EDITORIAL: Keeping alive the opportunity society
The Straits Times 26 May 2012
THE issue of social mobility is something of a fixation here, as it should be as mobility declines with development generally and can create social tensions. One facet of this is the role of self-help groups in helping families move up the social ladder, as noted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Taking a holistic approach, assistance should extend beyond schools to post-secondary institutions, and should also go beyond just academic grades. Becoming more successful in life calls for a range of soft skills, like the knack of networking, social confidence and money management. A good measure of character, cultural appreciation and emotional intelligence can also help give a leg up to young people from low-income homes.
While education remains a central plank, developing entrepreneurship is another way to bridge the gulf between the haves and the have nots. But inadequate capital, high rentals, rising labour costs and the lack of business contacts all stack the odds against those from disadvantaged homes. In a risk-averse culture, the young might gravitate towards a secure job to buy a better home for their family or help educate their siblings. Business associations and larger firms can play a useful part in checking this tendency through internships to foster an entrepreneurial spirit, mentoring programmes and business angel schemes.
It is encouraging that the doors continue to remain open for those from lower socio-economic groups to get ahead. The so-called 'double poor', with low household incomes and poor grades, can also be found in good neighbourhood primary schools that have produced top students. Over 90 per cent of each cohort move on to post-secondary institutes - high by world standards - and almost half of those from one- to three-room flats make it to universities and polytechnics. Fittingly, many financial assistance schemes are available to them.Society will splinter if the children of the rich grow up to become rich, while those of poor parents stay poor.
While social mobility carried three Tans to the Istana gate, as noted by Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee after the presidential election last year, the candidates rose up during an earlier time. A study by the Finance Ministry found moderate to high mobility here, but the fathers surveyed averaged more than 50 years of age and the ministry cautioned that the study might not apply to future generations. Also, while the poor have a chance of moving up, those from well-off homes have a higher probability of succeeding for a host of reasons like better financial support for study and cultural capital. Rising inequality is a worldwide phenomenon. It bears watching to ensure that society strives to keep hopes of moving up alive.