Society has to broaden definition of success to enable Singaporeans to develop potential, experience progress

A Forward SG engagement session saw over 120 students discuss the issues of refreshing meritocracy and strengthening social mobility.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 17 November 2022, 2:57 PM

Imagine a lower-income family with young children whose parents are in poor health.

The parents will find it hard to secure and remain in stable employment because of their health, and in turn, they would have less resources to provide for their children’s needs since they lack the financial power to do so.

Compare this to a higher-income family, whose chances of bouncing back are significantly greater due to their financial stability.

“…even with specific financial support, these families may find it difficult to achieve longer-term stability. And as other families with means do better and better, it becomes harder and harder for lower-income families to catch up,” said Minister of State for Social and Family Development (MSF) and Home Affairs, Ms Sun Xueling. 

She shared this anecdote at an engagement session held at Singapore Polytechnic on Tuesday (Nov 15), in support of the Forward Singapore Care Pillar.


The current landscape of support and help schemes provide assistance to help people bounce
back, while preserving the ethic of self-reliance and personal responsibility. PHOTO CREDIT: MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT


The session saw over 120 students from polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education, junior colleges and universities in attendance. 

It aimed to find out youths’ views and suggestions on how Singaporeans can work together collectively to strengthen the support to lower-income families and individuals and uplift them to achieve better outcomes in their lives.

The students were split into 12 groups, each reasonably mixed with students from the various institutions. They either tackled the issue of refreshing meritocracy or strengthening social mobility.

These are some takeaways from the two-hour long session:

1. Those who have the capacity to contribute should give back and uplift the less privileged

Several participants shared that recognising one’s privileged position is the first step to helping the unfortunate. 

When discussing the topic of social mobility, many students expressed that those who have succeeded under the system often attribute their success to their capabilities and efforts.

However, these individuals have “won in life” partially due to the fact that they’re lucky the system works in their favour.

Many agreed that there’s a definite need for successful people to be cognisant and rid their sense of entitlement. 

That said, the students also highlighted that whatever privileges the upper class experience, “cannot be removed” and “should not be managed”. Instead, society should focus our energy to ensuring those without such luxuries are provided equal opportunities so as to level the playing field.

“(We should) uplift the underprivileged but don’t cripple the privileged,” added one participant.


Participants were invited to share each key point on a piece of post-it. PHOTO CREDIT: MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT


A point raised during the engagement was that our current system creates a vicious cycle of increased social stratification across generations. Those who have benefitted from the system, confer continuous advantages to their children.

One participant opened up about her personal struggles of being a child of a migrant mother. “I was unable to grasp as many educational opportunities. I didn’t have a choice on whether I wanted to be subjected to such disadvantages.”

Another participant talked of the prevalence of nepotism and how it widens the margin of education accessibility due to a lack of connections.

“Family influence naturally enables one to have more opportunities when compared to others with the same grades and achievements.”

The less connected, less privileged, are “stuck at the bottom of the trench” and the reality is that it’s very challenging for the Government to step in and mitigate this issue directly.

To alleviate this problem, some suggested having non-profit organisations like Access Singapore to connect those in need with career opportunities and equip them with the chance to rise up the social ladder.

2. Help needs to be rendered in a more dignified manner

There was a common consensus among the students that many a time, the vulnerable need help but are clueless on who to approach.

The students believe that when addressing such an issue, the onus is also on society to be proactive in offering help to struggling individuals and getting them to be aware of support available.

Another reason is that some can be too shy to ask for help – much of which owes to Singapore’s paiseh culture.

“Even though there are so many communities and Residents’ Committees (RCs), people won’t go and ask for help because they have egos.

“The person who needs help needs to feel comfortable and respected. This includes self respect,” shared one participant.

Others in the group chimed in, agreeing that Singaporeans do have the tendency to rely on themselves as they “care about face and want to be as independent as (they) can”.

To solve this, Singapore as a whole needs to move towards “instilling the idea that it is okay to be vulnerable”, a participant added.


When introducing themselves, the students were also asked to share their initial and current aspirations. PHOTO CREDIT: MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT


Another participant talked about her experience growing up in a single parent household following her parents divorce at age eight. While she had troubles coping, she never felt comfortable going to a counsellor. 

Instead, she’d rant about her struggles to her close friends and vice versa.

With hindsight, she suggested for there to be group chats and events where people of similar backgrounds who are facing similar challenges can mingle and share about their worries.

3. Grades don’t truly reflect your attitude towards the subject

Where education is concerned, most expressed their discontentment with the way the current system is overly fixated on academic excellence as opposed to holistic development.

With grades as a primary marker of students’ capabilities, they’re subsequently segmented into ranked classes, shared the participants.

Not only does “effort not equate to results”, there is also no equal starting point.

The students pointed out that children hailing from a higher socioeconomic status often have more access to resources, thus possessing higher chances of succeeding.

Participants also posed the problem of these privileged students resting on their laurels with the knowledge that they have safety nets – such as the ability to afford a private university degree – to fall back on. Their poor attitude in turn affects the remaining students such as during group projects.

Other issues mentioned include societal attitudes towards different academic pathways and how when one deviates from the conventional path, they’re judged with contempt – a mindset rife among the older generation.

Self-limiting beliefs and one’s social network being restricted to their class were also cited as factors that hamper one’s progress.

“These kids have limited themselves to what they have seen around them.”

Some brought up the lack of positive role modelling in the lives of the underprivileged.

“Everything is determined by their environment, which is determined by their parents.”

However, the students mentioned that while one’s parents have an undeniably huge impact on one’s outlook on life, there are still teachers who “can have a very positive impact” on the child’s life.

A group further suggested for teachers, including extracurricular coaches, to receive training on how to provide emotional support to these students, similar to the peer supporter programme some schools have employed.

Through such an initiative, students will receive the help they need to be “coached out of these entrenched mindsets” and empower them to “aim higher” and “recognise possibilities in life”.

For more content about Forward SG and how youths can participate, click here.

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