On inequality

Lack of social mixing is a symptom of inequality, not a cause

7 Jun 2018, Teo You Yenn

I wanted to take the chance to respond to Teo’s interesting article on how the lack of social mixing is a symptom, instead of a cause for inequality.

Instead, Teo argues that the ‘design of systems, not people’s individual tastes and preferences’ explains our lack of social mixing. I clearly remember my time in the army, where for the first time, I met and worked with many people from vocational institutions such as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and the polytechnics. But it hurts to see that some of the men I worked with are now working as waiters, Uber drivers, and supermarket packers. This is not to criticise any of those jobs, but it is a cruel reflection of how our society values people from those educational backgrounds. In many ways, I was blessed that at the age of 12, I grew up in a family that could afford to invest money in my education, tuition, and assessment books. But when I heard the stories of many of the men I worked with, I realised that not all had this privilege.

SAF army

Studying in an ‘elite’ school thereafter, that small advantage at 12 increased into a huge gap. It pained me to hear that many of my friends from Hwa Chong were discussing which university course to study, when one man I worked with was trying to figure out how to raise his child. Or to stop loan sharks from harassing his family. Or to figure out how to cope after his father’s death. I am in university now because the educational system valued my ability to do math, English, Chinese, and science well. But did it value one of my friends from the army, who had the emotional resilience to handle difficult problems from a young age?

It is easy for me to criticise the Singapore education system for sorting quickly, narrowly, and rigidly. But I recognise that in an environment where our only resource is our people, there is a need to do so to maintain our competitiveness in the world. Otherwise, we risk being irrelevant.

What then can you and I do? There are three things that might be useful.

Firstly, we can start by showing genuine appreciation for those we often take for granted – such as the security guards, cleaners, or cashiers. Let us begin by recognising the important, though understated roles they play in our societies.

Secondly, we can volunteer in charities. Volunteering gives us the chance to touch lives, allowing us to live lives of contribution, instead of consumption.

Lastly, we can mentor others. For those from less fortunate backgrounds, the value of having a mentor who can guide and walk with them through life is priceless.

Systems rarely change overnight. But with our collective efforts, we can slowly build a stronger community, unseparated by class, background, or position.

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