Social Stratification and Mobility

Singapore Table of Contents

During the 1970s and 1980s, economic development and industrial growth reduced poverty and income inequity and accelerated upward social mobility. Those with educational qualifications, command of English, and high-level technical or professional skills profited the most from the process.

In the late 1980s, the major indices of social stratification were education level, citizenship status, sector of the economy where employed, and number of employed persons in the household. Residents were sharply differentiated by the amount of education they had completed. In 1980 about 44 percent of the population aged 25 and above had no educational qualifications, 38 percent had completed primary school, 15 percent secondary school, and only 3.4 percent higher education. Those people born after 1970 were on average much better educated than previous generations, but throughout the 1990s the work force will contain many individuals with limited education. Wages correlated fairly closely with educational attainment, although education in English brought higher salaries than Chinese education. Many benefits, such as access to a Housing and Development Board apartment, were available only to Singapore citizens, and only citizens and permanent residents were enrolled in the Central Provident Fund. In 1985, a recession year when many foreign factory workers lost their jobs and residence permits, citizens made up 91 percent of the work force. Noncitizens were concentrated in the lower and in the highest wage levels, either as factory or service workers on short- term work permits, or as well-paid expatriate managers and professionals. Wages were relatively higher in government service and government-owned corporations and in the capital intensive and largely foreign-owned export-oriented manufacturing sector. They were lower in the service, retail, and less highly capitalized light industrial, craft, and commercial sector, which was dominated by small Chinese firms. Wages for unskilled and semiskilled factory work and for unskilled service jobs were relatively low. Those who held such jobs, often young women in their teens and early twenties, were not entirely self- supporting but parts of households in which several members worked at low-paying jobs. Families of the poorly educated and unskilled improved their standard of living between 1970 and 1990 in part because full employment made it possible to pool the wages of several family members.

Economic growth and the associated increase in the demand for labor from 1960 to 1989 raised living standards and sharply reduced the incidence of poverty. A survey of living costs and household incomes in 1953-54 found 19 percent of all households to be in absolute poverty, meaning that their members did not have enough to eat. Application of the same standard in 1982-83 found 0.3 percent of households in absolute poverty. A measure of moderate poverty, defined as adequate nutrition and shelter but little discretionary income and no savings, was devised by the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees in 1973. By that measure, 31 percent of households in 1972-73 were in moderate poverty, 15 percent in 1977-78, and 7 percent in 1982-83. Compared with other countries in the region, household incomes in Singapore were equitably distributed, with most households falling in the middle or lower middle ranges of the distribution.

The lowest income levels were those of single-person households, representing the elderly, the disabled, and those without kin in Singapore. Apart from the childless elderly and the disabled, those in moderate poverty in the 1980s were overwhelmingly working poor, holding unskilled jobs with no prospects for advancement. Such households typically had only one wage-earner with either primary education or no education and lived in rented housing and often a one-room or two-room Housing and Development Board apartment. Households with two or more members working, even at relatively low-paying jobs, were able to contemplate purchasing a Housing and Development Board apartment, save money for emergencies, and devote more resources to the education of children.

Much of the alleviation of poverty and decrease in income inequality that took place in the 1970s and 1980s resulted from the increased participation of women in the work force. In 1985, 46 percent of all women above the age of fifteen held paid employment; 68 percent of single women and 33 percent of married women worked outside the home. This trend was associated with women marrying later and having fewer children. One reason that more households attained an adequate standard of living in the 1980s was that there were more wives and unmarried daughters at work and fewer young children to be supported and looked after.

Surveys in the 1980s showed that most Singaporeans described themselves as middle class, justifying that status by their ownership of a Housing and Development Board apartment and the substantial and secure savings guaranteed by their Central Provident Fund Account. Families in the middle-income ranges usually occupied two- or three-bedroom apartments that they were buying from the Housing and Development Board, participated in one or more formal associations, took an active part in planning and supervising their children's education, stocked their apartments with a range of consumer appliances, and had money to spend on hobbies, sports, or vacations. Automobile ownership was not common, and most middle-income Singaporeans used public transportation. Their mode of life rested on occupational skills and educational qualifications, secure employment in large, bureaucratic government or private organizations, or ownership of their own small business.

The upper levels of the society were occupied by a tripartite elite of high-level civil servants, local managers and professionals employed by foreign-owned multinational corporations, and wealthy Chinese businessmen who served as leaders in the associational world of the Chinese-speaking communities. The first two categories were marked by fluency in English, university-level education, often in Britain or the United States, and a cosmopolitan outlook reinforced by foreign residence and travel. Many of the Chinese businessmen were entrepreneurs who operated in an exclusively Chinese setting and often had minimal educational qualifications. Their sons, however, often were graduates of the best secondary schools and of local or foreign universities and worked either as English-speaking representatives of their fathers' businesses, as civil servants, or as professionals. Few of the elite had inherited their status, and all were aware that they could not directly pass it along to their children. Having themselves been upwardly mobile in a society more open to individual effort than most in the region, they valued that society's stress on competition, individual mobility, and success through hard work. In the domestic sphere, they expressed those values by devoting much effort to the education of their children.

Increased family incomes made possible by full employment and by such government programs as the construction and sale of apartments and the enrollment of nearly everyone in the Central Provident Fund are to be distinguished from upward mobility, in which individuals moved into more highly skilled and highly paid jobs and hence into higher social classes. The expansion of industry, banking, and of the ranks of civil servants created many high and mid-level positions that Singaporeans could aspire to and compete for. Residents from every ethnic community regarded social mobility as a common and accepted goal. Education was regarded as the best channel for upward mobility, and most families tried to encourage their children to do well in school and to acquire educational qualifications and certification. This put severe pressure on the school system and the children in it, although, as elsewhere, middle- and upper-income families had an advantage in maneuvering their offspring through the education system.

Individuals approached jobs with a keen appreciation for their potential for further mobility. Most large organizations, whether government or private, provided some training. Some foreign-owned enterprises, such as those in the oil industry, employed large numbers of skilled workers and ran extensive in-house training programs. The electronics assembly factories, in contrast, offered no prospects for advancement to their large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled assembly line workers. Small scale enterprises, which in the late 1980s often recruited along ethnic and subethnic lines, were associated with long working hours and low wages, but sometimes offered the workers opportunity to learn a skill, such as automotive repair. Workers in such establishments commonly advanced by quitting and opening their own small firms, often after years of saving.

In a system that reflected both the great differences in educational attainment in the work force and the great significance attached to educational qualifications, most large organizations, public and private, made a sharp distinction between mental and manual labor, and movement from the lower to the higher was very difficult and rare. Lower level white-collar workers and skilled blue-collar workers often took advantage of opportunities to upgrade their occupational skills, either through training offered by the organization or through night school and short-term courses offered by educational or other government bodies. Unskilled workers in industry and service trades and employees in small Chinese firms saw few prospects for advancement and considered self-employment as their only hope for upward mobility. Vending food and consumer goods on the streets or operating a cooked-food stall, traditional entry points for entrepreneurs, had been practically eliminated by government action to tidy up the environment and to limit the numbers of mobile hawkers who obstructed traffic. Many Singapore economists felt that the successful modernization of the economy and the increases both in government regulation and in rents for shops and small premises had made it more difficult for the ambitious poor to get a start. By the late 1980s, Singapore's academics and political leaders were discussing the perceived shortage of entrepreneurs and suggesting solutions to the problem, although most discussion focused on industrial innovation and growth rather than the commercial fields in which most Singapore entrepreneurs had succeeded.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress