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Please, Stop Throwing Anecdotes At Singapore’s Inequality And Class Divide Problems

In the past week, Singapore’s inequality and class divide problems were met with a familiar, yet problematic chorus of anecdotes. The point, it seems, is that the country’s brand of meritocracy still allows hardworking Singaporeans of any socio-economic background to succeed. ST featured the only son of a full-time Grab driver who secured a place in Raffles Institution (RI) and a Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) student who was inspired by a President’s Scholar from his primary school – both of whom are on financial assistance – though these anecdotes preceded an argument made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, that anyone in Singapore can succeed regardless of their family circumstances. In this vein, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung were held up as examples who “overcame relatively difficult backgrounds to get to where they are”.

It is a familiar chorus, because ST’s headline “Can a taxi driver’s or hawker’s son still make it to Raffles Institution?” echoes another one it published last year, on the President’s Scholarship: “Son of taxi driver among this year’s President’s Scholars”.

And it is a problematic chorus, because we lose sight of the big picture about socio-economic mobility. The question, therefore, is not whether children from low-income families can make it to RI, become President’s Scholars, or succeed in life (answer: they can), but the proportion of children who actually do. Mapping out the extent to which these children and their families make it and the extent to which a level playing field exists – assuming that it is equity, not equality, we desire – are moreover useful for understanding the structural challenges they face. This also underlines a second opposition to the disproportionate emphasis on anecdotes (even well-meaning and meaningful ones): That structural problems demand structural solutions, not just piecemeal calls for changes in mindsets or stereotypes.

To their credit, ST and TODAY did press for specifics (even if RI is taking the brunt of the attention, and even though TODAY’s headline is not entirely fair). ST reported that RI declined to reveal the number of its students who live in three-room HDB flats or qualify for 100 per cent financial assistance, and that HCI gave the vague figure that 50 per cent of its students live in public housing. TODAY pointed out that inter-school projects mooted by top schools such as HCI and RI involve only a select number of students from each school, notwithstanding the likely superficiality of such initiatives. Yet even more details are needed. Besides the top schools, it is not unreasonable too to expect more information from the Ministry of Education and the Public Service Commission, respectively on the distribution of students across schools and of its scholars, based on socio-economic indicators such as housing types and financial assistance status.

As I previously wrote, even without accounting for the types of public housing, the 53 per cent of RI students – and the 50 per cent of HCI students – who live in public housing still compares poorly to the approximately 80 per cent of Singaporeans living in HDB flats.

In the even bigger picture, we should be looking at inter-generational income mobility – which Mr. Ong referenced in his inequality speech – as the more instructive indicator. The Gini coefficient is a great headline figure, and can be useful when used in comparisons in the same country across time (for instance, how has Singapore’s income distribution changed every year since 2000), or in comparisons of different countries, at the same point in time (how does Singapore’s income distribution compare with that of other equivalent countries, in 2017). Singapore’s Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers was 0.417 in 2017 (0.356, after taxes and transfers), but how does one interpret or make sense of the 0.356 or 0.417 figures? Are they too high? Too high, compared to what? What is an “ideal” Gini coefficient?

Inter-generational income mobility (above), on the other hand, offers more intuitive interpretations. It refers to the degree to which income levels change across generation; that is, is a poor child (in a low-income household) likely to become a rich adult (in a high-income household)? In Singapore, according to the Ministry of Finance: “Given a father in the first quintile [or bottom 20 per cent of income earners], the son’s odds of reaching the top quintile [or top 20 per cent of income earners] is 10 per cent; and given a father at the median (third quintile), the son has fairly even odds of reaching every quintile”. The important caveat is that these positive findings apply to cohorts born between 1969 and 1978, and this rate of movement might not apply to subsequent generations, especially as social capital accrues.

And as we amass and keep track of such data and information, more structural solutions can be explored. With KidSTART, a pilot programme for low-income and vulnerable young children, the government has acknowledged the importance of early childhood and family intervention, and with changes to the PSLE – in particular, the new scoring system with wider scoring bands – there is some momentum focusing on the education system. Tied to this is the concern over economic disparities “between and within neighbourhoods”, as highlighted by Dr. Leong Chan-Hoong of the Institute of Policy Studies, with the need to enhance social-class permeability for meaningful interactions. Even HCI and RI are taking steps to enhance inclusivity, yet in the face of entrenched interests and practices the scepticism persists.

Chipping away at the scepticism starts not only with those in positions of power, but also with those – like myself – who have been privileged by the education system and by socio-economic backgrounds or class status. In the last week too, as the inequality and class divide discourse continued in Singapore, an essay in “The Atlantic wrote about the American class divide and how a meritocratic class of the 9.9 per cent passes its privilege to their children at the expense of others. There are so many parallels to Singapore, with the outsourcing of parenting and caregiving, college-counselling services and enrichment experiences, the exclusivity of top schools, as well as the college premium and its relationship to social mobility. To not confront these problems is to acknowledge our collective complicity.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


11 thoughts on “Please, Stop Throwing Anecdotes At Singapore’s Inequality And Class Divide Problems

  1. Very insightful though I am not sure of any possible solutions besides the experimental Kidstart. Proportions in private schools would be out of govt controls and likely to continue.

    I foresee education or society to change greatly to see beyond education/certifications or schools.

    Posted by Thien | May 29, 2018, 5:55 pm
    • KidSTART is belated in Singapore, but it’s a good example of research- and evidence-based policymaking. I think we could run (quasi-)experiments within the education system too, with older students, but that is contingent upon good research designs and collaboration with the Education Ministry too.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 30, 2018, 7:18 am
  2. To me this appear to be a critique of using anecdotes in complex issues, zoom out from the particulars and focus on the overall view (which is commendable). The argument would have been far more powerful if the the data that you did present showed something actually different from the presented anecdotes. As far as I can tell, the problem with the data is no different from anecdotal evidence. 1) Both forms of evidence suggest that children from low-income families can succeed in life (as you also agreed). 2) Both forms of evidence do not have an agreed-upon threshold/cut-off point where we are happy with the state of mobility. Although anecdotally, that point is based on the whims and fancies of popular opinion, but the overall income mobility matrix also falls into the same trap as the Gini-coefficient, ie. what is ideal?

    “The question, therefore, is not whether children from low-income families can make it to RI, become President’s Scholars, or succeed in life (answer: they can), but the proportion of children who actually do.”

    The key problem with your argument is that measuring the proportion of children who do succeed in moving up the socioeconomic ladder really doesn’t tell us why they don’t. Your assumption is that it could be systemic to whatever societal institutions we have, chiefly education, but the person who says ‘these people are lazy’ may have an equally valid point. So is it systemic injustice or inefficiencies? Or laziness? Or broken families? Or lack of public transport or other infrastructure? Or social support? The list goes on…

    I have yet to read Teo Yeo Yenn’s book on inequality, but as I understand it, it tends to be more of ethnographic approach then analysis of quantitative data. I wouldn’t consider it purely anecdotal since there are methods to produce high quality qualitative data, but it would come close to it. Would it be fair to say that such qualitative data is indeed qualitatively different from the articles provided above? I’m curious to know what the answer would be.

    Posted by Craig | June 5, 2018, 3:02 pm
    • Thanks for the comment. I appreciate you taking time to read and to respond.

      The underlying premise of the piece is the link between proportion and intergenerational mobility, and in this vein I could’ve been more explicit with the distinction between the Gini coefficient and intergenerational mobility. This does get to your point about an agreed-upon threshold / cut-off point “where we are happy with the state of mobility” – which as an aside, ought to be up for public discussion, and to a large extent depends on – since intergenerational mobility provides a more useful measure for that. The second point I’ll make is that the data (if it is available*) does not quite cohere with the anecdotes. Public housing is a very rough proxy for socio-economic status in Singapore, and we know from RI and HCI that only 50 per cent of their students. The distribution of PSC scholars is similar too, though it hasn’t released a breakdown since 2008.

      * I should emphasise again that ST and TODAY did press for specifics, but the schools have not offered breakdowns.

      And this point about data goes segue into your critique, which I do not disagree with. My piece says nothing about the causal mechanisms of inequality / the class divide / social mobility, but at the same time I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss qualitative approaches though. Going ahead, I’d be interested – as a researcher – to employ mixed-methods approaches to understand the ecology of low-income families (in Singapore), and get to precisely that list of questions you’ve referenced. And it is also in the face of these conflicting assumptions held by the government (as reflected by its policies) and by researchers or interlocutors (I wouldn’t count myself as one, though I echo those articulated by researchers like Prof. Teo) that empirical research and evidence can be useful.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | June 6, 2018, 12:29 pm
      • Dear Kwan Jin Yao (pardon me if I got the name wrong), thank you for your kind response. Despite my disagreements I enjoyed reading your article.

        Admittedly I am still trying to orientate myself in this burgeoning discussion. And on a philosophical level, I am still wrapping my head around the role/validity/significance of anecdotes or stories in our collective understanding of society. As a scientist myself, I am biased towards empirical research and against anecdotes, but I’m trying to see the pitfalls of the former and the value of the latter. I think you have been in the journalism/newsmaking scene far longer than I have, you are more of an authority. I suppose we both agree that there is a midway point between these two ways of understanding the world.

        My response is probably my allergy towards how stories are marshaled when data doesn’t support a narrative, or how data is marshaled when stories don’t. This phenomenon stymies national conversations, where one form of data is used to negate the other form, when they could be synthesized instead to get a better picture. For example, I disagree with how your examples of anecdotes don’t agree with the data. As far as I can tell, a few positive stories don’t make any claims as to the proportion of people who do manage to change social status (though one could argue they ‘give the impression’ they disproportionately do), but they do show that it is possible to do so (as you are happy to admit too). And in any case, both forms don’t really tell us what we really need to know, yet.

        The claim still could be made that a national broadsheet posting these stories sounds suspiciously like the government hand-waving away this issue as if there’s nothing deeper to talk about. True. But the discussion can’t go any further until the mechanisms have been pointed out (the scientist in me speaking again). And there’s a danger in that – we will be attacking the symptom (superficial data trends) without addressing the roots. Is inequality the real level of analysis? What about poverty? Is it purely systemic, or even cultural and spiritual? How do you tease them apart? Do we aim for ‘educational equality’ (as Teo just wrote in the ST recently), or ‘educational diversity’? Is skepticism towards the upper classes the way to go, or will it lead to greater discontentment? These will have a bearing on how we do come to terms with the ‘ideal’ or ‘acceptable’ cut offs I spoke of.

        That’s why I felt that your ending paragraph was far too forceful considering you didn’t really present equally strong evidence. But this is a blogpost, not a thesis. And maybe there is merit in what you say in that we need to remove the blinders that might think of this as a non-issue. I hope this makes sense. Kudos to us all in doing so, and thank you for your input in all this.

        Lastly, thanks for allowing me to engage your thoughts! Cheers

        Posted by Craig | June 8, 2018, 8:50 am
      • No problem at all, I really appreciate the exchange too. Sorry for the late response though. Just finished a few final assignments and an exam, and now have some time before the summer stint.

        It’s not completely analogous, but I’m thinking of the relationship between quantitative and qualitative approaches to research design. Within the research field I operate in – that is, social welfare / social work / social policy – I would agree that there’s a mixed-method approach or a “midway point” which is desired. For instance, and generally speaking, a quantitative approach could provide evidence as to whether there is a relationship between cause and effect, while a qualitative approach could elaborate the mechanisms through which the causal effect happens.

        And along that tangent of proportionality, I’m not convinced that the anecdotes (the qualitative evidence) are consistent with the data (the quantitative one), though as we’ve established data in the first place is hard to come up. I’d argue that the socio-economic distribution of the students from the top schools – HCI and RI estimate that half of their students live in public housing at the moment – have become more skewed over the years. Findings from the intergenerational mobility study are slightly dated too, since it covers father-son pairs from an earlier generation.

        I have no disagreement with your subsequent points, again on the fact that we don’t know enough, and that the mechanisms of inequality or the class divide are not well understood. I’ll make two more tangential points. The first is that we don’t have a good handle of what the solutions are, precisely because the problems have not been adequately fleshed out. Your point about “scepticism towards the upper classes” reminds me of a conversation I just had with a group of friends, on balancing policy approaches for the low-income and the high-income. The second is that the importance of (social science / service) research has never been more important, to provide answers to some of these questions mooted. I have to, of course, declare my vested interest in these endeavours.

        Finally, this is a long shot, but we’re putting together a discussion on some of these issues. If you’re available and you’d like to, we would love for you to join us: https://kwanjinyao.com/2018/06/04/bridge-the-gap-a-youth-discussion-on-inequality-and-the-class-divide-in-singapore/.

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | June 15, 2018, 1:17 am


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