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Education arms race fuelling inequality; solution to improve income alongside access

Sharanya Pillai
Sharanya Pillai • 11 min read
Education arms race fuelling inequality; solution to improve income alongside access
SINGAPORE (June 4): Part-time supermarket cashier Rozaini and her husband, who works as a driver, earn a combined income of $2,000 a month. That money has to support them and their four children, aged between four and 19. Their oldest son is currently und
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SINGAPORE (June 4): Part-time supermarket cashier Rozaini and her husband, who works as a driver, earn a combined income of $2,000 a month. That money has to support them and their four children, aged between four and 19. Their oldest son is currently undergoing national service, while the second and third children are in primary school. The couple pay $500 a month to rent their two-room flat, spend $800 on groceries and need another $100 for the medical expenses of one son with a skin condition. That takes up the bulk of their income.

In spite of this tight financial situation, Rozaini hopes to send her schoolgoing children for private tuition. She and her husband are both looking for a second job. Rozaini also sells clothes online, which brings her about $100 in extra income monthly. “I just want my children to have a chance to be better than us. They need to get better jobs than what we are doing, and earn more money,” she says. Rozaini and her husband completed Secondary Two and primary school, respectively, and want their children to attain higher educational qualifications.

Households such as Rozaini’s have come under the spotlight in recent weeks as discourse heats up on the concept of upward social mobility — that one can achieve a better socio-economic status than that of one’s parents. In Singapore’s meritocratic system, it has traditionally been a point of pride that anyone with some talent and the willingness to work hard will get ahead. Increasingly, however, this concept is being challenged.

“Today, education has become transformed to less of a social leveller and more of an arms race. It has become harder for those from less well-to-do backgrounds to compete on equal terms with their well-to-do counterparts,” says Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and a former nominated member of parliament. “So, even as the opportunities are open to all, access to and utilisation of those opportunities are unequal.”

Among the weapons available to parents looking to better equip their children are private tuition and enrichment classes. According to a 2015 poll by The Straits Times (ST) and research firm Nexus Link, households with a monthly income of $3,000 and below spend a median sum of $100 on tuition for preschool children every month, while those with incomes above $6,000 spend $200. The disparity is greater when it comes to parents’ educational qualifications — those with a primary school education or less spend a median sum of $100 on preschool tuition for their children, while those with university qualifications spend $500.

Children enrolled in such classes at a young age typically enter primary school able to read and write English quite competently. They may be better at following lessons and completing homework, or excel in other non-academic areas.

This could disadvantage families such as Rozaini’s. In the government’s 2012/13 Household Expenditure Survey, households in the 1st to 10th percentile by income were found to spend an average of just $25.10 a month on tuition and other forms of private education. In contrast, those in the 91st to 100th percentile spent an average of $181.40 — or seven times as much.

Is the answer then to offer low-income families cheaper or even free access to tuition? While many schools and community organisations have already stepped up to provide such options, experts who spoke to The Edge Singapore say a rethink of more fundamental policies may be needed. What more can policymakers do to assist upward social mobility for low-income families? And why is this an important issue for the nation?

More than just affordability

For many low-income families, services such as tuition are low on the list of household needs. According to the 2016/17 Quality of Life survey, 32.9% of low-income households — defined as those earning under $3,000 monthly — reported being unable to afford their needs. The survey, which involved 1,500 Singaporeans, was published in the book Happiness, Wellbeing and Society by associate professors of marketing Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

But income levels affect more than the ability to afford something. “Parents investing [resources] in their children is an important type of capital. This includes sending them to a good preschool, enrichment classes, having a good caregiver or the time to coach them. If the parents are struggling with daily needs, I don’t think they have the time and energy to do these things,” says Daniel Goh, associate professor of sociology at NUS.

Income levels also affect confidence. “People with high socio-economic status [may] feel they have the birthright to a good life, and have the means to game the system. And those from less well-off families feel their station in life is not to shoot for the stars,” says SMU’s Tan. “That may explain why some bright pupils avoid top schools. They may feel inadequate despite being academically on a par with their peers and their peers treating them as equals. It’s a tragic loss for the pupils and our society.”

Many of the values that children from ­low-income families demonstrate may not be as highly valued in Singapore’s meritocratic society. Teo You Yenn, associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, points out in her recent book This Is What Inequality Looks Like that “being able to sit still, take instruction from adults [and] spell English words accurately” are crucial for success from the first day of primary school. “They are qualities that the wealthier among us spend money to cultivate in our children. [But] in the big scheme of things, there is very little we can say to defend their inherent value.

“On the other hand, the generosity of neighbours, the capacity of children to do chores and care for siblings, the mutual dependence within extended families who show support for one another — these values and practices I see in abundance among low-income communities are not values that are actively promoted.”

Ultimately, the manner in which desirable values are selected results in some degree of entrenchment, says Tan Ern Ser, associate professor of sociology at NUS. “Over the last few decades, the people who have risen up the social ladder are better able to help their children stay in the middle class or higher, while those who have not done well are more likely to find themselves and their children entrenched in a low-income situation. What keeps the latter back is their lack of the economic, social and cultural capital that could help them achieve social mobility,” he says.

Redistributing wealth

How then should Singapore tame the academic arms race to give underprivileged children a leg up? NUS’s Goh says policymakers can look at expanding educational programmes for children from low-income backgrounds. The KidSTART scheme by the government is one step forward, he points out. The pilot scheme, rolled out in 2016, coordinates support across agencies to create conducive environments for vulnerable children. The programme involves home visits to guide parents; playgroups for parents, caregivers and children; and additional parent engagement at preschools.

“The preschool years are actually very important in terms of development. The government should take further steps in helping low-income families in this area,” Goh says. “It’s not just about helping the parents, but also helping the children break out of the poverty cycle.”

At the same time, Goh says, redistributive policies need to be enhanced to address income inequality at its root. After accounting for taxes and transfers, Singapore’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.356 last year. The Gini coefficient is the most commonly used measurement of inequality. A Gini coefficient of 1 means that one person has all the income and others have none.

However, Singapore’s Gini coefficient is still higher than those of several other developed countries. Canada’s Gini coefficient, for instance, is 0.318. South Korea’s is 0.295. “It shows that there is scope for our redistributive policies to improve, whether it’s via more income tax or other forms of taxes. Our welfare policies also tend to be very targeted and extensively means-tested. You hear a lot of low-income people saying that they have to jump through hoops to get assistance. We shouldn’t be depriving, say, nine people of assistance just to keep one cheat away,” Goh says.

SMU’s Tan is also of the view that the conversation on social mobility needs to focus more on the redistribution of wealth than on access to education. “Our top schools should not be blamed or even scapegoated for the social inequality. What we see in our schools is but a reflection of the complexion of persistent inequality in our society,” he says. “[Our] policies must focus more on wealth. In this regard, we should consider more and deeper wealth taxes such as capital gains tax or estate duty.”

Rethinking self-help

A focus on redistributing wealth — via higher taxes on the wealthy or estate taxes — would probably face some resistance. Chua Beng Huat, provost’s chair professor at NUS’s department of sociology, writes in a recent commentary for ST that the government has a “long-standing ideological resistance to social welfarism”. In a separate response to questions from The Edge Singapore, Chua explains: “This government is willing to provide assistance to improve the human capital of individuals, but not cash transfers.”

However, the Singapore government is also known for its pragmatism. And the nation may have reached a point at which it is pragmatic to more equally distribute the benefits of economic growth. “The meritocracy that created good and fair outcomes that were more or less evenly shared in one generation, with the passage of time, creates perverse outcomes in another generation because of inherited advantages. The just rewards of one generation’s efforts become the inherited advantages of another generation,” says Adrian Kuah, head of the case study unit at NUS’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Kuah points out that Lee Kuan Yew himself had warned of the problems that could arise if meritocracy created an unbridgeable gap between the haves and the have-nots. “There comes a time when the winners have too much and the losers say ‘let us overturn the system’, and they do. And the last time that happened in France was 1958, when they brought back de Gaulle, and he started afresh,” Lee said in a 1996 Parliamentary debate. In May 1958, French general Charles de Gaulle came out of retirement to be appointed prime minister.

The Organisation for Economic ­Co-operation and Development, in a 2015 publication entitled In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All, says that beyond threatening social cohesion, inequality also raises major economic concerns for all. New OECD research finds that the long-term rise in inequality puts a “significant brake” on long-term growth. Between 1985 and 2005, for example, inequality rose by more than two Gini points on average across 19 OECD countries. This knocked 4.7 percentage points off cumulative growth between 1990 and 2010.

Jamus Lim, a professor at the ESSEC Business School, says boosting the incomes of the low-income segment of the population is most likely to make a material difference to aggregate consumption. “This is because the poor are typically liquidity-constrained, and spend most or all of their incomes, with little savings,” he says.

Aiming beyond As

Over the long run, Singapore’s meritocracy system may also need to evolve to to value more than academic performance. Yong Teck Meng, national director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, says: “If you go to a top school and throw a stone, there’s a high chance it will hit a student with straight As. Getting straight As is something that parents can spend money to prepare their children for. But there are so many other talents out there that children from other backgrounds have, such as soft skills. We need to assess children more holistically.”

As a parent, Rozaini hopes that her four children will find a place in society where their talents — whether academic or non-academic — can be recognised. But for now, she constantly reminds them that getting good grades is the best way to get a foot in the door. She says: “My husband and I even try to make sure they don’t see the financial difficulties we have. We want them to just focus on their studies now.” — With additional reporting by Jeffrey Tan

See also: Elite schools, the inequality delivered by markets and a reformation of economics

This article appeared in Issue 833 (June 4) of The Edge Singapore.

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