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Reality check needed for S’poreans with unrealistic expectations

Class is back.

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Class is back.

Between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, leftist politics flourished, particularly among labour unionists, and high school and university students. Inspired by Marx and Mao, the language of class resonated here, especially its association with colonialism and exploitation, and jostled among competing visions of the future in the emerging independent polity of Singapore.

Gradually, as the People’s Action Party (PAP) government triumphed over leftist political parties as well as trade union and student organisations, the language of class took a backseat, though it never completely disappeared.

In its place was the language of meritocracy and equal opportunity. This was based on the PAP’s “democratic socialist” vision of Singapore, one that carried the promise of freedom from poverty and the prospect of social mobility in a vibrant, but not unbridled, capitalist economy for its people, many of whom were migrants who left China or India in search of a better life.

As is familiar history by now, a strong PAP government has delivered on its promise to provide jobs, healthcare, housing and education over its long, unbroken tenure. Singapore enjoyed sterling economic growth in the 1970s and early 1980s, home ownership grew and education expanded.

So successful was Singapore as one of the four Newly Industrialising Economies that social upgrading became the buzz-word. The Singapore Dream, encapsulated in the notion of the 5 Cs — cash, car, credit card, condo, country club membership — not only spelled the “good life”, but conveyed the comforting idea that class origin does not determine destiny. In the popular imagination, therefore, class, while present, does not quite matter. Some would in fact even mistake equality of opportunity for social egalitarianism or class equality itself.

The undeniable fact is that most Singaporeans were mobile, and visibly so, even if the range, degree, and probability of mobility were not equal for all. But during the past decade, the city-state has reached a mid-life crisis of sorts, with the re-emergence of a more class-conscious society because of income inequality and unequal relative social mobility — which persists despite the PAP government’s efforts at providing more income transfers and educational opportunities — amid greater turbulence and uncertainty in the global economy.

This has a significant impact on reshaping society and politics insofar as a large segment of the citizenry perceives that the Singapore Dream may increasingly elude them and their children.




Clearly, as Singapore crossed into the 21st century, it faced some serious threats to the Singapore Dream: A mature economy; stiff global competition; low fertility; and a rapidly ageing population. With a growing middle class, most armed with tertiary education, with all aspiring to well-paying, high-prestige jobs and comfortable living standards, there was growing competition for the “good life”.

In recent years, the PAP government has shifted somewhat more to the left of centre. It provided significantly more help to citizens, without de-emphasising self-reliance, by introducing various new policies and measures, with different degree of success, to address the “hot-button” issues. These relate to cost of living, including healthcare costs, competition from foreign labour and migrants, dissatisfaction with public transportation and housing.

But the language of class is still bubbling up from those at the bottom and in the middle rungs.

Low-income Singaporeans are concerned about stagnant wages, the high cost of living and rising income inequality. Meanwhile, middle-class people worry about not being able to live the secure, comfortable life they believe they deserve from having been relatively successful in the mobility game. They are also concerned about their children not being able to live the Singapore Dream, given the rise in property and car prices over the past decade and uncertainties over whether a university degree can still guarantee a good career in future.

In addition, those in the sandwiched generation have concerns over their ageing parents’ healthcare costs, even as they fund the education of their children.

In the lead-up to the 2015 General Election, the PAP government introduced various schemes and measures, such as the Pioneer Generation Package, MediShield Life and SkillsFuture to address the above issues. These may have contributed to a large extent to the PAP’s impressive electoral performance last year, reflecting a flight to safety, and a return to the survival ideology, now as version#2.

The support for survival ideology version#1 has helped to propel Singapore from Third World to First World. Hopefully, the support for survival ideology version#2 will help Singapore stay the course in an era of high expectations engendered by years of experiencing an upward trajectory of improving living standards and social mobility attributed primarily to a capable, paternalistic government — one that has staked its legitimacy on enhancing the human capital of citizens, creating sufficient well-paying jobs and enabling a majority of Singaporeans to climb the social ladder.

This is not to suggest that the economy, with a 2 per cent annual growth rate, is in poor shape.

However, the threat of job loss remains. This produces a sense of insecurity and fear of downward mobility, together with anxieties of not being able to meet financial commitments, especially among middle-aged, middle-class Singaporeans. Yet they continue to harbour an unrealistic expectation that things would quickly return to “normal”, coupled with a strong dependency on the government to help get them back on track.

The journey ahead would, however, be more hazardous, making it more challenging for the PAP government to deliver the “good life” that an aspiring middle-class society expects. This could lead to a heightening of class consciousness, resulting in a stronger clamour for more handouts, which would be unsustainable.

Should this occur, the PAP government would have to work out a new social compact with Singaporeans — one where its legitimacy shifts from delivering the good life to a “good enough” life, as it nudges citizens to focus on constant skills upgrading and living within one’s means.

It is hoped that this will prevent class-based tensions from appearing. But the process requires that Singaporeans understand the risks, uncertainties and disruptive effects of global competition and technological advancement, as well as the cost of supporting an increasingly ageing population. Ultimately, they have to get a reality check on their unrealistic expectations and stay resilient for the long haul.



Tan Ern Ser is associate professor of Sociology and academic adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies Social Lab at the National University of Singapore. He is author of ‘Does Class Matter?’ (2004) and ‘Class and Social Orientations’ (2015).

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