Singapore’s Social Divide Problem Extends Beyond The School

By Kwan Jin Yao

“Co-existing in the same physical space, putting students of different learning abilities and socio-economic statuses in the same classroom, does not guarantee integration” (Erasing Social Divide: It’s More Than Just About Putting Children of Different Backgrounds in Same Classroom, Chong Sin Hui)

While class- or school-based integration is not guaranteed by “putting students of different learning abilities and socio-economic statuses in the same classroom” (TODAY, Mar. 4), Singapore has to confront an inequality and social divide problem which extends beyond the school. In fact, it could be argued that primary and secondary schools – by bringing together students of varied demographic and socio-economic backgrounds, to some extent – already offer one of the country’s most important sites for social interactions. The policy focus, in this vein, should shift from streaming within secondary schools to distinctions across schools, to greater engagement between students of different schools and institutes of higher learning, as well as to increased porosity across these educational pathways.

Corresponding policy recommendations flow from these arguments, beyond the singular emphasis on streaming as the core problem and its removal as the panacea. First, the much-ridiculed “every school, a good school” slogan has to translate into tangible changes through the distribution of resources such as teachers and student opportunities and by addressing the disproportionate reliance on academic grades or performance as the yardstick all students are measured against. Second, with or without streaming, students rarely get the chance to interact with students from other schools, and those from low-income households are moreover less likely to have access to or to afford other social networks – the work or professional communities of their parents, enrichment or extracurricular activities, and religious or recreational institutions, for instance – and hence to gain social capital in that manner. Beyond the advice of parents and the training of teachers, programmatic developments like joint-volunteerism projects would allow students from dissimilar schools to interact and to work together.

Finally, alongside reduced stigma associated with streams and schools – and perhaps even technical and vocational education and training – porosity across educational pathways will increase when young Singaporeans are less wedded to antiquated notions of (academic) success, and when they take pride in other forms of accomplishment. Even more broadly, as aforementioned, the challenge of social mixing and interaction goes beyond the school: Pre-school education (where young parents should have access to mentors and healthy environments, so that the household is healthy for their children), local and overseas universities (where elitism has the potential to manifest and where access can be further broadened), and even at the workplace and in the community (where Singaporeans should ideally identify themselves as belonging to a more active citizenry). And crucially the responsibility is not, and should not be, all on the government.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 6 March 2019. It is reproduced with permission.


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