COMMENTARY: In 2011, a young student met Lee Kuan Yew at a dialogue session. Reflecting on the event eight years later, he writes about his takeaways from that session, such as how Singapore society comprises groups with different, potentially competing interests.
Now, as a policymaker, he stresses the importance for the disadvantaged in Singapore to be engaged during the policymaking process.
Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 54 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
"Our capacity for voice" is an essay contributed by Muhammad Farouq Osman, a policy researcher focusing on social and family policy issues. He is a recipient of Yayasan MENDAKI’s Ridzwan Dzafir Community Award, a post-graduate scholarship which took him to Cambridge University to study an MPhil in public policy.
By Muhammad Farouq Osman
I had the honour of engaging our late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at a student dialogue in 2011. I was a wide-eyed National University of Singapore sociology undergraduate conscious of my own working-class roots, as well as of my privileged position as a university student.
I was keen to advance the cause of social justice… and I still am today!
I asked Mr Lee what else could be done to help middle- and especially lower-income Singaporeans to make our society more equitable.
His response? If the government were to help those in the lower class, that would upset people in the middle class; similarly, buttressing the middle class would irk those in the upper class.
Mr Lee’s point was that it is difficult for government policy to satisfy everyone, and we only have so much in our reserves to spend on expanding the social safety net.
But I suspect Mr Lee was also alluding to a much more insidious issue—the stratification of Singapore society into distinct class categories with opposing interests.
If not tackled properly, such divisions could create resentment in those segments of our people who feel left behind by the effects of globalisation and technological change, ultimately undermining national cohesion.
Eight years after the exchange with LKY
It has been eight years since my exchange with Mr Lee.
Fast forward to today and the evidence out there seems to confirm his observations. In December 2017, the Institute of Policy Studies released a study revealing that Singaporeans from different educational and residential backgrounds—for example, those living in landed properties versus their counterparts in public flats—were not intermixing with one another.
It should not surprise us that such a segregated social milieu is a fertile breeding ground for ill-founded perceptions and disinformation about “others” in society.
In Singapore in particular, against the backdrop of our meritocratic ideology, the less well-off are often blamed for their own predicaments, a perception by dominant groups arising from taken-for-granted assumptions about their counterparts’ behaviours and social circumstances.
Nanyang Technological University don Teo You Yenn’s book This Is What Inequality Looks Like urges Singaporeans to challenge these dominant narratives about the poor in their midst.
She cites how children from disadvantaged homes are often channelled into “slower” tracks in primary (and later, secondary) school and subject to negative stereotypes about their ability to learn—not because of any innate learning impediments or attitudinal issues but because of unstable conditions at home linked to material deprivation.
For low-income parents, persistent conditions of poverty impose what behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychology professor Eldar Shafir call a “bandwidth” tax on their minds, undermining their ability to plan for the long run and make optimal choices for their children. After all, it is hard to plan for tomorrow when you are worried about getting through today.
In a similar vein, I wonder if it is fair to expect parents in low-wage jobs to commit themselves to skills upgrading courses—often portrayed by the government as channels for upward mobility—when anxiety about the sufficiency of their monthly pay cheque already hangs around their neck like an albatross.
Can we have more voices of the disadvantaged in policymaking?
I argue that all these point to the lack of voices of the disadvantaged in policymaking.
The government has no shortage of platforms for consulting the public—for instance, the national feedback unit REACH organises regular public forums and consultation exercises in the lead up to major policy events like the Budget Speech.
Nevertheless, my own experience from participating in such activities is that they tend to attract a specific demographic—middle-class professionals and grassroots leaders who want and know how to make their voices heard— rather than, say, single mothers or odd-job labourers, who are a much more critical demographic to reach.
It is no surprise then that such public engagements tend to exclude the poor, albeit unintentionally: low-wage workers, for example, often perform precarious work with irregular working hours and are likely not covered by standard employment benefits such as time off.
These inflexible working conditions only place additional strain on their mental capacity and crowd out of memory things beyond one’s immediate concerns—such as keeping abreast of policy—let alone attending such policy discussion sessions!
To their credit, our Members of Parliament do highlight the plight of low-income families in the House from time to time, but whether this endeavour truly reflects the experiences of the poor is another matter.
This is not to disparage their sincere efforts but to recognise that in the practical interests of parliamentary debate, the many individual voices and tribulations of the disadvantaged can be subsumed into more contoured messaging, which can result in glossing over minute but significant details that affect the poor’s lives.
We therefore need to ensure that the lived reality of low-income Singaporeans is adequately represented in the policy process, embedded seamlessly rather than as an afterthought. Only then can we have inclusive social policy that is at once sensitive and responsive to the needs of our most vulnerable.
The question is, How do we ensure that our policy process reflects this ethos?
Building capacity to better serve the disadvantaged
One way, according to public policy scholars Edward P Weber and Anne M Khademian, is by having government organisations play more visible roles as collaborative capacity builders (CCBs) within networks comprising partners in the community, including ground- up organisations that directly serve the needy.
This entails including the poor themselves in a regular network of stakeholders to be engaged beyond one-off consultation exercises.
In addition, government officials as CCBs should be aware of power relations and act in a way that recognises the dignity of low-income persons while empowering them to be contributing members of the network to help address policy issues.
The Belgian government’s effort to combat poverty in the Flemish region by assuming the role of a CCB is a case in point. Families and individuals living in poverty in Flanders are given the opportunity to relate their experiences and challenges on themes such as debt settlement to local associations, which reach out to them through house visits and group meetings.
These testimonials are organised into “dialogue compilations” with help from local welfare organisations that prepare preliminary responses to the poor’s unmet needs. These records of proposals and answers are then escalated to government policymakers for follow-up.
What is notable from this practice is that the poor themselves are the originators of the issues raised and that they are bolstered with advocacy support from networks of local associations.
Belgium has institutionalised this ground-up approach by setting up, in 1999, the Centre against Poverty, Social Insecurity and Social Exclusion to ensure the coordination of dialogue at different levels of government and to safeguard accountability.
If anything, Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of US president Donald Trump offer lessons for Singapore. In both cases, a rather broad base of voters—albeit with significant representation from working-class segments—supported populist causes, further widening fault lines in their respective societies.
The result is only more instability and less unity among their people.
Singapore would do well to avoid such a situation by taking steps to bridge the class divisions which Mr Lee Kuan Yew presciently foresaw.
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If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, "The Birthday Workbook", that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.
Top photo via Muhammad Farouq Osman's Twitter, adapted from MFA.