The words mean nothing. Every time some ultra-high net worth individual or politician goes around touting that “hey folks, there’s a social ladder to climb, go climb it”, they are actually (often deliberately) distracting us from the real issue of probability. We need to talk about probability, not possibility.
Now I’m not saying that in my context (Singapore) we are in a dire situation and that we need major reform or that they are lying to us. Inequality exists here, and if you were the comparing sort, we’re probably in the top half of the world when it comes to ossification and negative social impact. The question is what level we want to aspire to – to be a world leader in social mobility, or do we think that social mobility is a bad thing beyond a certain point (for example, an argument that “no rest for the rich” is bad because it disincentivises aspiration)?
Either way, we need to learn to stop it with the platitude that “whatever your situation is, if you work hard, you can succeed” and see the platitude for what it is whenever such throwaway words leave someone’s lips (and get waved around by the media as a slogan).
With the revelation (I hope the G can publish the source for other schools, because Mr Ang Wei Neng got it from the former RI principal) that not even half of Raffles Institution’s students come from non-elite primary schools, the odds are clearly stacked against the have-nots, even in the heart of our “meritocratic” education system (which is a subset of our “meritocratic” national system.
Ms Teo You Yenn’ s latest book “This is what inequality looks like” (BUY THIS BOOK), also shows the ways that inequality in Singapore has become sticky as we create systems that try to incentivise effort and hard work. This is a problem that many MPs have highlighted over the last week.
So the President and the Ministers say “they want to listen”. I’m then confounded by the tone-deafness (I hope it is unintentional) that is so apparent when someone stands up to say “anyone can succeed if they work hard”. This is either universally true or untrue. Even if you were a slave, you could “succeed” against the odds by leading a rebellion, or by winning in the fighting pits to regain your freedom – rebellions and skilful slaughter are hard work! Or if you were a European peasant, you could still rise to the ranks of nobility by joining the crusades to slaughter innocents, or perhaps star in some fairytale, or scheme and seduce your way into the pants of some countess-to-be (please see Game of Thrones for tips).
Has the world been an equal-opportunity place all this time? Garbage. Inequality exists, and it exists in Singapore. The playing field is NOT level. We don’t want to hear about the universal truth (or the universal lie) of hard work and success because it blinds us to the real issue in society.
What’s important are for the G to tell us what the odds are, across different risk factors. What are they doing to equalise these odds across education, social spending, employment, social networks, etc? Is the playing field getting more level, or less level, as time goes by? Which systems have to change to make it better?
Political leaders tell us about probabilities and the policies that will shape them. Politicians tell us about “possibility” and pipe-dreams, and turn our eyes away from important questions.