Solving the problem of inequality is a community effort

By Tay Leong Tan (collective of three writers)

I have read Teo You Yenn’s coverage about inequality and feel a need to air some observations:

a.) What she observed about “falling through the cracks” is no different from what MPs have been raising in Parliament

Everyone from Amrin Amin to Zainal Sapari (A to Z in case you didn’t notice) had been speaking and finding ways to address this for the longest time (here’s an article from Zainal in 2013 ). The challenge is not about raising the issue. The issue is up there for all to study. The challenge is in seeking ways to close the said gap.

Her suggestions are uncomfortable. Teo talks about “universal basic income” (basically it means free money monthly for citizens) and quotes “success stories” such as those countries in Scandinavia. However, that is misleading. Had the reader been attentive to recent developments, he would have recalled that just a few weeks ago Finland itself had terminated its experiment on universal basic income because it did not work. (See Finland’s Universal Basic Income experiment falls flat | Coffee House )

Folks enjoy generous welfare and benefits but that is simply because their countries implement very high taxes – both income and sales taxes.

b.) It isn't as if Singapore hasn’t been doing anything at all to tackle the income inequality issue

In honesty, many programs have been spearheaded by community leaders, MPs and VWOs for example:

Community VWO programes: There are a myriad of funds, programs, schemes and initiatives to get people to volunteer, give or to lobby organisations for funding and to distribute funds and aid. Through these, the communities organised themselves and in so doing, better understood the texture of problems that each individual family unit faced.

One such program was the STAMP program. This was developed by Loving Hearts Multi Service centre in Jurong and started in 2006 and reached out to children who could do better, but did not because of their family circumstances. S.T.A.M.P aims to train and improve these students physically, academically, and equip them with values and life skills through 3 key components: Sports, Tuition, and Mentoring.

Various student funds: Examples included the School Pocket Money Fund and Pupil Breakfast Program: Both initiatives partnered with schools to provide assistance to needy students. It was reported that several hundred children a year benefited from them and they continue to run today.

c.) It is a community effort, not a government one

Tacking the problem of inequality requires a community effort. People need to be mobilised, funds need to be raised and change needs to be seen in each and every person. There are human behaviours that require little nudges in the right direction and that is all that government can provide; ultimately governmental action cannot be too intrusive else the problem could become a whole lot worse.

It is not as simple as taxing the rich and giving it to the poor – this act will only entrench the thinking that the poor are there to leech off the rich. In so doing, it creates classes and traps people in them altogether.

What the government can do is to invest in education, create opportunities so that people can work their way up the career ladder and provide the assistance for those who are willing to do more.

All these are co-ordinated efforts and not the top-down model that Teo appears to be suggesting, as if government can miraculously command a country out of inequality.

d.) Academic rigour and skills acquisition

In fact, the one thing that she chose to amply criticize was that of tuition and additional help. Teo thought it important to highlight that she doesn’t chip in to help her child with supplementary assistance of any kind including tuition. According to her, this would do away with the thinking that tuition is some sort of “cheat code” that only some students have the luxury of access and others don’t.

That is quite sad.

Academic rigour and skills acquisition are the tools that can lift a person out of poverty or move a person closer to his/her aspirations. It gives a person mobility. It does not need to mean having to spend lots of money. Back when I was a kid, my grandma told me that where they couldn’t afford the tuition, I ought to go look for the smart kids and hang around them to learn from them.

Group studies were a form of “free tuition”. I was also encouraged to pester the teachers for clarification of things I didn’t fully understand, because no one would get angry with you if you have a desire to learn.

No one should deny tuition to their kids, either given by themselves personally or from tutors if it means that their children would do better.

It isn’t about working hard. It is about persistence. How badly do you yearn for success? That’s the one thing that the administration keeps telling Singaporeans: if you want it, if you will persistently fight for a dream, this country has the resources for you to make it come true.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

This article first appeared on Five Stars And A Moon. It is reproduced with permission.


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