Post-event reflection: NUS Social Policies Forum 2019
Commentary | Thomas Chew, Event Associate Editor
Given all the buzz generated by our national discourse over inequality and social stratification, the recent NUS Social Policies Forum 2019 was well-received by some 300 audience members consisting of representatives across various educational institutes.
The panel was comprised of Guest-of-Honour, Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth; Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from NUS Sociology; Mr Gerard Ee, Executive Director of Beyond Social Services, a charity that helps underprivileged youth and moderated by Professor Robbie Goh, Dean of NUS Arts and Social Sciences.
Ms Grace Fu set the tone for the dialogue by opening with a defence of meritocracy, insisting that it remains the best option by providing everyone with a fair chance regardless of their background.
Ms Fu acknowledged that although the success of meritocracy has led to unintended adverse effects like worsening economic inequality, it remains as one of Singapore key principle policies: rewarding personal effort and hard work as opposed to policies that only benefit those of a certain race or religion.
In addressing the side effects, Ms Fu brought up government initiatives such as a progressive tax system, income supplements and investment in healthcare and education resources.
These initiatives seek to manage the distribution of resources and ensure that the underprivileged will continue to have access to the same opportunities.
However, Ms Fu emphasised that at the end of the day, government policies can only go so far. A part of the responsibility lies with those who had benefited from the system and to give back to society.
“The test of the people is not about how we treat successful people but rather how the successful treat others.” - Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth
With this, Ms Fu effectively reframed the conversation of how meritocracy entrenches class division into how the wealthy had a duty to be compassionate and care for the underprivileged.
Next, Associate Professor Tan acknowledged that inequality is inevitable against the backdrop of intense competition in society. Class is also recycled through wealth inheritance, along with the social and cultural capital accumulated.
Offering his solution, he called for social and economic restructuring to truly equalised opportunities to help address the inheritance of financial and social capital.
Associate Professor Tan further cautioned against the divide of Singapore into rich and poor categories. Instead, he encouraged greater social integration between classes to prevent class conflict and, possibly, to promote social and economic mobility.
Perhaps as an indirect response to Ms Fu’s remarks, Associate Professor Tan argued that meritocracy and self-reliance are not enough for social mobility or to address inequality. Instead, further redistribution is necessary to equalised opportunities. In essence, the government can and should do more.
Associate Professor Tan’s point on the importance of social mixing was echoed by Mr Ee echoed, who also drew upon his experiences working with underprivileged youth.
He claimed that the meritocracy narrative implies those with success have worked hard for it and conversely those without did not put in the required effort.
Another narrative is that there will be winners and losers. Mr Ee, however, rallied against these narratives as. barriers to overcome before society can learn to cooperate and reach out to those left behind by the system.
Similarly, Professor Goh shared his past experiences in volunteering and working with underprivileged families.
The key, according to Prof Goh, is early intervention to allow the young in these families to develop intellectual and social capital which would help them succeed later in life.
These initiatives can be as simple as providing a quiet place to study, away from homes which might not provide the best environment for them to study.
The role of social mixing was brought up again by members of the audience.
Sports was raised as a way to foster cooperation and bond people across different income groups. Playing as a team provides a sense of togetherness working towards a shared goal.
However, Mr Ee warned against hailing sports as a quick fix to social stratification. Having a sense of superiority or an inferiority complex can carry over into sports as well.
Sports can serve as a useful non-academic medium for people to understand each other better by breaking down entrenched path-dependency thought processes that create a sense of ambiguity of personal abilities.
It is within this ambiguity that people are able to accommodate other points of views and come together to strive for a common goal.
NUSPA and its recently launched publication, The Convergence, seek to further the discussion of pertinent social topics in Singapore.
Our dual goals of benefiting the NUS student body and enriching various discourses drive the organisation of various forums like the Social Policies Forum.
Thank you for attending and see you next time!
About the author: Thomas is a 3rd year Political Science major, Japanese Studies minor from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He is currently on staff with The Convergenceas an Associate Editor (Events). Thomas' interests include watching anime and playing chess. He believes they are not mutually exclusive.