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Archive for June, 2018|Monthly archive page

We love teachers more than…

In News Reports on June 30, 2018 at 4:13 am

Clearly, we love our teachers much more than we do our politicians – or there wouldn’t be such a fuss about how much (or how little) politicians pay for parking. I suppose we’ve all met teachers or know one, so it becomes “personal’’. Not as many people see the work that politicians do, whether at the constituency level or even in Parliament.

There’s so much cynicism about that $365 yearly parking fee that MPs pay that I would feel embarrassed if I were a politician. Perhaps that’s why no single MP has come out to say anything about the fee. Justifying it would be too much like self-interest coming into play. In fact, it might open a  Pandora’s Box about how they spend the money, which amounts to $210,000 per year.

How many times do they go to Parliament, for example. Or how often are they at their constituency? Or do they hire legislative assistants to help them out with parliamentary work?

I am sure almost every MP takes money out of his or her own pocket occasionally or even frequently, to help a constituent tide over rough times for instance. And they wouldn’t begrudge holding get-togethers and celebrations on their own dime for their community leaders and party supporters. In that sense, they would be like teachers who use their own money to buy stationery items for poorer students or splash out for food and drinks for their pupils.

The MP parking issue has taken on many facets, compounding and complicating matters farther. On the face of it, it’s  about whether the “clean wage’’ policy extended to teachers who park in schools should also apply to G office-holders and MPs. On another level, it’s about the value we place on political service.

So what does the G mean by the “clean wage’’ ? It means that whatever remuneration office holders get is clear and there should be no hidden monetary perks. Here, G office-holders do not receive benefits such as housing and cars for personal use or tax exemptions. Only the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament are accorded the use of an official car. And their medical benefits are the same as for civil servants. That’s always been the official position.

Presumably for MPs, the allowance is all there is to it. The $210,000 a year includes the 13thmonth bonus and assumes a one-month Average Variable Component for the year. So the basic allowance is $15,000 a month. Add on how most of them also hold full time jobs and you double that sum (at the very least), and you can see why the green-eyed monster surfaces.

I don’t think the G expected that its clean wage policy will rebound on it when it made the case to have teachers pay for their school parking lots. That was, after all, a recommendation from the Auditor-General.

But it goes to show that if you want policies based on dollars and cents, it will affect the special relationship that people have formed with others. Or turn the relationship into something that is purely transactional.

Hard nosed calculations mean that it is right that teachers should be treated like every other civil servant who pay to park at their ministries and agencies. In fact, some schools already charge teachers for parking. So the policy is equitable. The flip side : It also means we mustn’t be surprised when  teachers  start asking for re-imbursements for whatever they have spent out-of-pocket on their classes and the students.

The sympathy for teachers is actually a nice reflection of the esteem we hold for them. The antipathy that surrounds the announcement of the MPs’ parking fee is something else.

The calculators come out.

How does $365 a year compare to a resident’s HDB season parking rates or hourly parking? Even if MPs don’t park overnight, how many hours do they actually spend on the ground in a week besides tending to Meet-the-People sessions? What is Parliament’s parking charges for outsiders? Do enough MPs attend parliamentary sessions to deserve this “perk’’?

You see how grubby it can get.

It’s not unlike the way some people feel about ministerial salaries. People don’t remember that the G didn’t raise salaries in the last round and have even taken pay cuts before. They just know that it is high and based on some kind of formula they can’t recall. The parking fee controversy is akin to that over ministerial salaries – it’s about whether you deserve the money given or saved.

About teachers’ parking fee,  MP Seah Kian Peng said this in Parliament: “For too long, we have made decisions based more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar has the moral equivalence of the loss of another… It is time we recognise money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one.”

I wouldn’t use Mr Seah’s term, “moral reasoning’’, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with a better term to describe the value of service that goes beyond money’s worth.

To Mr Seah’s speech, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung replied: “We have to respect our internal system of checks and balances. We cannot pick and choose which finding to address or comply with – we take them all seriously. This is about upholding the value of self-discipline.’’

This brings a new wrinkle into the debate, as people start wondering if the politicians should practise the same discipline that they ask of others. Another wrinkle is why the politicians should fare so much better than residents who pay for parking. They can, after all, afford the charges or take it out of their allowance.

Although the G has been upfront over ministerial salaries with the late Lee Kuan Yew been its staunchest defender, the same cannot be said about how the present G seemed to be so coy about the parking issue. It doesn’t look good that Parliament staff told ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong that MPs park for free in Parliament only to be contradicted by Leader of the House Grace Fu. (I’m quite sure new SOPs have been drawn up on answering questions from the media.)

As I’ve said before, Ms Fu’s supposed clarification was extremely unsatisfactory because she neglected to give the most important point: how much MPs pay for the label. Then it was total silence for some two weeks until the National Development ministry gave that $365 answer on June 25.

Did we get more information from MND? Yes, the fee was revised from $260 in 2016. There’s also one point which should be noted: The parking privilege is not for every HDB carpark, as some people thought, but for those in areas that the MP serves in.

It would have been so much better for the G to have been transparent much earlier, rather than beat around the bush. It only raises questions about why it was trying to hide something as innocuous as a parking label. It has never been afraid to justify its position to the public before, yet there is a total silence from both the ranks of the G and the MPs, including the Opposition.

Frankly, I am not too fussed about how much MPs pay for parking. I’m even okay about giving them free parking because I think it’s a privilege that citizens can easily afford to give to their elected representatives to do their duty. (That’s just me.)

What I object to was why such a simple fact took so long in coming.

So the MPs, I say: Stand your ground, for crying out loud. Or shift it, if you think you should. Don’t just hope for the whole thing to  go away.

 

 

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Opening salvos in the poverty debate

In News Reports on June 27, 2018 at 2:52 am

So we’re having a little debate about inequality in Singapore and whether “the system’’ disadvantages the poor. It’s all because of this bestselling book, This is what inequality looks like, by Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, in which she analyses her interactions with the poorest households in rental flats in Singapore over three years.

Today, ST published a response from Dr Maliki Osman, with an apt headline: This is what helping families look like.

Truth to tell, I thought it was pretty long in coming. It can’t be comfortable for the G to read about how its policies tying aid with a list of conditions that must be met might actually be making the poor poorer. Dr Maliki, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he disagreed with the professor’s thesis that the odds are stacked against them.

“The fact is that many, nearly 50 per cent of rental flat tenants, did have their own bigger (subsidised) flats, but had sold them and used up the cash proceeds. This means that while they may be down today, they were up yesterday and can certainly be up again tomorrow. If we attribute the cause of their being poor to the system, we should note that the same system that “disadvantaged” them today “advantaged” them yesterday. In fact, the system has not disadvantaged them.’’

His commentary comes three days after Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, a centre that works on issues of family violence, child protection and disadvantaged families, had her own column published in ST. Both Dr Maliki and Dr Nair were involved in the Bedok Interim Rental Housing which helps families find permanent homes.

I found Dr Teo’s book enlightening because it tells the story of the poor in Singapore from a different perspective, from the ground up instead of via hard statistics only. It exudes empathy and opened my eyes to many things that I take for granted or had wrongly assumed. Like why corridors in rental flats are cluttered because there is simply no space for a family’s belongings in a rental flat. Like how mothers might have little choice but to stop work because there is simply no one they can turn to to mind the children. Like how they would spend on a large flat-screen television set because that is their only and sole form of entertainment.

There are plenty of references about maintaining the dignity of such families, instead of making them jump through hoops to get help. You have to be pretty desperate, and even go through some humiliating question and answer sessions before you get a helping hand.

Dr Nair’s commentary tackled Dr Teo’s point about dignity. In a nutshell, she said that social workers must ask tough questions that seem intrusive to be able to assess the needs of their clients.

“Yes, we ask questions. And yes, we ask how families strapped for cash spend the little money they have. What do you do when you find the man of the house is a regular smoker, and feels he is entitled to that lifestyle choice? And what if his family is also paying for a full slew of cable television channels? Should social workers not question such a family spending $500 a month on cigarettes and cable TV while at the same time applying for financial aid?’’

In another part of her commentary, she said:“If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.’’

I agree that help shouldn’t be unconditional and that some means testing must be done to weed out those who want to game the system. The question to ask is whether the “conditions’’ are too tough to meet and whether the means test is overly stringent. There’s no point talking in hyperbolic terms of black and white.

I thought Dr Nair was extremely courageous to preach tough love. She talked about abusive, angry people who ask for aid and then want to be left alone. She has no illusions. Some poor people simply don’t want to work hard, want hand-outs and are clueless about the situation they are in.

Then I came to the last line about how her programme changed many lives “because families had the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change’’. I was uncomfortable with the word “humility’’, possibly because it’s a trait that I think rich people should have, rather than those already humbled by circumstances. I guess it’s semantics but it is not a word I would choose.

Then I see a letter in the ST Forum Page today signed by 40 social workers responding to Dr Nair’s column. The letter was a more sympathetic take on the plight of the poor, and made the added point that not everything can be laid at the family’s door.

“While it is easy to attribute the situation of low-income households to poor decision-making and celebrate tough love, we must also acknowledge the role that systems and structures play in creating the conditions of poverty in the first instance.

“In addition to asking clients hard questions, structural barriers in areas such as housing, education, sustainable employment, health and mental health services, family support, and care services must be addressed.

“Social workers in all fields of practice have a responsibility to draw attention to these barriers. Only then will people have the freedom and bandwidth to make and realise good decisions.’’

Then there was a direct reference to Dr Nair’s examples of flagrant spending.

“The issue of spending choices highlights further concerns. Who gets to decide what are bad decisions? In low-income households with limited options, the television is an important source of leisure and information. Material goods can offer a semblance of normalcy for marginalised families.’’

Clearly they hold a different view from Dr Nair, enough to galvanise 40 people to put their signatures to the letter.

But of course, it is Dr Maliki’s views that should interest us most. He is, after all, an office-holder and has a doctorate in social work.

Despite the extensive help extended, some commentators claim that the poor in Singapore, especially those living in rental flats, have severe unmet needs, and are being neglected,” he said.

“They say the poor are struggling because help often comes with onerous conditions; that parents do not go to work because they cannot find suitable childcare arrangements, and that they do not qualify for childcare subsidies because they are not working.

“But the facts disprove these claims. There are extensive healthcare and childcare subsidies available to mothers in low-income households, including those who are not working.”

I expected the above statement to be followed by some figures on families who take advantage of such help, but I had to be content with what sort of programmes there are.

Dr Maliki added: “The relevant point here is this: In making conclusions about the poor in Singapore, we need to be careful about using some particular cases or groups to generalise about the poor, the system, and the outcomes. “We need to look at the facts and understand the situations. We should also draw lessons from the many inspiring households who got back on their feet because they took ownership of their problems, worked hard, and made good use of the help they received.’’

I am not sure if three years of research by Dr Teo qualifies as generalisations about the poor, the system and the outcomes. And of course, there are examples of inspiring families, but they aren’t the focus of her thesis, right?

I find the problem with dealing with problems is that we want to see all sides of the picture instead of the problem per se. We want to overwhelm the warts with feel-good examples. We think that this is “fair’’. Nobody, however, would think it unfair if a book only concentrates on rags-to-riches stories, and neglects to talk about those who are still in rags.

Dr Maliki’s “defence’’ of the system is that most of these families had their ups and downs and are now in the “down’’ time because they’ve sold off their flats and somehow spent all the proceeds and went broke. It reminded me of the “trampoline’’ analogy used by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. When families are down, will the net be strong enough to push them up? Evidently, Dr Maliki thinks yes.

This might be the case for plenty of underprivileged families – or 50 per cent of those in rental homes, as cited by Dr Maliki. But what about the other 50 per cent who are chronically poor? How many such families have not moved upward and onwards through the generations? Is our system so perfect that no more improvement can be made? Is there absolutely no flaw? That’s an arrogant position to take.

Let’s not be overly defensive about our policies. There’s no need to magnify the state of poverty but we can take a magnifying glass to examine the warts. To paraphrase Dr Nair, even policymakers “must have the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change’’.

I think such a debate on social policy is healthy. May more people take part, without fear or favour.

 

 

 

 

That Kim-Trump deal – in short

In News Reports on June 13, 2018 at 12:25 am

An inside look at how the joint declaration between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was made:

DT: Hey Rocket Man! Nice haircut! You don’t mind me calling you Rocket Man do you?

Kim: So long as I can still call you the senile one..you’re going to be 72 soon you know. Happy birthday!

DT: Words…just words. We’ve gotta figure out some more words now coz the world’s watching…

Kim: We can have more words if you pull out your 32,000 soldiers.

DT: You kidding me! Moon will kill me. In time, okay? In good time, as the Singaporeans will say. Maybe in my life-time. Maybe not.

Kim: Well, then it’s hard for me to dismantle my nuclear weapons. It’s my best asset, you know.

DT: Hey, it’s your only asset! You’d better say you’d do something about it. And let in the inspectors to check that you’re not just shifting it somewhere else. The words “verifiable and irreversible’’ have gotta be in there somewhere.

Kim: Like you say, in time, in good time. You think it’s easy to give a time-line? We’re not as efficient as the Singaporeans. You have to give me something more.

DT: Woah! Deal-making huh. That, I know something about. By the way, you know if you knock out your nuclear sites, I’d have to take away my nuclear umbrella right? We’re not just talking about North Korea but the Korean peninsula. The whole world will be safer!

Kim: I’m willing to commit to denuclearization – but without a timeline, and without the words “verifiable’’ and “irreversible’’. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

DT: No can do. My guys have been telling me how you been going back on your words.

Kim: That was my father. I am not a chip out of the old block.

DT: No two Kims are the same? Hahah. Come on, gimme something. What about that stuff we talked about a couple of months ago… Closing one missile testing site…you told me that was do-able.

Kim: No problem! But we can’t put it in words

DT: Then the remains of our boys killed in the Korean war. And the Japs want their people back too.

Kim: No problem! We can say we’re working on the POW/MIA remains, but I really don’t know what the Japs are up. We already said that of the 12 Japs, eight were abducted are already dead and four never even entered the country.

DT: Oh well, I suppose Abe will have to get back to you on it.

Kim: My turn. Lift the sanctions.

DT: You gotta be kidding me. You’re lucky I’m not piling more to it. Anyway, you’ve been sniffing around in Beijing recently right? I’m sure you got some kinda deal.

Kim: Then you stop your war games. They are an unnecessary provocation. They raise tensions. Not good for peace. You look insincere if you have military drills while wanting peace.

DT: Hmmm…That could be tough. I didn’t raise it with my defence boys and I think they’re already working on the next one…

Kim: You can always say that it is expensive. You know, flying bombers from Guam and then back? Don’t you always say you know what to do with money?

DT: That’s a thought. But it isn’t fair! Everyone knows if we stop a drill, but nobody knows if you’re dismantling your arsenal or not!

Kim: I already said I am blowing up one testing site. You can check that.

DT: Okay. I’ll stop the games, but it isn’t going to be in the statement.

Kim: Deal!

DT: Hmm. You think the world’s gonna like our agreement? I have to sell it to the pesky media, you know. Wish I could be you and just tell them what to say…

Kim: You can say it was a better meeting than the NATO one you came from. Or you can say you don’t have much time because you have a birthday party you have to rush home too.

DT: I guess it’s good to say we’ve started talking. What about saying that we’ll commit to establishing a new bilateral relationship. Emphasis on the word “new’’.

Kim: Yes. I’m sure analysts will say something about a new era, new chapter, a first step or whatever.

DT: Okay. Then I’ll commit to not calling you Rocket Man anymore.

Kim: And I won’t call you senile. Deal?

DT: Deal!

There’s no humility nor respect

In News Reports on June 6, 2018 at 1:50 am

When the proposal for a second Singapore conversation was raised in Parliament, I tried hard to be optimistic. I wrote a column about how we should hear out the 4G leaders and start a new relationship between the government and the governed. I said we should put behind whatever misgivings we may have about G policies in the past and forge ahead with a new group of leaders. I concluded by saying that I would hold Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to this promise in his speech:

“The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

In a second column, I suggested that the conversation be aimed at measures to reduce social stratification which would mean a re-examination of all types of policies which might be hindering this.

I am beginning to think I was too optimistic.

With all humility and respect, I think the 4G leaders are “losing it”. I refer to the responses to commentators who have tried to give constructive views and raise questions. There was, for example, ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong’s column about “parking”. In the light of the bigger problems facing the country, like a stunted High Speed Rail project, it’s a small issue. But the policy to do away with free parking at schools for teachers seem to have taken on a life of its own.

Ms Chua did a good job debunking some of the myths circulating online about free parking for grassroots leaders and Members of Parliament. The Clerk of Parliament said that MPs park for free at Parliament House.”Members of Parliament (MPs) do not have offices in Parliament House and do not require full-time parking here. As authorised persons to Parliament House on sitting days or when they are here for meetings to perform their official duties, MPs park their vehicles at the restricted carpark at no charge.”

She concluded by suggesting, politely, that “it might be more equitable to have MPs pay for hourly parking at Parliament House”.

After its publication in the Sunday Times, there was a next-day response from Leader of the House Grace Fu. It was an exercise in obfuscation. First, she appears to contradict what the Clerk had said:

The article, “Do MPs and grassroots volunteers pay for parking?” (June 3), creates an impression that MPs get free parking at Parliament House. 

You expect then to be told what parking fees are being levied. But you get this:

Elected MPs who drive pay for an annual permit that allows them to park in Housing Board carparks, in order to do their constituency work.

This payment, which Parliament deducts from the MPs’ allowances, is deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House to fulfil their duties.

So MPs do pay an annual parking fee in HDB carparks that are presumably in their own constituencies. But she doesn’t say how much or how it compares to a season parking licence that a normal HDB dweller has to foot. Then comes this intriguing line that this same payment is “deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House”.
I suppose she could have fudged the issue by saying that MPs are levied an annual parking fee, which covers both HDB and Parliament carparks.  Instead, she used the word “deemed”. It looked very much like an after-thought.
It would have been less contentious if she stopped right there, but she chooses to add some snarky remarks.

Political office holders, like civil servants, also pay for parking at their ministries and agencies. This payment generally covers the occasions when they visit other ministries and agencies on official business; and if they have to pay for public or commercial carparks in the vicinity, they are reimbursed.

Applying the same principle, teachers now pay to park at their primary places of duty. But no one is suggesting they pay again when they visit other schools to attend meetings.

I am flummoxed at her conclusion.  What has a minister’s parking spot in his ministry to do with his parking spot in Parliament. Is she saying that if political office-holders (she seems to have forgotten that many MPs aren’t) pay for both sets of parking, teachers who visit other schools would have to do the same?

I think she would have done better to clear this mis-impression in the column – that Parliament House carpark is not open to the public and intended only for staff and MPs. Because what comes to mind are plenty of empty spots on prime land, since Parliament sits so infrequently.

It appears that while Ms Fu had read the piece on parking, she failed to see the piece in the same newspaper on plain speaking. But Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat evidently did, going by the missive his press secretary Lim Yuin Chien wrote to ST Forum Pages.

It is a disheartening piece of prose, reminiscent of the response that two other 4G leaders Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary had penned a month ago – to the same commentator, ex-ST editor Han Fook Kwang. Both pieces seem intent on misinterpreting the message.

So Mr Han laments the use of abstract terms when talking about issues that affect people

What does equipping Singaporeans with a “global mindset and skillsets” mean to someone worried about holding on to his job or who has just lost it. What does an education system with “diverse pathways and multiple peaks of excellence” mean to the parent struggling to help her children cope with school work?

He suggested some down-to-earth methods of sending the message, which will demonstrate empathy and re-assure people. Instead, Mr Heng has misinterpreted it as encouraging “pandering and populism”:

Mr Han begins by urging ministers to speak plainly – to use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to ministers to make sweeping promises.

For example, he wants ministers to assure people that if they had “a full working life in Singapore, in any job… when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life”.

“We will make sure it happens,” Mr Han urges ministers to say, “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it.” 

Mr Heng said that plain speaking must also include telling ‘hard truths’ (a Lee Kuan Yew phrase), such as how old age needs will go up and people will have to work longer, save more while working or have less to spend in retirement. Journalists and commentators must also speak plainly, he added.

Then there is a plug for the People’s Action Party which Mr Heng said never flinched from giving the truth and a swipe at Opposition MPs for preferring to engaging in a debate over the proposed rise in Goods and Services Tax during elections, rather than in Parliament.

I admit that I was surprised at Mr Han’s advice about “telling people not to worry about the details or how we will do it”. This is not because I suspect he prefers populist government but I have always held that it  would be better for a government to tell all – and in plain words too – instead of taking on a nannying role. There is, however, no shame in the G making promises. After all, political parties are elected based on their manifesto – which is a bunch of promises.

The letter ends this way:

Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken.

Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately, voters or their children bear the cost.

The easiest five words to utter in politics are: “I promise you free lunches.” But that’s not plain speech. That’s pandering and populism.

I don’t know many readers saw Mr Han’s column as a call to pandering and populism. I certainly didn’t. The 4G leaders seem to be seeing shadows everywhere. They are coming across as prickly and thin-skinned.

Why couldn’t the letter have been written this way:

I thank Mr Han for his column on plain-speaking. It is correct that politicians should phrase their messages in simple and empathetic terms for the layman. We do try, and we acknowledge that we don’t always succeed. I wish to add that Mr Han neglects to say that plain speech also means telling the full truth. It is easy to make promises but the electorate would also have a part to play in fulfilling it. I doubt that they will be satisfied with “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it”. The 4G leadership wants to forge a new relationship with the people, which must also mean alerting them to the pitfalls and hard work ahead. We intend to do so – and yes, in plain words. 

I think that would be a nice way to get a point across, rather than the hectoring/smart-alecky way demonstrated by the two letters. If respected MSM columnists who are not unknown to G get this kind of opaque and befuddling response (in Ms Fu’s case) or a blistering lecture (in Mr Heng’s case), what more lesser mortals? Is the 4G leadership taking a hard line to show that it can’t be bullied? Or to destroy the credibility of well-read columnists whom it considers members of a “vocal minority”?

It doesn’t seem to me that they are listening “with humility and respect”. Nor are they keeping an “open mind”. Not even communicating the reasons for its decisions clearly.

Wherefore the next Singapore Conversation? Or would it be at the ballot box?

 

PS. I used Mr Heng’s name because I don’t think his press secretary would have written the piece without his go-ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A national conversation about class?

In News Reports on June 2, 2018 at 2:05 am

In all the discussions about social stratification, I always look out for the voice of the well-off parent. What does he or he say about the current clamour? About how well-off parents   leverage on their social networks, use their social capital or pour their financial resources into the upbringing of their children?

We hear little from them in public, probably because it would be impolitic for them to speak in the current environment.

The concept of closed circles isn’t a new one. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned it in a National Day rally speech in 2013.

“ The system has to be open, meaning there cannot be barriers to entry. Outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite – I am here, my children are here, you are not in this magic circle, you cannot come in. Some societies become like that. We must never become like that. We must have many pathways in our system, an open system so students can come in. If they do not fit, they go out. If later on, they develop, they could come in.’’

He announced that the Direct Schools Admission policy would be expanded and that places in schools set aside for students whose parents are “unconnected’’.

Five years later, we’re still grappling with closed circles.

I can’t help but think we are pussy-footing around the issue. It’s very Singaporean to make a dramatic statement, and then moderate it with a “but’’. That is, things aren’t so bad after all.

So Raffles Institution has a less diverse student population now, “but’’ 53 per cent of the boys still hail from public housing. That’s a dubious “but’’ given that it’s not representative of the population in public housing.

Income inequality is high “but’’ not if you take into account transfers to the lower income. In other words, they are not as badly off as a plain Gini co-efficient demonstrates.

There is no poverty line in Singapore “but’’ we can roughly use $1,300 a month because that’s what the National Wages Council seems to think is the right amount. The “but’’ is mine, by the way.

All that moderation is compounded by a paucity of statistics. Asked by TODAY to respond to an article on social stratification, the Education ministry said that eight in 10 schools today have a “relatively balanced mix” of students, with at least 5 per cent of students from both the top and bottom socio-economic quintiles.

I don’t think such a statement sheds any light on the issue. If social stratification is threatening to tear society apart, then it behoves the G to give us some statistics to chew on. Does the class divide coincide with racial lines, for example.

In my view, the issue is worth a thorough whole-of-G examination. We should turn over every stone in our fiscal, housing, education, social policies to see what sort of active G intervention is needed to ensure the openness of the Singapore system.

Efforts seem piece-meal – there is KidStart for underprivileged children, the expansion of MOE kindergartions and now, mixing rental and owner-occupied flats in future projects.

Perhaps, we should also look at co-curricular activities in schools.

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said some co-curricular activities are “far too ethnically defined”.

Football is dominated by Malays and sports like table tennis, volleyball and basketball appear to draw Chinese, although some schools like Dunman and Jurong Secondary have been deliberate in forming multi-racial basketball teams, he noted. In contrast, football in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s was very multicultural, he said.

“How about the rest of the world? You have all sorts of countries playing basketball, volleyball and table tennis. In our region itself, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, are top in basketball and volleyball. We are trapping ourselves too easily, and it is not difficult to change,” he said.

What about the role of ethnic self-help groups and Community Development Councils? Are self-help groups perpetuating closed circles or should the G intervene to direct help through CDCs? Are the grassroots organisations run by the People’s Association too oriented towards providing activities for public housing residents or should it play a bigger role in encouraging social mixing?

It’s a worthy topic for the 4G leaders to handle, one that should draw the participation of Singaporeans from all walks of life in the proposed second Singapore conversation. It has a firm objective, unlike the multifarious first Singapore Conversation.

We can all bring our minds to bear on it – and possibly hear from those who have kept their opinions to themselves.

I mean, why should a well-off parent not send his child to the top school he used to study in, pile enrichment lessons and private tuition on the kid and stop him from making friends with the lower classes in case the friends turn out to be a bad influence?