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Tilting the playing field for a more equitable society

It is important for Singapore to continue sharing the fruits of her success among Singaporeans equitably and in a sustainable way, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who suggested three ways of doing so, including having policies that tilt the playing field in favour of the poor and weak. This can counter the rise of “parentocracy”, where rich parents spare no expense in providing their children the best, thereby giving them a competitive advantage over those who have less financial means, added Mr Goh at the Marine Parade National Day dinner last Friday. Below is an excerpt from the speech by Mr Goh, who is a Member of Parliament for Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency.

Tilting the playing field for a more equitable society

Today, the talent system is self-sustaining at the top, but the top is pulling away from the rest. Well-to-do families have ample resources to groom their children. This gives their children a competitive advantage over those who have less financial means. TODAY File Photo

It is important for Singapore to continue sharing the fruits of her success among Singaporeans equitably and in a sustainable way, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who suggested three ways of doing so, including having policies that tilt the playing field in favour of the poor and weak. This can counter the rise of “parentocracy”, where rich parents spare no expense in providing their children the best, thereby giving them a competitive advantage over those who have less financial means, added Mr Goh at the Marine Parade National Day dinner last Friday. Below is an excerpt from the speech by Mr Goh, who is a Member of Parliament for Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency.

Singapore today is vastly different from the one I grew up in. Many homes then, including mine, were without electricity and modern sanitation. Today, every home has them. We have gone beyond basic needs. We are in an era of wants.

In a culture of wants, what we have is never enough. We have more money than before, but as Jack Neo would say, “money no enough”; we have more jobs than before, but as employers would say, “workers no enough”.

The politics of today is dominated by how to share the fruits. We have to do so equitably and in a sustainable way. We imperil our future if we assume that today’s bountiful harvest is natural and will last forever.

In one generation, we leapt from Third World to First. But we can also fall backwards in one generation. To avoid this, I have three messages.

My first message is: Keep planting new trees for the next generation. We should put aside the best seeds and grow them in fertile programmes such as education, housing, health, transportation, green environment and fulfilling lifestyles.

My second message is: Retilt the playing field to uplift the less well-off. The Government is keenly aware of the widening income gap and its impact on social mobility. Over the years, we have implemented social policies to ensure that those at the bottom are not left behind. In the 1990s, my government introduced Edusave, Medifund and the Lifelong Endowment Fund. We shared budget surpluses through New Singapore Shares and upgrading programmes that benefited Housing and Development Board heartlanders.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s government has built on these social policies and gone further. He has introduced Workfare and SkillsFuture, among others. He is restructuring the economy to increase productivity, restricting the inflow of foreign workers and boosting the wages of workers. I am glad that the Government is doing more.

We have always invested heavily in our people. With limited resources in the past, we nurtured the brightest of every cohort to lift the country up. The sons and daughters of washerwomen, hawkers, taxi-drivers, labourers and petty businessmen were given every opportunity to climb up through merit. Many ministers and Members of Parliament, including me, benefited from these policies. So it is nonsense for some people to say that we do not understand the plight of the poor.

COUNTERING PARENTOCRACY

Today, the talent system is self-sustaining at the top, but the top is pulling away from the rest. This is so in every market economy. European countries and the United States see the same phenomenon. Well-to-do families have ample resources to groom their children. Naturally, they will spare no expense to give their children the best. This gives their children a competitive advantage over those who have less financial means. Sociologists have dubbed this competition by parents to give their children the best as “parentocracy”.

Parentocracy tilts the playing field against the goals of meritocracy. Children from less-endowed families can fall behind, even if they are hard-working or enterprising.

The daily struggles of life weigh down their aspirations, self-esteem, nutrition and life habits. Some surmount the adversity and become more tenacious and hungry for success. But without the added backing of family resources, many face an uphill task competing with those who have more.

We must not allow the size of a family’s purse to determine their ambitions. When we pledge to achieve “happiness, prosperity and progress” for our nation, we must mean it for all Singaporeans, regardless of their backgrounds. So the state must intervene to give poorer students additional help. I am glad that the MOE (Ministry of Education) and the MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development) have taken significant steps to do so. But let us not only ask the Government to do more.

MORE ‘HEARTWARE’

My third message is for us, the community, to do more to grow Singapore’s “heartware”. Since leaving the Cabinet, I have focused on bringing about a better balance between compassion or “heartware”, and meritocracy.

At the national level, I played a part in establishing the National University of Singapore Social Service Research Centre. I lobbied the Government to set up a fund for social science research on long-term challenges. At the local level, in Marine Parade, we do not only organise grassroots activities. We also initiate programmes to make Marine Parade a Caring Community. We set up WeCare@MarineParade last year. The WeCare model is now being replicated and adapted in other constituencies.

This year, WeCare will partner Life Community Services Society and the National Council of Social Service to pioneer a “heartware” programme called EduGrow for Brighter Tomorrows. This is a family-centric early-intervention education programme. It will start with 25 lower-income families in Marine Parade and be expanded to 50 later. EduGrow will require parents to be actively involved in the education of their children. It will provide resources and community-led mentorship for the children. We will be looking for volunteers, preferably those who live in and around Marine Parade, to mentor the children. EduGrow is one small step to kick-start a broader national effort. It is a long-term programme that will see a child through pre-school to Secondary One; that is, eight years. It requires ample funding.

As we celebrate SG50, let us renew our commitment to Singapore and our values. Let us dedicate ourselves as one united people to build a Caring Marine Parade and a Singapore filled with opportunities, hope and “heartware”.

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