SINGAPORE: Social divide and inequality in Singapore were a big focus among People's Action Party backbenchers as they debated the President’s Address in Parliament on Monday (May 14).
The MPs suggested several ideas to target inequality, which President Halimah Yacob last week said will be tackled during this term of Parliament.
MP for Jurong GRC Ang Wei Neng said that despite assertions that every school is a good school, he is concerned that the range of students getting into the perceived “elite” schools in Singapore is narrowing in terms of family affluence.
“The concern is that the rich, well-connected parents have the means to ‘protect access’ to the best schools, and perhaps even the best opportunities in life for their children, excluding those who are not so well-off,” he said. He questioned if Singapore is meritocratic.
“The concern is that the haves, with their connections and advantages, get more and more economic, social and cultural capital, while the have-nots struggle to even get a leg in the game even if they work hard from the start,” he said.
The MPs suggested several ways of bridging the divide, through the education system and housing and social policies, for instance.
MP for Nee Soon GRC Henry Kwek suggested that school leaders pay special attention to collaboration between elite and other schools, “to give students from different educational backgrounds a chance to forge friendship from a young age”.
Joining his fellow MPs in emphasising the role of education in addressing divide and inequality was MP for Potong Pasir constituency Sitoh Yih Pin.
He acknowledged that education, hard work, grit and determination have worked well for two to three generations of Singaporeans. Meritocracy works well if the gap between the haves and the have-nots is close, as was the case in the past decades, he said.
“Now, income inequality is wider. The gap in resources available to families with higher income and those with lower income is stark,” he said. While this issue is being addressed in the preschool arena, he said that the issue of widening inequality in Singapore is "decidedly more complex" and requires greater attention.
The importance of addressing the issue of widening inequality cannot be emphasised enough, he said, because deep within the city's social compact is a belief that as a community, regardless of race, language or religion, Singaporeans will always improve their lives together.
“Once any number of Singaporeans lose this belief, social stratification will occur and our social compact will be broken,” he cautioned.
Mr Ang also suggested building passageways beside MRT stations that give access to both condominium residents and HDB residents a direct route to the stations, while Mr Kwek proposed financial literacy and better housing policies to help the needy.
MAKING THE EDUCATION SYSTEM MORE INCLUSIVE, LESS ACADEMIC
In line with inclusivity in schools, MP for Feng Shan ward Cheryl Chan suggested a “through train” programme to secondary school for special needs students in mainstream schools based on feedback from parents. Special needs students are not given exemptions and struggle even with taking an additional language or subject in mainstream schools, she said.
“It may be a sweeping statement to say all special needs children in mainstream schools are late bloomers but I am certain no one will deny that these children deserve the opportunity to have a longer runway to learn and explore their potential at a pace that is suitable for them,” Ms Chan said.
She also suggested that Values in Action (VIA) performance can be included as part of the school admission criteria. Nurturing citizens to embody the spirit of care and giving can start with young Singaporeans by blurring the lines of socioeconomic background through valuing their actions towards community and country, she added.
“Our students can ace through exams but such achievements do not empower or make them a more purposeful individual. VIA is unlikely to sustain at the current rate unless it is given emphasis in mainstream school admission criterion and not limited to those under Direct School Admission,” she said.
RETHINK POLICIES FOR OLD HDB FLATS
Ms Chan also touched on the issue of HDB flats with ageing leases, and said that it is time to include other considerations and augment the Selective Enbloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) for such flats.
She proposed that the valuation method for aged flats should be changed from the current method of past market transactions to an approach that includes valuation based on its remaining lease, length of time occupied by current owner and its right-sizing potential.
This, she said, will enable the elderly to unlock cash, right-size and move nearer to their children. It will also enable young families or singles to afford resale flats in mature estates, and enhance the social mix.
Ms Chan proposed for precincts in mature towns to be made available to private developers for lease top-ups, and for the authorities to re-assess the property loan structure and CPF-cash quantum usage when purchasing older flats.
Old flats could also be rented out from HDB to those who do not qualify as low income but have needs for interim housing, such as families who are transiting, young adults with little need for permanent housing or single parents who need immediate shelter.