The topic of labour and income inequality, an important policy issue in Singapore, has increasingly been in the public eye with local policymakers and the popular press commentating on it in recent times. With the nation’s top 10th percentile earning nine times as much as its 90th percentile in 2014, this topic was the subject of discussion at the recent National University of Singapore (NUS) Greater Good Series talk titled, Labour and Inequality in Singapore: Trends, Drivers and Implications.
Moderated by Professor Robbie Goh (’88), Dean of Faculty of Arts & Social Science (FASS) at NUS, the panel of speakers consisted of NUS FASS staff: Associate Professor Jessica Pan of the Department of Economics, Distinguished Professor Henry Yeung (’92) of the Department of Geography, and Mr Viswa Sadasivan (’83), Chief Executive Officer at Strategic Moves.
While Singapore enjoys relatively high levels of social mobility – a measure of how easy it is for an individual to move between social strata – the perceived cause and effect relationship between income inequality and social mobility is subject to debate.
With technology being identified as one of the main drivers of inequality due its rapid pace of development as well as its disruption of industries, the panel sought to shed light on other possible causes that were often sidelined in popular discussions.
“Education in Singapore is recognised as a social equaliser, where one’s performance determines his or her future successes. However, with more parents investing heavily in their children’s education via extra tuition to ensure that they do well, it creates an uneven playing field. Those lacking in financial resources are finding themselves at a disadvantage, exacerbating the situation further,” explained Assoc Prof Pan.
With regard to the workforce, Mr Viswa highlighted the impact of the recent popularity of the gig economy, which consists of short and flexible contract jobs. “More and more graduates are joining the gig economy which offers little to no fall back for its workforce. As these jobs oftentimes do not provide CPF contributions, we need to pay a lot more attention to this trend and think of ways in which we can provide a safety net,” said Mr Viswa.
Globalisation plays a part as well: Prof Yeung espoused factors beyond the nation’s borders that influenced the divide, such as Singapore’s integration into the global economy. “Singapore’s role in global production networks has seen many multinational corporations setting up higher skilled facilities and headquarters in Singapore. This usually leads to lower skilled workers having relatively less work opportunities as the nation advances,” commented Prof Yeung.
Even as society grapples with the dynamics of labour and income inequality as a whole, Prof Goh suggested that society needs to adopt the right attitude when it comes to tackling inequality.
“Happiness, fulfilment, empathy and other ‘softer’ social attributes play a role in softening the blow of social inequality. As society as a whole, our mindsets have to change. We have to take a long hard look at ourselves at how truly empathetic we are in our attitude and treatment of those less fortunate as us; as well as financial aid and volunteerism. We need a radical transformation of society, a philosophical mindshift, and not be obsessed by competition and a ‘whoever is the best wins’ linearity,” said Prof Goh in his round-up of the event.
The NUS Greater Good Series features talks by leading minds on topics related to philanthropy. These include generosity, giving and service to the community, as well as leadership, personal well-being and mental resilience. The Series aims to raise awareness of philanthropy and its impact on society. The Series was made possible thanks to a generous gift from Newsman Realty Pte Ltd.
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