country: 70 per cent of the higher classes felt a strong sense of belonging, compared with 46 per cent of the lower classes.

And 76 per cent of the higher classes felt proud to be Singaporean, compared with 50 per cent of the lower classes.

“This is the gap that really matters to me, that the rich feel connected to Singapore, and the poor don’t,” said the senior minister of state.

“This class gap is really an inclusion gap. So solving this problem, to me, can’t just be one more thing on our to-do list. It can’t only be a line item on a ministry’s budget.

“Tackling this divide is central to what makes us Singaporean – that no one should consider themselves a second-class citizen,” he concluded.

Watch the documentary Regardless of Class here.

Source: CNA/dp


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