Singapore

PM Lee: S’pore must maintain social mobility

PM Lee says Education Ministry will work with schools such as RI to ensure they do not become 'self-perpetuating closed circles'

Despite its tradition of accepting students from diverse backgrounds, Raffles Institution (RI) is finding it harder to get students from different backgrounds, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung recently told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Ong said that despite the efforts of the school's new principal, Mr Frederick Yeo, to reach out to parents of promising students from primary schools across Singapore, some told him they were reluctant to send their children to RI not because of the demanding academic environment, but out of fear they would not fit in with more well-off students.

Mr Lee shared the anecdote in Parliament yesterday when he highlighted the importance of maintaining social mobility.

In reality, he said, RI students come from varied backgrounds, with more than half of its students living in public housing.

But perceptions of a lack of affordability and students feeling out of place discourages youngsters from applying to join RI. This is not good for the school or Singapore.

Mr Lee said the Ministry of Education will work with RI and other schools so they never become "self-perpetuating closed circles".

"Above all, our education system must stay open," he said.

The Government has set aside places in primary schools for children without affiliation, and it will do more if necessary.

"We give everyone a good education, and now we are investing heavily in pre-school, to give all Singaporean kids, in fact, almost babies as well, a good start in life," Mr Lee said.

Above all, our education system must stay open. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

The Government is also expanding opportunities for students from different schools to interact, through sports, community activities and the Outward Bound School.

Mr Lee also talked about the controversy over an unauthorised social studies guidebook that made generalisations of the behaviour, tastes and speech patterns of people from high and low socio-economic statuses.

Singaporeans were appalled by this and rightly so, he said.

Every society has its elites who share similar backgrounds, interests and social spaces, Mr Lee noted, and such networks are natural and are important to Singapore's social capital.

But he warned that these elite groups must not close up and prevent outsiders from getting in.

Improving social mobility is a "wicked problem" faced by many societies, with no easy solutions and no magic bullets.

But with a strong social safety net, universal education, home ownership and the Government's determination to widen opportunities, Singapore's strategy to tackle inequality has been more successful than most.

"We want Singapore society to maintain an informal and egalitarian tone, where people interact freely and comfortably as equals, and there are no rigid class distinctions or barriers that keep good people down," Mr Lee said.

"This is important but beyond the Government's ability to bring about alone. Society itself has to be open and permeable. Each one of us must carry those attitudes, values, norms, that willingness to welcome talent and ability, and to keep the system the way it is."

Team Singapore