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Addressing the class inequality problem:

The role of Singapore’s education system on the widening class divide.

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Introduction

Education involves the denoting of ideologies and curricula, and the inculcation of knowledge, as well as the social reproduction of personalities and culture.[1] As can be seen, education forms an integral aspect of the social environment, and is one of the "necessary" ways of preparing children for adult life.[2] According to Giddens, education has consistently been seen as a means of equalisation.[3] This is because it has been said to help reduce disparities of wealth and power among able young people, by providing them with the skills to find their valued place in society. Sociological studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown that education tends to reaffirm existing class inequalities "far more" than it acts to change them.[4] Is this trend similar in Singapore and does education help to reduce the class divide, or does it only serve to further widen this gap?

 

Education and Class Inequality

In order to study the impact of education on class inequality, it is important to first discuss what is the nature of this inequality. Giddens defines class as a "large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resources, which strongly influence the type of lifestyle they are able to lead".[5] Class inequality therefore refers to the disparities between different groupings of people due to their varied economic resources and types of lifestyle. This form of structured inequality is less rigid than other forms of stratification due to the relative ease of social mobility, which is the "movement of individuals and groups between different socio-economic positions".[6] Social mobility can thus be seen as a mechanism for addressing class inequality as it aids in the migratory activity between the classes.

How then does education affect social mobility? Argyle argues that family influence, as well as motivation, contributes to this change in socio-economic status.[7] In addition, Kerckhoff sees socialisation as a process which prepares individuals for their occupation. This in turn affects a person's status and lifestyle.[8] Another important factor affecting social mobility is that of opportunity, which affects upward mobility as it influences a person's exposure to better facilities and networking prospects, improving his position in life.

 

Education in Singapore

Consider the Singapore government's education policy, which seeks to provide children with a "balanced and well-rounded education" to develop them to their "full potential", and hence nurture them into good citizens who are responsible to the family, society and country.[9] This policy also helps to fill societal roles by nurturing students to take up positions such as businessmen and statesmen.[10] According to the system, students in Singapore generally undergo six years in primary school and four to five years in secondary school. They can then enrol in post-secondary institutions, pre-university courses, or move on to the polytechnics. Eligible students are subsequently given the opportunity to enrol in the universities.[11]

 

Effects of Singapore Education on Family Influence

At the onset of educational life, Singapore children with siblings in a primary school, and those with parents who had studied in the institution, are given priority for admission to the school.[12] Generally, school-leavers of better primary schools tend to have a higher chance of entering university because of the better facilities provided and more conducive school environment. They will thus tend to obtain higher-paying jobs, hence attaining a higher social position. Because these parents are more likely to send their children back to their primary schools, therefore children from higher social classes will tend to be admitted to these schools. As can be seen, the unequal selection in the education process emphasises the role of the family in influencing a child during his schooling days. Family influence, as argued by Argyle, results in children of higher classes doing better in schools because of greater parental encouragement.[13] The unequal selection procedure in this instance results in an unequal opportunity for upward mobility and hence amplifies the existing class inequalities.

 

Effects of Singapore Education on Motivation

The Singapore government seeks to adopt a meritocratic process of education, so that each child is able to "progress through the education system as far as his ability allows".[14] This is carried out through a streaming process at the end of Primary 4, where pupils will be channelled into one of four language streams.[15] Students are also further streamed at the end of their primary school studies into the Special, Express or Normal courses at the secondary level. This process is continued at the end of secondary education to determine a student's post-secondary route.[16] Leong Fan Chin feels that such a rigorous process will allow Singaporeans to be equipped with skills to "hopefully reach their full potential".[17] Arguably, this streaming process is a "class-leveller" as lower class students will be able to succeed as long as they perform well in their studies.[18] Moreover, examinations serve to level the playing field because there is equality in the way students' results are measured.[19] However, individuals in the better primary schools tend to feel more motivated to study because of the recognition they receive from being in these schools.[20] They then perform better, and are thus able to climb the social ladder, being streamed to better secondary schools. On the other hand, students in the less renowned primary schools suffer from a "shattered confidence" due to the lack of recognition.[21] This fear of failure results in a general feeling of inferiority which causes students to be less motivated to study, and hence perform less well academically, thus being posted to less renown secondary schools. The unequal admission policy has resulted in students from the higher classes going on to better schools, a move which will eventually widen the social class gap.

 

Effects of Singapore Education on Socialisation

Socialisation is the process by which people learn to become members of society through the internalisation of societal norms and values.[22] In considering the impact of Singapore education on this process, it is important to study how education affects a person's peer group, one of the major socialisation agencies.[23] Tan Choon Gan feels that the streaming system results in a "banding" of academically-weaker students in neighbourhood schools.[24] Because of their rejection by accepted social norms, these pupils tend to seek an alternative means to distinguish themselves, possibly developing delinquent behaviour.[25] Such students are then pressured by their peer groups to become "ah bengs"[26] and "ah lians"[27], which contributes towards their downward social mobility.[28] A greater social class division is again seen because of the unequal admission process, which tends to allow higher class children entry to the better schools.

 

Effects of Singapore Education on Opportunity

The Singapore government's meritocratic system can be said to allow "equal opportunities for all".[29] This is because it aims to train students "according to their potential".[30] However, the admission policy and streaming system both result in higher class students being selected to better institutions such as the independent schools. Tan Choon Gan feels that better facilities in these schools, such as computers and enrichment programmes, provide a better environment for students to perform.[31] In addition, there are more opportunities for these students to interact among themselves, resulting in social networking even at such an early age. As these students tend to perform better and attain better jobs, earlier networking opportunities would then translate into close-knit corporate relationships and other upward moving devices. Lower class children, on the other hand, tend to go to less renowned schools, and would be given fewer opportunities to network with potential societal leaders. They would hence not ascend the social ladder that quickly. As can be seen, this differential opportunity treatment indeed contributes to a widening social gap.

 

Education in the Past

One question to ponder over is whether the inherent class inequalities today have persisted over the years or are merely a recent phenomena. Frank Lim recalls that in the 1930s, education was very "easy-going", and there was not as much stress as what is faced today.[32] In those days, education improved one's chances of working in a British firm. It was thus an "open door" to work prospects. As social expectations in those days were very low, not all people were given an opportunity for education, with the lower classes being less inclined due to its exclusivity. Lower educated people thus ended up with jobs such as labourers carrying heavy sacks of rice in Boat Quay.

In the 1950s and 60s, many parents had large families. They therefore did not have the time to consider the educational needs of all their children. Tan Kim Suan attributes this to the idea that many of these families were not "well-to-do" and could not afford such an education. In addition, Tan feels that the lifestyle then was also more "relaxed" with lesser social aspirations for material wants.[33] As a result of poorer families not being able to afford the high costs of education, many of those in the lower classes were generally employed in lower-paying jobs. Consequently, education in the past had also not adequately dealt with the existing class inequalities, but had instead served to widen it.

 

Addressing the Class Inequality Problem

The education system today has addressed some of these issues faced in the past. For instance, there are now student loans and bursaries given to needy students.[34] In addition, the government has also attempted to make education ubiquitous and available to all. But can this system be improved further to redress this social anomaly of class inequality?

As the unequal admission policy is the root of the widening class division, it might be feasible to think of a more equitable policy. Chen Keng Juan feels that this is "difficult", and that as long as the process is transparent, all concerns would have been taken care of. However, if there are more successful schools, this will increase competition and hence be a "step to achieve fairness".[35]

Streaming is another policy which tends to widen the class gap. It results in competition because of the generally "misconceived notion" that one has to be the best in order to survive.[36] Strong-willed and hardworking students will thus flourish in society, as long as they have the character to endure hardship.[37] Despite being disadvantaged by the streaming process, and having fewer opportunities in their less renowned schools, these people might eventually become prominent figures such as business and political leaders in society.

Another idea brought forward is that the education system is too exam-orientated.[38] Selecting people based on grades would thus lead to inequality as certain students might be interested in their studies but simply do not perform in exams.[39] There is also the argument that the exam system per se discriminates against people because of the very nature of the examining process, which tends to select for people with better linguistic ability rather than technical skill. It is thus heartening that the government plans to introduce a less exam-based focus, such as including more project-based work and extra-curricular activities as a criteria for university education. Such changes would result in a shift away from rote-learning, and help to level class inequalities due to a broader scope of examination. However, any such changes in the exam-based nature of the education system should be carefully enforced to change the current social mindsets, so as to not replace an existing system with an undesirable one.

It is also important to motivate and care for the students in the weaker streams. Chen Keng Juan suggests this could be done through the injection of money and programmes, as well as by improving the teacher-student ratio, so as to allow more talented and caring teachers to nurture these students.[40] It is also consequential to check the socialisation process among students from the weaker streams. Leong Fan Chin recognises that there is a real problem of such students being socially alienated. She says this problem is not easy to rectify, but what education can do is to create opportunities for these people to interact with brighter students and hopefully feel more accepted by society.[41]

 

Conclusion

Michel Albert’s study on the American and Rhine models of enterprise has highlighted that countries with relatively low class inequality have prospered more than those with a greater class division. This is because including poorer people in the wider society probably gives them the means as well as the will to "improve their earning power".[42] As Lie Hanliang puts it, "education properly implemented helps to give the rich and the poor the chance to think for themselves; the chance to invent, explore, discover."[43] It thus plays a significant role in the class structure and stratification of a country. If Singapore is able to adequately address this social division, it will then be up to the individual to use what has been given to achieve his or her desires and interest, hence contributing to the good of the society.

The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on the 13th October 1998.

Bibliography

Ang, Jaclyn. Personal Interview. 23 Sep. 1998. (Ang is a 1st Year Arts student at the National University of Singapore.)

Argyle, Michael. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge, 1994.

Bilton, Tony, et al. Introductory Sociology. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Chen, Keng Juan. Telephone Interview. 1 Oct. 1998. (Chen is President of the Singapore Chinese Teachers Union  & Principal of Pei Chun Public School.)

Giddens, Anthony. Sociology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1997.

Hogg, Michael A. and Graham M. Vaughan. Social Psychology: An introduction. Hertfordshire: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

Kerckhoff, Alan C. Socialization and Social Class. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Khoon, Yoong Wong. "Curriculum Development in Singapore." Curriculum Development in East Asia. Eds. Colin Marsh and Paul Morris. London: The Falmer Press, 1991. 129-60.

Leong, Fan Chin. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. (Leong is Principal of Hwa Chong Junior College.)

Lie, Hanliang. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. (Lie is a Secondary 3 student at the Anglo-Chinese School - Independant.)

Lim, Chwee Liew Frank. Personal Interview. 28 Sep. 1998. (Lim is a retired canvasser at a printing firm, now in his 70s.)

Marshall, Gordon. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Singapore. Ministry of Education. Education in Singapore. 1998.

Singapore. Ministry of Education. Junior College Education in Singapore. 1998.

Singapore. Ministry of Education. "Primary One Registration Exercise, 1998". Primary One Registration. Online. Ministry of Education. Available: http://www.moe.edu.sg/esp/schadm/p1/p1info.htm#AnnexA. 6 Oct. 1998.

Singapore. Ministry of Education. Schooling in Singapore: Primary Education. 1998.

Singapore. Ministry of Education. Schooling in Singapore: Secondary Education. 1998.

Tan, Choon Gan. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. (Tan is an English Teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School - Independant.)

Tan, Kim Suan. Personal Interview. 30 Sep 1998. (Tan is a communications consultant, now in her 40s.)

Tan, Li Chin Jasmine. Personal Interview. 22 Sep. 1998. (Tan is a 2nd Year Student at the Anglo-Chinese Junior College.)

Yan, Clinton. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. (Yan is a Secondary 3 student at the Anglo-Chinese School - Independant.)

 

Comments? Email marklsl@pacific.net.sg to share your thoughts.

 

 

 

The Writing Page


[1]Marshall, Gordon. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. p.142.

[2]Bilton, Tony, et al. Introductory Sociology. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1987. p.304.

[3]Giddens, Anthony. Sociology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1997. pp.419-20.

[4]ibid. pp.420-2.

[5]ibid. p.243.

[6]ibid. pp.240-3, 263.

[7]Argyle, Michael. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge, 1994. pp.187-91.

[8]Kerckhoff, Alan C. Socialization and Social Class. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972. p.6.

[9]Singapore. Ministry of Education. Education in Singapore. 1998. p.1.

[10]Tan, Choon Gan. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. Tan is an English teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School, an independent secondary school.

[11]Singapore. Ministry of Education. Education in Singapore. 1998. pp.2-4, 7-8.

[12]Singapore. Ministry of Education. "Primary One Registration Exercise, 1998". Primary One Registration. Online. Ministry of Education. Available: http:www.moe.edu.sg/esp/schadm/p1/p1info.htm#AnnexA. 6 Oct. 1998.

[13]Argyle, Michael. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge, 1994. p.189.

[14]Singapore. Ministry of Education. Schooling in Singapore:  Primary Education. 1998. p.1.

[15]ibid.

[16]Singapore. Ministry of Education. Schooling in Singapore:  Secondary Education. 1998. pp.2,5.

[17]Leong, Fan Chin. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. Leong is the Principal of Hwa Chong Junior College, a pre-university institution which prepares students for university entrance.

[18]Tan, Kim Suan. Personal Interview. 30 Sep 1998. Tan is a Communications Consultant in her 40s.

[19]Tan, Choon Gan. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998.

[20]Tan, Li Chin Jasmine. Personal Interview. 22 Sep. 1998. Tan is a second year student at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, a pre-university institution.

[21]ibid.

[22]Marshall, Gordon. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. p.497.

[23]Kerckhoff, Alan C. Socialization and Social Class. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972. p.13.

[24]Tan, Choon Gan. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998.

[25]Hogg, Michael A. and Graham M. Vaughan. Social Psychology:  An introduction. Hertfordshire: Prentice-Hall, 1995. p.331.

[26]a sub-culture of male individuals who seek materialistic notions such as fun, which are anti-societal because of their antagonistic approach towards learning

[27]the female counterparts of "ah bengs"

[28]Ang, Jaclyn. Personal Interview. 23 Sep. 1998. Ang is a first year Arts student in the National University of Singapore.

[29]Singapore. Ministry of Education. Schooling in Singapore:  Secondary Education. 1998. p.1.

[30]Leong, Fan Chin. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998.

[31]Tan, Choon Gan. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998.

[32]Lim, Chwee Liew Frank. Personal Interview. 28 Sep. 1998. Lim is a retired canvasser at a printing firm in his 70s.

[33]Tan, Kim Suan. Personal Interview. 30 Sep 1998. Tan is a Communications Consultant in her 40s.

[34]Ang, Jaclyn. Personal Interview. 23 Sep. 1998.

[35]Chen, Keng Juan. Telephone Interview. 1 Oct. 1998. Chen is the President of the Singapore Chinese Teachers' Union, as well as Principal of Pei Chun Public School, a government primary school.

[36]Tan, Li Chin Jasmine. Personal Interview. 22 Sep. 1998.

[37]Ang, Jaclyn. Personal Interview. 23 Sep. 1998.

[38]Yan, Clinton. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. Yan is a Secondary 3 Student at the Anglo-Chinese School, an independent secondary school.

[39]Tan, Li Chin Jasmine. Personal Interview. 22 Sep. 1998.

[40]Chen, Keng Juan. Telephone Interview. 1 Oct. 1998.

[41]Leong, Fan Chin. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998.

[42]as quoted in Giddens, Anthony. Sociology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1997. pp.279-80.

[43]Lie, Hanliang. Personal Interview. 29 Sep. 1998. Lie is a Secondary 3 Student at the Anglo-Chinese School, an independent secondary school.