SINGAPORE: What can Singaporeans do to help bridge the gap between social classes? For Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah, the answer is very simple: Think of people as people.
She was responding to a question from a participant at a dialogue and closed-door screening of the Channel NewsAsia documentary “Regardless of Class” on Monday (Oct 29). The documentary explores the class divide in Singapore and how it affects society.
The screening held by Channel NewsAsia was attended by about 100 participants which included students, teachers and those who work in social enterprises and voluntary welfare organisations.
"The intrinsic worth of a human being is not measured by how much money you have or the kind of house you live in ... it's the fact that you’re a fellow human being," said Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Education and Finance.
"At the end of the day, it's seeing people as people."
Both Ms Indranee and Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, who hosted the documentary, stressed the importance of not thinking of people in terms of social class, income or status at the dialogue.
Dr Puthucheary pointed out that one thing that was reflected in the documentary were the biases that people have towards each other.
"The starting position is in recognising that bias and recognising the ease by which we can put someone down, even by using small words," he said.
He elaborated on the point in response to questions from an audience member on whether the show was implying that academic streams were correlated to social class.
To that, Dr Puthucheary said "no", pointing out that the show's message is that "all of this is made up".
“As we get more prosperous, we keep finding reasons to pigeonhole people,” he said. “Some people look at how other people dress, or what car you drive ... or whether you take public transport. All of these are a result of stereotyping, bias and unconscious assumptions ... and it’s all wrong.”
“But it’s very human,” he added. “If we want to be the kind of society we imagine ourselves to be, we're going to have to have some work put into this to undo these biases.”
HELPING DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN UNLOCK THEIR POTENTIAL
Ms Indranee also gave more details on the new task force she is leading to strengthen support for students from disadvantaged families, pointing out that the task force will be looking at “real, practical issues”.
"It’s very difficult for a child to have a good foundation in English and reading if, at home, both parents don't speak, read or write English," she said. "Then the child is at a disadvantage."
Pointing out the various issues such children could be facing, Ms Indranee also noted that there are existing assistance programmes, and the task force can help with coordinating and "stringing everything together".
“It’s still a work in progress, but there will be things which the Government can do, and which volunteers can do, and we will work on this together,” she said.
The task force is also looking at how a child’s worldview can be expanded, and Ms Indranee cited an example of how a volunteer programme in her Tiong Bahru ward. She had asked, she said, a bakery to run a cookery programme for children living in the rental blocks in her area.
The value of that programme, she said, lay in giving the children different social exposure.
“This is an example of how you can try to create a different environment where you can allow them to learn,” she said. “You can intervene, and give them the opportunity to unlock that potential.”
BACKLASH TO DOCUMENTARY “UNFORTUNATE”
During the dialogue, Dr Puthucheary also stressed that he stands by the editorial integrity of the documentary, when asked about the online backlash related to how some teenage students were presented in the show.
The backlash centred largely around a segment of the show where students from various academic streams spoke about their differences and how they rarely interacted with those from other academic streams.
Hitting out at various "blog sites" that he said “decided to editorialise” the trailer of the documentary, Dr Puthucheary noted that the full programme was available online for more than a week, and no one criticised it.
“There was a short trailer that was made, and the point of the trailer is to provoke you into watching the main show, right? So the trailer for that segment was cut in a slightly provocative way,” he explained. “But the blog sites then spoke about the trailer as if the trailer was the product.”
“So you have the film, and then you have the trailer, and then you have commentary about the trailer,” he said, while responding to a question on whether the backlash could have been avoided or anticipated. “What was being shared and went viral was the latter.”
Most people who came up to him about the backlash had not watched the full documentary, he said, adding: "They were getting angry because someone told them to get angry ... It was very unfortunate there were some kids caught up in it, and I wish it hadn't happened."