S'pore will wither if we are rigid, stratified by class: PM Lee
Singapore's politics will turn vicious, its society will fracture and the country will wither if it allows widening income inequalities to create "a rigid and stratified social system", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
"The issues of mitigating income inequality, ensuring social mobility and enhancing social integration are critical," he wrote in a reply to a parliamentary question from Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).
"This is why this Government will strive to keep all Singaporeans - regardless of race, language, religion or social background - together."
Mr Gan asked Mr Lee about the current state of income inequality and whether the Government has plans to prevent this income gap from creating divisions along class lines. He also queried if an inter-ministerial committee can be set up to look into better integration of all social classes in Singapore.
To the last, Mr Lee said a specific committee is not necessary as government ministries already seek to tackle these challenges in "a concerted and coordinated effort".
"As globalisation and technological disruption have widened income inequality, the Government has over the years intervened more aggressively to support the less well-off," he said, citing both long-term policies such as education, home ownership and affordable healthcare, as well as targeted, means-tested programmes such as the Workfare Income Supplement scheme.
Mr Gan's questions come after an Institute of Policy Studies report last December found that Singapore's sharpest divides are along class lines, rather than race or religion.
It found that people were more likely to share ties with others of a similar educational background or housing type - common indicators of socio-economic level here.
In recent weeks, the issue gained renewed attention. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam named slowing social mobility, and an ageing population, as the two big challenges that Singapore faces.
Last week, a new book, This Is What Inequality Looks Like by sociologist Teo You Yenn, was launched, generating debate about how Singapore's competitive education system could perpetuate class differences.
In his reply to Mr Gan, Mr Lee said income inequality in Singapore has declined slightly over the past decade. The Gini coefficient fell from 0.470 in 2006 to 0.458 in 2016 - and the figure was 0.402, after accounting for government taxes and transfers. A value of zero indicates perfect equality, while a value of one suggests maximum inequality.
In terms of social mobility, every citizen in a fair and just society must have the opportunity to do better and move up in society based on his efforts and talent, said Mr Lee.
"Some degree of income inequality is natural in any economy," he said.
"But in a fair and just society, this inequality must be tempered and complemented by social mobility. Nobody should feel that his social position is fixed based on his parents' income level or position in life."