During a debate session I attended this week, we were discussing whether private schools should be abolished. It brought to mind the anger that often arises within me when I see privileged counterparts who have the opportunity to study abroad. I often contrast it to the stories I heard during my time in the army, when my men would share with me how they had to take on jobs to afford the cost of going to study at the local polytechnic.
But beyond the anger, I realise that being angry and talking about it changes nothing. But actions do. What then can I do to change this situation? I think it is by firstly recognising the problem, and its roots.
Singapore used to pride itself on its education, and how its education system levelled outcomes across social classes. But as we grow as a society, slowly, those small advantages that privileged parents can give to their children from birth magnify as their children grow older. Take myself as an example.
I grew up in an environment where my parents would invest in assessment books, encyclopaedias, and swimming classes. But if we contrast this to a low-income family who struggle to make their income stretch, how can their child grow up to fulfil their potential?
When you spend your formative years in an ‘elite’ school, your exposure to social connections is much different from someone who comes from a different background. During my years in the army, my friends from school started setting up businesses, investing in Ethereum (a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin) and I was inevitably exposed to these exciting concepts. That was how I got started in investing, to achieve some semblance of financial independence. The ‘social capital’ I had accumulated during my time in school was starting to reap dividends.
But when I spoke to my friends from army, few, if not none of them had ever thought of investing their money to make it grow.
There are no easy solutions to such a complex, multifaceted problem of inequality. But some ways might work.
Firstly, mentoring. When we expose others to such concepts, exclusive knowledge no longer becomes that exclusive anymore.
Promoting social mixing. Singapore’s National Service is a great social mixer, because it brings together boys of different backgrounds, races, and religions to serve. We are all subject to the same punishments, incentives, and training. But it comes a little late. If we can start social mixing at preschool, where preschool no longer becomes a gated community exclusive to the elite, children from fortunate backgrounds might build lasting relationships with people from other less privileged backgrounds from a young age.
At the heart of this issue is my fierce belief that unequal societies produce lesser societies. Think about it this way. What if you told a child that had just been born to a low-income family that there was little chance that he would ever make it to the top? Inequality hurts our societies. And we need to do something about it.