To tackle inequality, we must address both unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes, SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in an op-ed he wrote for the Straits Times.
Unequal opportunities early in life have a way of ingraining the advantages and disadvantages that last through life, he said.
There is also a need to temper with unequal outcomes to avoid people being trapped in a permanent underclass, Mr Tharman added. It cannot be said that unequal outcomes are entirely to do with ability and effort. This is because unequal outcomes often have to do with ‘how people started out, and the social networks that give them different scaffoldings in life’.
When parents have weak and unpredictable incomes, their children tend to have a less secure upbringing, and can easily fall behind and lower their own aspirations. In other words, outcomes in one generation shape opportunities for the next.
Mr Tharman explained that to address both unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes, ‘it is only right that we tilt our policies in favour of those with lower incomes, and ensure they have full and fair opportunities in the employment market’.
Let’s take a look at some social policies that tilt in favour of the lower-income group.
KidSTART: ensuring a child has a good start in life
KidSTART addresses where a child starts out in life by intervening real early – even before the child is born! It is a programme for children from low-income families.
Parents receive support in skills and practical knowledge across areas of child growth, health and nutrition.
The programme regularly screening the child’s development and also maternal well-being across the antenatal and postnatal stages over a period of 3 years to identify and treat issues early.
Piloted in 2016, in 2019, at the National Day rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the programme would be expanded to benefit more children.
The child is the focus of the interventions. Engaging the parents is an important aspect of the programme given their crucial role in the child’s development.
Equalising opportunities by making quality preschool education accessible to children from lower-income families
The substantial investment the government pumped into preschool education is to put children from lower-income families on a more equal footing with others. Fees are heavily subsidised.
For the lowest income group, the kindergarten fee is only $1 a month in an Anchor-operated kindergarten or MOE kindergarten.
The MOE Kindergarten learning environment is designed with the child in mind. Like this:
Lovely premises, aren’t they? Click on this link for a virtual tour: https://beta.moe.gov.sg/preschool/moe-kindergarten/mk-virtual-tour/
Other policies that tilt heavily towards the lower-income group include very generous CPF housing grants. These grants are cash gifts that stay with the homeowner even when he sells his flat later on. In addition, there is Workfare which supplements a low-income worker salary by up to about one-third each month.
The community can play their part
We talk about policies. But there is also much that we, as a community, can do to equalize the starting point for a child still in school.
In a Facebook post, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee shared a photo of a group of Youth Corps aspirants who will be providing weekly KidsCount maths class to children living in rental flats in Boon Lay. This is one way to offer a helping hand to uplift the less well-off and set them on a more solid path.
There can be more ground-up initiatives from among us. We too can play a part in temper unequal outcomes by bringing everyone to a fairer starting point.
As Senior Minister Tharman noted in his op-ed,
“Covid-19 brought a renewed spirit of solidarity that we must now keep and grow. We must take bold steps to build a society that uplifts. There are no quick fixes. It requires intensive, collective effort by the Government, educationists and social workers, employers, unions, community bodies of many stripes, and of course individuals and families themselves.”