Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The inequality of DPM Tharman’s equality

During the recent Ask Minister session, DPM Tharman shared his thoughts on his future Singapore where there will be equality among peoples:

“…there's something about their workplace culture that I think we can learn from both in the US and in Europe where they are very respecting of people in different vocations. They treat each other a little more as equals and I think that's a very important culture to have and they rarely look at what happened to you 20 years ago.

It's always about continual improvement or what I call a continuous meritocracy. So we've got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths in different individuals but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn't matter so much what happened when you were in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finished your Poly or ITE, but what happens after that.[Link]

Well said. 

But it is surprising to hear these enlightening words from Tharman, a member of the PAP whose practices run counter to what he envisions. For it is the same political party that has been aggressively promoting for the last few decades the culture of inequality through a series of social, education and political policies that label people and thus sentence them to the different values accordingly. The result is that those individuals who fall into the category of PAP preferred mould will be entitled to more equality than the others. 

We are not too unfamiliar with such a threat of “If you don’t study well, you will end up being a road sweeper” used among Singapore parents in “encouraging” their children to excel in studies. Some of us may have even heard it directly from our own parents. It is a threat which reflects the high emphasis on education in our society and at the same time, an unintentional exhibition of the social stigma on certain professions, specifically on jobs which involve physical labour. 

Such mindsets of ours inevitably stem from the kind of society that we live in and which in turns creates the kind of society from who we are. While acknowledging the fact that social stigma exists inevitably in every society on earth, neither can we absolve the existing ruling political party from implementing policies across our social, education and political domains that seemingly reinforce the idea of inequality and often, if not always, these policies are implemented in a top-down manner with little room for consultation. A few of these policies come to mind are:

1)    Streaming examinations in primary and secondary schools to sieve out the stupid, normal and clever students.
2)    A civil service salary scale that pays according to one’s academic qualifications despite doing the same job scope
3)    A career progression in civil service that is based on academic qualifications

As seen, academic qualifications has been the centre of these policies. Such policies aim to cream off individuals who are defined solely by their strong academic performance, have them placed in policy-formulating positions and reward them handsomely. A scholar in the civil service, proven by his/her academic performance, will be ensured a fast-track career progression that is insulated from adversities. Additionally, that might open up the window to the political domain that further leads to indefinite monetary rewards coupled with political power. Short of a university degree does deny one’s political opportunity into the PAP’s world, which is currently still the more travelled and easier pathway to the political domain than through any current alternative parties.

On the other end of the spectrum, our existing system, led by the civil service, belittles those who fall out of the academic path and thereby justifies their lower wage compensation, lower social status and zero political power. This is how our system views us and which in turns influence our mindset on how we perceive ourselves and others, ie shaping our mindset of inequality.

This seriously contradicts Tharman’s idea of a continuous meritocracy which he envisions. 

It is not  a matter of simply wishing away the over-emphasis of what happened to us when we were in Sec 4 or JC2 or when we finished our Poly or ITE that we could diminish the importance of what happened in our past.  Our system explicitly dictates that what happened in the past does matter, as demonstrated by the civil service. Academic qualifications largely restrict individuals’ career choices and progression within the civil service itself, and to a certain extent, does seal one’s fate in his/her career path and financial status. 

Yes, it does matter a whole world of difference whether one is a Poly or ITE graduate. And it is precisely the way which our society is engineered on the principle of discrimination that breeds the social stigma that we are breathing today.