IN JANUARY, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew revealed statistics that showed a gulf in the educational background of parents of students in top secondary schools versus neighbourhood ones. The figures showed that an average of 50 per cent or more of those from brand-name schools had fathers who were university graduates. The corresponding figure hovered around 10 per cent for neighbourhood schools.
The question was whether students with less-educated parents were less likely to make it to the top schools. Put another way, was educational privilege now more entrenched, so that more-educated parents are able to pass on their advantages to their children, thus causing kids with less-educated parents to lose out?
Two weeks ago, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen released another set of data in Parliament, designed to reassure. Among them was the disclosure that 50 per cent of children from families in the bottom third socio-economic bracket actually score in the top two-thirds of their PSLE cohort.
Among those living in one- to three-room Housing Board (HDB) flats, four in 10 make it to polytechnic, and one in 10 to university. These figures are based on a study of the cohort entering Primary 1 in 1995, who will have reached the age for tertiary education now.
Dr Ng's conclusion was that the 'Singapore story', one defined by upward social mobility, is still unfolding for this generation. Still, the statistics do not erase the import of Mr Lee's figures.
For example, the fact that 50 per cent of the bottom third of kids score in the top two-thirds of their PSLE cohort, also means that 50 per cent of the bottom third of kids remain in the bottom third.
As for the figure that one in 10 students from smaller flats makes it to university - this is below the national average of one in four. This means children from one- to three-room flats are less likely than the average student to make it to university - to be precise, they have less than half the likelihood.
The two sets of statistics together give a picture of social mobility that is both reassuring, yet shows up areas of concern.
In a nutshell, the issue is this: While some children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to do well, their chances of doing so are markedly slimmer than those from well-heeled families, and possibly getting slimmer with each passing generation.
The fact that kids from privileged homes - with parents who are better endowed educationally and materially to pass on advantages to their children - do better academically is one which cuts across societies.
As Dr Ng pointed out, this has been found to be true in cross-country studies; and the Government should not hold back the achievement of the brightest, who are increasingly also the offspring of the rich.
Singapore's slowing social mobility is an inevitable result of four decades of astonishingly rapid and broad-based socio- economic mobility. With so many poor but able people already having moved up, the rate of change for future generations will slow. This is part of the trend of development as a country moves from developing to developed phase.
But it is cold comfort to say Singapore is no worse than other countries. As Dr Ng eloquently pointed out, upward mobility is central to this country's idea of itself. It helped define our collective history, and still animates its promise.
Resting on the laurels of past and present achievement by the disadvantaged is not enough. To its credit, the Government is ploughing more money into providing bursaries and financial support for those from low-income families. It pledges that no child with ability will be held back by his or her circumstances in life. This is laudable.
But the danger is when children from less-privileged families get discouraged by the odds stacked against them, and stop striving to improve their lot.
Sociologists see aspiration - the belief that one can compete with, and triumph over, those born with more - as a key factor in sparking upward social mobility.
In older and more divided societies, theorists argue that those from less privileged backgrounds may, over time, internalise their disadvantages as overwhelming or worse, pre-destined, and simply accept their lot in life.
This can result in a learned disposition of inferiority, an unarticulated and hence insidious assumption that the top rungs of achievement are not theirs to ascend.
In a way, the 'working class' heroes heralded by politicians and the media are the exceptions which help prove the rule. They are praised for making it to the top educational or socio-economic rungs. There is an unspoken, but revealing, societal disposition which has the inadvertent implication: You're not supposed to be here by virtue of your birth and disadvantages, but you did it, and society salutes the way you overcame the odds to succeed.
It is precisely because such stories are becoming rarer in the 2010s that they draw such attention.
To prevent children from poor families from sliding into apathy or despair requires committed effort. One call worth considering is MP Lily Neo's for dedicated 'case officers' to be assigned to every child from the bottom 5 per cent of households.
Social workers can help the family get social and financial assistance. They can track a child through the formative years, and serve as a constant reminder, a beacon of hope, to a child in the midst of deprivation and dysfunction, that the way to a better life is theirs to reach out for.
For the worst thing that an income gap and disproportionate achievement in schools can breed is not resentment, but resignation. A permanent underclass in society is formed not just when those in the bottom third stay there; it ossifies when they believe that it is where they belong. That we must avoid at all cost.
By Rachel Chang
From the Straits Times