Tackling inequality a national priority: Ong Ye Kung
PUBLISHED ON 15 May 2018
Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung has emphasised that the Government is committed to tackling inequality together with Singaporeans to ensure that social stratification will not threaten Singapore’s society.

"Tackling inequality is not just a long term challenge for tomorrow, but a national priority today. Fixing this is not the responsibility of any one segment of society. It demands something from all of us, because there is no more vital task than bringing Singapore and Singaporeans together," Mr Ong said on 15 May 2018 during the debate on the President’s Address.

Mr Ong noted that it is important to understand the issue of inequality in Singapore carefully, as the Republic is different from other nations. He pointed out that unlike the stagnant economic outlook of many developed countries, Singapore’s low- and middle-income families continued to see real income growth and social mobility over the years.

Mr Ong outlined four approaches to better understand inequality.

On the income gap, Mr Ong said Singapore’s progressive tax system and other policies have worked to moderate disparity. Additionally, the top 10 per cent of income earners contribute to about 80 per cent of personal income tax revenue, which are redistributed to lower-income Singaporeans through schemes such as the Workfare Income Supplement.

"With the muscle of progressive taxation and redistribution, and the spirit of giving back, we can moderate the effects of an income gap," he said.

On the middle-income core, Mr Ong shared that Singapore’s median household income has grown by 3.4 per cent in Singapore between 2006 and 2016, compared to countries like the United States, Japan, Britain, Denmark and Finland, which have seen stagnating or close to zero growth over the same period.

"And this is a result of income growth across the board, including the lower income," said Mr Ong, noting that is also reflected in Singaporeans' changing lifestyles. However, this could be challenging for many middle-income families to do better, given the high base that society is at. "We will still improve, but it will be in steps and not leaps,” Mr Ong added.

Singaporean pride

Therefore, a better life should not be defined purely in economic and material terms, but also from a more holistic perspective: a more pleasant and greener environment, a more cohesive and caring society, and a greater sense of Singaporean pride, he said.

On social mobility, Mr Ong said Singapore students have broad access to tertiary education. And through high home ownerships rates and new schemes, there is more help given to Singaporeans to move from public rental flats to move into their own homes.

Mr Ong on the other hand also acknowledged that the success of the Government's policies have led to a set of problems. "Families who did well are able to pass down the privileges to their children, through better coaching, enrichment classes, and exposure to the world. Their children have a head start. For families who cannot move up despite the strong and better support, we find their circumstances more dire and challenging than poor families of the past," he said.

Policies should bind people

As for social mixing, Mr Ong said public policies - housing, National Service and education – have helped to nurture and reinforce a Singaporean culture of being blind to race, income and family backgrounds. While people are free to choose their friends, Mr Ong cautioned that the start of stratification will start when groups begin to form along socio-economic status. “Our policies will need to work against this trend, to actively bring Singaporeans of all backgrounds together,” he highlighted.

Mr Ong also pledged to develop various pathways and opportunities in the education system and cautioned that 'bold moves' such as abolishing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) cannot be made recklessly.

“Listen to the voices”

He emphasised that policymakers will have to “put our ears close to the ground, and listen to the voices of all segments of Singaporeans” because the voices of the people delivers a “diversity of views, conflicting and complex, even as they remain compelling.”

At the same time, Mr Ong stressed that meritocracy cannot be confined to academic excellence. He elaborated, "(If) success is defined narrowly as being a university graduate holding a professional or managerial position, then pathways will be limited, possibilities reduced and opportunities curtailed," he said.

With national movements like SkillsFuture, the Ministry hopes to encourage individuals to discover their own strengths, and build pathways to achieve skills mastery. While there has been some progress, Mr Ong emphasised that more needs to be done especially in the education and training system.

"Societal mindset will take even longer to evolve. We will continue to improve our policies and we will not stop at these measures… We will actively look out for fresh ideas, and try new solutions. If we come across an interesting and promising approach, we will be prepared to consider it, develop it further, run a pilot programme and see how it works," he said.