Friday, 9 February 2018

The Great Class-Divide.

"Are we concerned?" 

Yes, like for all surveys we watch these trends carefully. Are we alarmed? I'll say "no" because if you look at the survey results holistically, you will find good diversity in our social network."

That's our Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) responding, Grace Fu. 

She was responding to an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey last month, "which found that people from elite and non-elite schools and residents in public and private housing are not mixing."

Her solution? 

It's a three-pronged approach. First, nurturing caring community. Second, fostering a cohesive society. And third, building a confident nation. 

To achieve its goals, the Ministry is injecting a $150m boost to encourage more people to play sports, join arts groups, and "take part in cultural activities or voluntary groups". 

Grace Fu added: "To foster a cohesive society, the ministry has in place several initiatives to build understanding and trust among communities." 

One of these initiatives is the national SG Cares movement to promote volunteerism.

It should also be noted that her ministry is building the nation's confidence by actively promoting and participating in the SEA Games and Asean Para Games.

MCCY is proud of its achievement thus far.

In 2017, they have 680k Singaporeans who took part in various NDP activities, 14k members in Youth Corps Singapore (encouraging the youth to do volunteering work), 6k young people who took part in Outward Bound School Programmes, 5k secondary school students who participated in performance arts-based learning, and 3.2k primary school students who attended hands-on classes in museums and art galleries. 

For the above reasons, Grace Fu is optimistic that we are on the right track. We are progressing as one nation to counter class divide. 

By encouraging participation in cultural, nationalistic and sports activities, we are keeping class divide at bay.

She said that "the various achievements are not one-off affair, but part of a long journey".

Lesson? Just one, but the concerns are many.

No doubt I applaud Grace Fu and the work her ministry is doing, my concern is however on whether, are we taking this long journey either with no end in sight or to an end that is not our intended destination? 

I guess encouraging diversity and participation, engaging the society in sports and debates, and instilling the young with a sense of giving and volunteerism are all noble goals towards fostering unity and cohesion.

But in the end, does it solve the class divide issue as our nation progresses in another direction where the income and social divide deepen even more?

Prosperity and economic growth come with its own problems, and one of them is how we redistribute wealth. 

Another problem is how we prevent the rich from hording wealth by keeping the rental income piling up on property ownership, and controlling and manipulating it at the expense of the disadvantaged majority? 

Last Sunday, the Straits Times tried to address this issue with a piece entitled "Bursting social-class bubbles". 
It essentially echoed Grace Fu's view of social participation and cohesion. It is basically about getting people together, mixing them up in sports and cultural activities, and fostering unity that way. 

Ryan Wee, only 17, made this remark in the article which I find relevant. He said: "It's a matter of circumstances. I don't think people make friends or shun people because they are from a certain types of school."

The key-sentence there is: "it's a matter of circumstances". 

And class or social divide is about inequality and poverty, that is, the circumstances or the state we are in.

When you are at the bottom rung of society, the government can try her best to fight discrimination, but the differentiation by deserving-ness (explained below) and stigmatization by status are always there, insidiously hidden. 

Professor Teo Yun Yenn, author of "This is what Inequality looks like", made this incisive observation when she wrote this:-

"Inequality, in fact, is a logical outcome of meritocracy. What the education system does when it selects, sorts, and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those "at the top," is that it renders those who succeed through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving."

And no one needs to tell Singaporeans that meritocracy is our lodestar when it comes to nation-building. And this lodestar has yielded much unintended consequences. What was workable and logical at the start has over the decades found that logic twisted to serve the interests of the few at the top.

If class divide is dividing us, then the cause has to be smoked out. 

Is it then (as Grace Fu puts it) more about mixing people around on certain celebrated occasions to nurture diversity and cohesiveness, or is she bridging an inequality gap that can never be satisfactorily bridged if the causes of such social divide is not directly addressed?

Poverty is not a genetic flaw, but a social ill. It is in our DNA to be sociable, but most times, the poor finds it pointless in a world that is driven by materialist values. And most times, poverty is experiential, structural and systemic. 

When you have to sneak out at 4 in the morning with your family just to catch a public shower, or rent a one-room flat where the crime rate is the highest, or worry ceaselessly about how to pay the rental and school books, or lament over your estranged relationship with your teenage son because you have to work three shifts every week just to make ends meet and are hardly at home as a result, or bear with the territorial stigma of being poor and always being looked down at because you are always caught at social services asking for handouts because you are desperate, you can't help it but find the government effort of encouraging greater mixing a measure full of good intention, but still somehow wanting in depth and effectiveness if the system as a whole doesn't change too. 

Let me therefore end with the somber words of Professor Teo as food for more reflection in our world which is still pretending that a good rub of the medicated ointment on the bare back is somehow effective to realign a broken spine:-

"The biggest barrier to understanding poverty and inequality, for people with varying degree of power, status, influence, is their vested material and symbolic interest in its perpetuation."

Mm...wondering whether some of our well-paid ministers come under this class of people? I sincerely hope not. Cheerz.

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