How can Singapore strive to become more inclusive as a nation
The dialogue session allowed youths to voice out their concerns regarding inequality in Singapore and discuss the tangible ways we can contribute and work together as a society to achieve a more equal and inclusive Singapore.
Being able to thrive in one of the world’s most expensive cities is a given for the majority of us.
Catching up with friends over coffee at posh cafes, preoccupying ourselves with our favourite Netflix series and spending our paychecks on the latest fashion wear and phones is a common way of life.
But for the systematically marginalised, it’s a radically different reality.
In a country where life is a rat race, there is little space for those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, much less opportunities for them to rise up.
So, how then can we reduce this disparity between the social classes?
To better understand youth sentiments on the existing policies and their aspirations for change, the National Youth Council (NYC) engaged youths from various NYC networks and Polytechnics to attend a dialogue session on social inequality and mobility on May 17.
The participants were asked: “How can we achieve a more equal and inclusive society?”
These are some takeaways from the two-hour long session:
1. Singapore is more than just Singaporeans
What does it mean to be inclusive? Who should we be including?
It’s evident that our society comprises more than just Singaporeans. As such, our care should extend to beyond our local community, and include the foreign workers and permanent residents.
“If we want to maintain our branding of a melting pot of cultures, we should be open to fluid mindsets,” shared 22-year-old Shanna Kaur, who is currently a third-year student at Yale-NUS College.
She added that we should also be reimagining what the Singaporean identity constitutes. Other participants chimed in in agreement that the Singaporean identity might be doing more harm than good by excluding those who are unable to relate due to different lived experiences.
2. Define success based on the individual
The participants and panellists came to a consensus that wanting to achieve equality is not a realistic goal given the nature of the free-market system. Instead, we should redefine what it means to succeed.
Based on an individual’s abilities and perceptions, they can carve out their own outcome, which need not be the same as their peers.
So equality in this case would be ensuring that everyone has the opportunities and resources to achieve their own aspirations.
That said, the first step would be to help the disadvantaged expand their worldview so that they can dream bigger.
“Aspiration is a function of your own experiences,” said panellist David Hoe, who is also the founder and director of I Am Talented (IAT), a youth empowerment programme catering to secondary school students, including those from the Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic) streams.
He cited his own experience as a child from a lower-income family, sharing that his younger self dreamt of becoming a chicken rice seller as that was the kind of physical setting he was exposed to. Similarly, his friends dreamt of becoming basketball and football players as those were activities they frequently engaged in.
Instead of pushing these students to study harder, a more tangible form of support would be to directly show these kids what kind of things they can achieve, be it through career guidance programmes or even subject taster sessions.
As privileged individuals, we are often distantly removed from the conditions of precarity and tend to take for granted class privileges.
We need to take that step and understand that the less fortunate don’t make bad choices. Rather, they may be often uninformed and unaware of the options available given their circumstances.
3. Access to assistance with dignity
Throughout the session, a word that was constantly brought up was “dignity”.
Many participants felt strongly about enabling others to live empowered and dignified lives and imagine an ideal society to be one where everyone is respected as equals.
This begs the question – are our existing social safety nets serving people with the dignity they deserve?
Furthermore, are these aids sustainable? Or are they simply band-aid solutions?
For the disadvantaged to thrive in our society, our systems need to do more than just appease their immediate needs like financial struggles.
Panellist Siti Nurbiah Daud, who has pioneered several philanthropic efforts, reinforced that instead of seeing the less fortunate as needy individuals, we should shift our mindsets and view them as equally capable people with unique strengths.
These strengths can then be further polished so they’ll eventually have the capability to support themselves.
4. Be willing to change
As individuals in a position of privilege, we hold the greatest instrument for change.
For greater social cohesion, a handful of participants voiced out that we should take the initiative to mix with others of different socio-economic statuses rather than wait for systems like school and work to provide such opportunities.
Some suggested we start with our own social circles, by being more open and understanding to different narratives and create a culture of acceptance.
“We need to have the courage to imagine a better society and be willing to make that change,” said Shanna.
Something else the participants touched on was not succumbing to peer pressure. In Singapore where kiasuism is prevalent, it’s easy to fall into a mindless rat race, constantly competing for things we might not even want.
5. Tangible improvements we can make
In terms of what the youths feel the Government can improve on, many said that there’s a lack of transparency when it comes to policies and new implementations such as the recent GST hike.
“The public should be educated on what (the policy change) entails, how it affects them directly, and why there’s a need for the change,” said a participant.
Others agreed that discourse surrounding the term “greater good” is often over-simplistic. If the Government were to explicitly say who exactly is benefiting from these changes and in what ways, the public would be more tolerant.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that as opposed to us individuals, the Government adopts a much broader perspective and takes into account several other factors.
Singaporeans should start providing practical solutions instead of complaining, said another participant.
“For example, the GST hike is meant to get money to pay for things our society needs. In order for us to enjoy these benefits, money has to come from somewhere.”
As for structural disadvantages, panellist Adriana Rasip, who is currently a manager at the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), brought up the example of how certain poly courses like design require students to have a MacBook. But as some may not be able to afford one, it sets them back significantly and causes them to lose out.
She emphasised the importance of providing students with such basic infrastructure which puts them at a disadvantage should they lack.
Before ending the session, it was acknowledged that while all of us can take significant steps to tackle the issue of inequality, it cannot be solved through individuals or policies alone. It is an issue that requires the entire nation to put in effort for changes to be made.
David Hoe added that we can continuously find ways to address issues relating to inequality and this can be done through starting or volunteering in relevant initiatives.
“I believe that Singapore must be a place where everyone must walk away believing that they can achieve their aspirations,” said David.