Government to tackle 'serious issue' of inequality from pre-school years: Shanmugam

Government to tackle 'serious issue' of inequality from pre-school years: Shanmugam

Inequality is one of the most serious issues facing Singapore today and has to be dealt with or Singapore's society will "fracture", Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Friday (Apr 20).

SINGAPORE: Inequality is one of the most serious issues facing Singapore today and has to be dealt with or Singapore's society will "fracture", Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Friday (Apr 20).

Speaking at the launch of a Singapore Red Cross project for pre-schoolers, Mr Shanmugam said that inequality has to be tackled by the Government and via community-driven efforts.

Pointing out that former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee had, in 1961, warned about the risk of having groups of elites creating a favourable environment for themselves at the expense of others, Mr Shanmugam stated that "society will fracture and trust will be completely broken" should that be allowed to happen.

Mr Shanmugam quoted Dr Goh as saying then: "In advanced societies, it is not so much open nepotism that is to be feared, but the insidious 'old boy' type whereby no illegalities are committed, but in which the pinnacles of power, influence and wealth are the reserve of those born into the right families. 

"The dominant majority is thus able to point out that those outside of the charmed circle just do not have the necessary qualifications to be admitted to the elite group. Thus, many able and aspiring people are denied the opportunity for the full use of their abilities."

Mr Shanmugam also stated that "increasingly, the starting points are different for those born into families of different backgrounds".

"At the point of birth, there is already a gap," said Mr Shanmugam. "The gap widens because of the difference in the families - and inequality will manifest itself in many intangible ways."

To address this, the government will be doubling its spending on the pre-school sector to S$1.7 billion by 2022 and open 40,000 more childcare places by then. By giving children a good start in life, it will help to close the inequality gap, he said.

"The pre-school years are crucial, it's the best chance the Government has to give our children a good start ... and a decent chance for the children to succeed and help close the inequality gap," he stressed.

NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY

He noted that inequality has already left many people disillusioned and led to social divisions in some Western countries.

Citing the poor state of public schools in the US and the bailout of financial institutions in the 2008 financial crisis, he said: "The system seems to be looking after the well-off; privatising profit, socialising loss."

"Trust is broken when they who have lost their jobs, see that the winners and the elite seem to be taking most of the benefits ... and seem to be controlling the government," added the minister.

"We have to take care of everyone, that's how we maintain trust"

He added that Singapore's philosophy is to give a helping hand to those who need it, while preserving the ingredients of Singapore's success: Education, hard work, discipline and integrity.

"We have to make meritocracy work well, it doesn't always work well - we must acknowledge that, fresh challenges have to be met," he said.

Mr Shanmugam said that the issue of inequality is a global one, but it is more challenging in Singapore. 

"In a small country, the richest in a good class bungalow and the poorest in a rental flat or three-room flat are no more than 15 minutes away," he said.

However, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore is doing relatively well in terms of social mobility, citing a Ministry of Finance study from 2015.

The study found that about 14 per cent of those born to lower-income parents in Singapore can make it to the top 20 per cent, compared to 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in the UK.

But there is no room for complacency, said Mr Shanmugam, adding that trust needs to be continuously earned by the Government.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at One Tampines Hub during the launch of the Red Cross Junior Club, an expansion of the Singapore Red Cross movement for children aged five and six which aims to equip the children with first aid skills. 

He said programmes such as this lay the foundation for a gracious society that is united, cares for the less fortunate and is a buffer against inequality. 

His speech comes two months after Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong responded to a question raised in Parliament by Mr Gan Thiam Poh, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, about whether the income gap had widened in the past 10 years and whether an inter-ministerial committee should be set up to tackle the problem.

Source: CNA/ng(hm)

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