SINGAPORE (Mar 11): The two announcements by Parliament last week that spoke of “philosophical” shifts have been heartening.

The first, on March 5, on the Education Ministry removing the categorisation of students into “Normal” and “Express” streams in secondary school — dubbed a “sacred cow” by one Member of Parliament — was definitely welcome. The rationale is that teenagers aged between 13 and 17, already burdened with problems, will have one less social stigma to deal with. More importantly, the proposed greater customisation recognises that students have varying interests and corresponding abilities, and allows them to develop at their own pace. This, it is hoped, will make the best of each student’s talent and help the student realise his or her full potential.

There are details to be worked out. But as we report in our story this week, some observers believe the changes will, at the very least, improve the social mixing in schools. This issue was raised a few months ago in a documentary that highlighted how class, and not race or religion, was the greatest divide in Singapore society. And, that class consciousness began in school.

Under the current system, the academically weaker students, as determined by how they fare in the standardised Primary School Leaving Examinations, are grouped together in the “Normal” streams. These students take their GCE ‘O’ Level examinations a year later than their peers in the “Express” streams. Many of them have reported that being in the “Normal” streams has affected their self-esteem and given them a defeatist attitude.

Some quarters fear the proposed changes could have the opposite effect and lead to more unintentional segregation instead. For instance, some parents may prefer their children to mix only with students of a similar calibre. Whatever the case, parents and students are encouraged to take the changes “in the right spirit”. Sociologist Tan Ern Ser tells The Edge Singapore that what is important is how motivated and eager to learn children are, as this approach would allow them to maximise their potential.

The second announcement, made on March 6, on healthcare, was “a major philosophical shift”, according to Edwin Tong, senior minister of state for the Ministry of Health. The Community Health Assist Scheme, currently only for lower-income groups and the elderly, will be made available to middle- to high-income Singaporeans suffering from chronic conditions. While the amount of support is tied to income, it nevertheless represents a universal subsidy for general practitioner care, a first in Singapore.

These changes are “bold steps”, and are crucial as Singapore evolves as a nation and as an economy. Indeed, there is scope for similarly daring initiatives in other areas of policymaking.

One area is small and medium-sized enterprises, which have struggled to compete in a global business environment. This is despite substantial support from the government in the form of cash grants, tax rebates and other subsidies. (The Edge Singapore detailed a decade of support for SMEs in our post-Budget issue dated Feb 25). There have been repeated exhortations for SMEs to “digitalise” and “internationalise”, in order to adapt to the technological disruption, and grow.

It remains to be seen whether Singapore is getting good value for the subsidies it has extended to the business sector for so long. To be sure, there have been important adjustments, such as the lowering of the number of foreigners that companies in the services sector can hire. Most people recognise the need to wean ourselves off the cheap, foreign labour that businesses depended on in the past few decades. Perhaps businesses should be weaned off subsidies, and entrepreneurs pushed to look for opportunities and compete. Indeed, businesses with competitive advantages are likely to succeed anyway, and the grants and subsidies simply hasten their growth.

In addition, government intervention could take a different form. There are initiatives that encourage collaborations between local SMEs and large MNCs, and in fact many have been working together. There is also significant support from the government, under Enterprise Singapore and an SME co-investment scheme, which helps SMEs grow bigger and venture overseas.

But, there is still a large, relatively untapped, resource. Government-linked companies, for instance, could serve as critical conduits to overseas opportunities, as many are already established in the global markets.

Ultimately, Singapore companies need to be competitive to support employment and domestic wage growth. Concerns in these areas are surfacing as technological advancement makes more roles redundant. A growing number of professionals, managers, executives and technicians is becoming increasingly unemployable, owing to a mismatch in expectations on the part of both employer and employee.

There are numerous initiatives to help older, white-collar workers transition to new jobs. But, as we report in this issue of The Edge Singapore, there are also alternatives to employment. What it takes is flexibility, daring and sacrifice, or philosophical shifts in mindset.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 872, week of Mar 11) which is on sale now. Subscribe here