Back to top

3 Obstacles to Social Mobility in Singapore

At the 40th UN Human Rights Council held in Geneva in March 2019, income inequality was flagged as a major factor for social unrest all over the world.

Protests and demonstrations like Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement, and the Yellow Vest movement are all rooted in a deep unhappiness over an economic system perceived to favour the elite.

Based on Singapore’s Gini coefficient, which measures the distribution of income across income percentiles in a population, inequality remains high relative to other advanced Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. To this end, the government has continued to find ways to use education and meritocracy as an engine to power social mobility.

But that alone will not suffice, as we remain vulnerable to emerging issues that may impede social mobility and further entrench inequality in Singapore. Thus, it is vital for us to look for ways to overcome three key emerging impediments before it is too late.

Three emerging issues that may impede social mobility


  • Slowing economic growth

As then Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam put it in 2018, economic growth in a freshly independent Singapore was a “rising tide that lifted all boats”, creating wealth for all levels of society.

However, times have changed and Singapore is now an advanced developed country facing a gloomy global economy that is expected to slow to 2.9% in 2019 as trade and investments weaken. Among advanced economies, it is forecasted to drop even further to 2%.

As economic growth slows both abroad and at home, social mobility, or the lack of it, will come into sharper focus and necessitate more decisive action to close the gap.

  • A rise in assortative marriage

Another emerging challenge for social mobility in Singapore is assortative marriage, when like marries like.

The proportion of perfectly-matched young married couples, based on educational qualifications, rose from 41.9% in 2000 to 51.5% in 2010. A degree holder marrying another degree holder has now become the norm among university graduates.

What this means is that advantage - or disadvantage - is conferred to individuals from birth and lasts throughout life, affecting their academic and life trajectories.

In fact, Singaporean students with at least one graduate parent were found to perform better in an internationally standardised test of student achievement and reported higher academic ambitions compared to students with no graduate parents.

What’s more, assortative marriages can directly increase inequality because married couples have similar earning capacity. In this way, income inequality may literally reproduce itself and perpetuate deeply entrenched societal divides.

  • The psychological burden of disadvantage

Another emerging challenge for social mobility in Singapore is assortative marriage, when like marries like.

As an open meritocracy, Singapore’s identity has been built on the idea that everyone has a fair chance to move up the social ladder. The idea of personal responsibility hence underpins the notion that social mobility is created through individual decisions to work, study and invest in oneself.

While this system has worked for numerous Singaporeans, the truth is that many are still struggling to achieve material success. This can be explained by the last critical challenge to social mobility - the psychological burden that scarcity itself places on the poor.

Lacking the buffer of wealth, the low-income live in fear of making everyday mistakes that have real consequences on their livelihoods and ability to survive.

However, there is much that society can do to alleviate these burdens. A joint study between SUSS and professors from the National University of Singapore found that for the nearly 200 families under the Getting out of Debt programme, psychological functioning, decision-making and anxiety levels improved after receiving up to $5,000 in debt relief.

The results indicate that social welfare can significantly help the disadvantaged by freeing them of burdens that previously prevented them from playing on a level field with the rest of society.

To achieve true social mobility, we must therefore consider policies that seek to relieve the psychological loads of the disadvantaged.

Another emerging challenge for social mobility in Singapore is assortative marriage, when like marries like.

What kind of Singapore do we want to see?

Social spending in Singapore has doubled between 2009 and 2018, reflecting the government’s continued commitment to facilitate and ensure social mobility in Singapore.

However, many are still questioning whether restructuring welfare will make a practical difference to families seeking a way out of poverty, and if increasing generosity will breed dependence and generate undue costs.

While these are pertinent questions, we must also recognise that a society that fails to ask for more from those with the most, may also fail from within. Instead, with the help and generosity of our wealthiest, we may yet transform into a society that is equal, inclusive and one that we are all proud to call home.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "Can Singapore reduce the frictions of seeking help?" by Associate Professor Walter Theseira, Economics & Head, Master of Management (Urban Transportation) Programme, School of Business, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)


The Author
Back to top