SINGAPORE (Aug 6): On June 28, the Binomio Spanish Restaurante located on Craig Road provided a free lunch to a group of elderly, low-income residents in the area. It was participating in the “Golden Treat” programme, in which various restaurants in Minister Indranee Rajah’s Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru ward take turns to offer older people of limited means in the neighbourhood a dining experience they might not otherwise be able to afford.

The upscale Binomio restaurant, where patrons pay $69 for a set of six tapas dishes, is a world away from the hawker centre across the road, where a plate of nasi lemak can be had for less than $3. The way Indranee sees it, without the intervention of social programmes, “it would be that the two worlds never meet”, she tells The Edge Singapore in an interview this past week.

Striving to build a democratic society based on justice and equality is part of the National Pledge. But the competitive market system that Singapore has adopted as the organising principle for its economy does not lead to equal outcomes. And, after 53 years of independence, addressing growing inequality, social mobility and lack of social mixing has become a key element of our national conversation. “That is the essence of being Singaporean. We care enough to want to do something. If we see something wrong, our first instinct is to help, to fix it, to improve the situation,” Indranee said in a speech in Parliament on May 18.

Tackling inequality is getting more complicated, though. Students from wealthy families are seen to be increasingly over-represented at elite schools, and have a natural advantage when it comes to landing good jobs. Meanwhile, new technologies are disrupting long-established industries. Jobs for life are giving way to the uncertainty of the gig economy. And, work experience counts for a lot less than it once did.

Indranee has a unique position from which to observe this multi-faceted issue. She read law at the National University of Singapore and was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1987. She was appointed Senior Counsel in 2003. She left the prestigious law firm of Drew & Napier in 2012 to join the government. She is currently Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Education.

Multiple hats, multifaceted issue

From her perch at the Ministry of Education (MOE), Indranee says it is clear that the family background of students is now a critical factor in their performance. Students who are equally bright and hard-working often perform quite differently, with those from higher socio-economic backgrounds doing better.

One aspect of the solution is to look at how to get the bottom one-fifth of the students out of the structural rut. Citing her interaction with school teachers, Indranee says the problem with some of the weakest students is not an inability to cope with the curriculum or a lack of financial resources, but just poor attendance.

In some cases, the parents are too busy working and there is a lack of extended family support to ensure that the children attend school. Some children have also been found taking care of elderly grandparents at home while their parents are at work. In yet other instances, the children are keeping bad company and staying out until all hours of the night. According to Indranee, teachers say “half the battle is won” if these students just showed up for school.

For now, the solution to this problem is to have teachers check up on their students at home. MOE is also looking into getting the support of grassroots organisations and other community partners. Indranee says the ministry will provide more updates on this issue in a few months.

Besides dealing with absentee students, MOE is also looking into how to better prepare all the other students for careers where they will have to keep learning and adapting. In particular, it might become less important for students to obtain a degree before launching their careers. “Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying a degree is not important. What we are saying is that whatever you choose to do, you must have the right skills and knowledge to do that job,” says Indranee.

Career paths might involve a number of stints at schools. For example, a diploma holder might work for a few years at a shipyard before acquiring a specialised degree in, say, naval architecture, becoming a fully trained engineer with both the hands-on skills and the theoretical grounding. “Some jobs may require degrees, some may not, and some may actually require a degree after you’ve worked,” Indranee says.

Multiple pathways, artisanal careers

MOE’s growing emphasis on vocational training is part of this shift, as well as recognition that students have different talents and aptitudes for academic pursuits. “We want to make sure that, at the end of the day, they want to choose something that fits them. That’s why I spoke about multiple pathways,” Indranee says.

These multiple pathways could ultimately lead to some one-of-a-kind careers. One success story Indranee cites is John Chung, who eschewed a chance to gain a degree in order to focus on the art of shoe shining. In April, at a competition in London, he was named world champion in this field. Decked out in a suit, and running his own shop called Mason & Smith, Chung charges $18 for a basic shine, but as much as $400 for a repair. “It is like the shoe services equivalent of Savile Row. There’s the business element there, there’s the craftsmanship element, so that’s a different pathway,” says Indranee. “So, will you say that’s not a success?”

Another success story she cites is Elaine Tan, a local jewellery designer who has started her own brand, Amado Gudek. As it happens, Indranee was wearing a necklace made by Tan during the interview. The necklace’s centrepiece is made from bio-resin and encapsulates gold flakes and a piece of a two-million-year-old fossilised stone from Myanmar.

It is unlikely that there will ever be room in the local market for more than just a handful of jewellery designers and shoe shining experts, of course. But the point is that there is no limit to the range of “artisanal” careers that people can carve for themselves, Indranee says. And, collectively, these individuals could provide the local economy with diversity and vibrancy.

“It hasn’t reached a tipping point where it has become mainstream. But, I think we’ve started on that journey,” says Indranee. One potential stumbling block is that it may take time for the parents of students currently going through the school system to accept the idea that paper qualifications are not everything. “I hope that parents will also look ahead, and not look back, to see what the future economy looks like. It is going to be very diversified. So, it is really about choosing the right path for yourself, and for your child.”

Professional help

It is not just students and their parents who need to change their mindsets but also white-collar workers who may already have well-established careers. Much like blue-collar workers, these often highly paid professionals are also being displaced by automation and artificial intelligence.

In January, Indranee launched the government’s masterplan — the so-called Industry Transformation Map — for the professional services sector, which includes lawyers, accountants and engineers. According to her, professionals working for large, multinational firms are better prepared to adapt, but those working for small companies are not. One reason is a general lack of awareness among smaller companies of the technological disruption that is unfolding.

Among the most proactive in embracing new technologies are the big accounting firms. According to Indranee, they are already exploring the use of AI for auditing and data analytics for consultancy work. On the other hand, there appears to be more inertia at law firms, especially the smaller ones. “When you first come out, young and fresh, you are very happy to bring in new ideas, bring in new things. Then, you achieve a certain comfort zone. And, it becomes very difficult to leave the comfort zone, unless the organisation is one that constantly [reaches out for the next thing],” she says.

As a whole, Singapore has some catching up to do with the likes of the US and UK in adapting to technological change, Indranee adds. “The short answer is that we definitely need to pick up pace. The one good thing is that everyone is now aware. Adoption is another thing.”

Amid all this change, however, Indranee says Singapore should never allow its commitment to its values to be eroded. Such values include family as the core, the rule of law and trust in institutions. It also includes the drive to be exceptional and excel. And, programmes such as “Golden Treat” will perhaps become all the more important in ensuring that Singapore maintains a cohesive society. “It is really values that make us what we are,” Indranee says.

This article first appeared in issue of The Edge Singapore (Issue 842, week of Aug 6)