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Picture by: Chenxi Zhang

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Interning amongst disenchanted workers, I realised the reality of social mobility in Singapore

Take the escalator out of Raffles Quay MRT Station and you will land in the Central Business District. Strain your neck a little and you can see curious dapples of sunshine reflecting off the windows of Guoco Tower, along with the curved silhouette of the Sands Hotel in your peripheral vision. Breathe in its majesty, its opulence, and all its non-olfactory riches.

It was my father’s dream to work here when he was in his thirties, freshly immigrated to Singapore in the tropic heat of the millennium year. Like many other workers, his vision was enraptured by the metropolitan buildings lining Singapore’s cityscape and its promises of high living standards.

Today, I am interning here as a fresh high school graduate, amongst many disenchanted listless folks who put themselves through seven hours of work each day.

With laurels like the second-highest GDP per capita in the world, a robust workforce and a stable political environment to attract significant foreign direct investments, Singapore is no doubt an economic powerhouse. Yet it withheld a more ghastly truth with a high Gini Coefficient of 0.371– its economic inequality.


According to a 2019 report, 3.74% of Singapore’s population are in the top 1% of global wealth holders, while the bottom 10% are unable to meet their basic needs due to poverty.

This begs a question – given this stark inequality, how possible is it to achieve intergenerational mobility?

Singapore’s meritocratic myth

From 11 am to 1 pm on weekdays, that is when one gets to witness the true density of the central business district – it is the break time for many employees, as they rush to find available seats or are forced to congregate on sheltered streets eating from their styrofoam boxes.

They are hustling, they are bustling, and they are working themselves to the bone willingly.

To a 9-to-5, the principle is simple – work hard, and you get a pay raise. Many people are prisoners with jobs to this assumption, clocking up to an average of 45 hours of work each week and earning the title of being the most overworked country in the Asia Pacific region. Yet, the linearity of meritocracy fails to account for many practical circumstances that hard work and talent cannot alter.

Singaporeans have fostered a culture of hard work drilled into them from a young age. According to results from PISA, Singaporean students perform far above the average in reading literacy, mathematics and sciences, which speaks volumes about the quality of the education system.

Many see education as the most effective social leveller as it can provide equal opportunities to diligent and bright young students. As a result, Singaporean parents are willing to pour in significant amounts of resources to ensure their children receive the best possible education – which includes sending their children for private tuition at a young age to achieve high academic standards.

Learn more:

Tuition has ballooned to a S$1.4b industry in Singapore. Should we be concerned?

‘For many parents, tuition has become the dominant strategy: If other parents enrol their kids for tuition, it would be best to do likewise so that their own kids will not lose out.’

By Kelvin Seah Kah Cheng | TODAY

‘8 in 10 parents’ have sent their children to primary school with private tuition while ‘6 in 10’ do the same at secondary education. Preying on the fear of failure, otherwise known as the ‘kiasu’ culture, the local tuition industry has chalked up $1.4 billion a year.

Social division via education is created in this aspect as families that are unable to send their children to private tuition are the minority in this picture. Not only do these families lack the financial ability to send their children to classes that can build up their interests and social capital, but their children are four times more likely to performer lower. There is also an additional discrepancy to the quality of tutors higher income households can afford.

Given the financial constraints of school fees, children from lower-income families are also less likely to attain a university degree and continue their tertiary education. University graduates offer skills in higher demand and are thus rewarded with an average starting salary 1.5 times higher than non-university graduates.

As meritocracy is premised on a level playing field, this is often not the reality in Singapore. The difference in income and class between different families can fundamentally distinguish the quality of education their children receive and therefore affect their occupational prospects and income levels across generations.

The ‘scarcity mindset’

A Tedx Speaker Nicky Verd once said, “poverty is aggravated when money is given to a poor mind.” This is in direct reference to how poverty can impact the life-long decision-making style people take on usually as a result of financial stress.

Poverty forces people to make short-term financial decisions such as having to devote a majority or all of their income towards paying monthly rent and bills leaving little in the way of accumulating savings. This often hinders people from making plans that benefit themselves in the long term, known as the ‘scarcity mindset’.

Poverty often means people have to settle for the cheapest possible household utilities and supplies, which may be a downgrade in quality and be unsustainable in the long run. Examples include buying inexpensive clothes or shoes which are more likely to need replacing sooner as well as missing out on the discounts that can be obtained if bulk buying supplies instead.

Furthermore, class inequality forces social stratification, which is a prominent problem in Singaporean society. One study found that on average residents of public housing have fewer than one friend who lives in private housing leaving less social interactions and networking opportunities.

To a large extent, poverty is a cycle families struggle to get out of in Singapore due to a seemingly widening class divide and the habits developed as a result of being financially deprived.

Side hustles and entrepreneurship

To put this into perspective, let me bring up an anecdote. In a building tucked away in the corner of the Central Business District, I asked a colleague of mine during work one day, “Is it tough to earn money in Singapore, besides having a stable 9-to-5 job?” She thought about it for a while, and answered, ‘There’s investments. There’s side hustles. Many of us know about these: but we don’t have enough time or money to make the first step.”

I knew exactly what she was referring to. Sean Seah has been hosting many investment webinars on my YouTube recommended page for too long. The fundamental difference between me and her was that I could bring myself to watch some of his videos with some youthful exuberance and curiosity, while her most immediate concern was a stable source of income to pay her rent.

Fresh out of high school, many of my peers started freelance tutoring. A few tried their hands at trading, hoping for big gains. A couple of adventurous ones even started their own coaching business or made a podcast with renowned titles.

The starry-eyed youths, usually more daring and imaginative, are willing to take on different modes of lifestyle contrary to the status quo of a 9-to-5 full-time job.

Given the easy accessibility of social media and the internet, there is no shortage of videos or books that teach us about lifestyle design and how to make alternative streams of income. Knowing that such options exist is one thing, and having the ability to work it out in practice is another altogether.

However, it’s also important to note that if socialised in a lower-income family a more stable source of income is usually preferred to be able to pay off financial burdens instead of devoting additional energy and taking risks to try other ways of earning money. After all, if one is cash-strapped and time-strapped, it is both too risky and there is not much if any money that can be spared for investments.

While there are still ways to get ahead in life besides pure hard work, it can only be afforded to those with the necessary social capital and traits, which children in lower-income families still lack.

Addressing Inequality – Improving Welfare Systems

Singaporeans have believed in self-sufficiency ever since our founding father told the story of our graceful transformation from a fishing village to a buzzing metropolis. This can be seen in the unique design of our social support system, in the form of the Progressive Wage Model which is built on encouraging lower-income Singaporeans to upskill themselves and attain systematic progress in their careers.

Singapore’s social welfare systems are increasing in scale, while still retaining this core principle. Budget 2024, a summary of financial initiatives recently delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, pledges to provide cash incentives for non-university graduates to upskill themselves and raise wage ceilings for lower-income workers.

With financial support and guidance for lower-income workers to learn more competitive skills, there are more opportunities for people to climb the career ladder and earn higher salaries.

Furthermore, the Comlink+ pilot programme launched in 2019 is specifically tailored to help households break out of intergenerational poverty. There are four progress packages to support families in areas of preschool education, stable employment, debt clearance and housing which would allow lower-income families to have their most immediate problems addressed.

Recently, the government increased the maximum amount of childcare subsidies and boosted the scope of outreach programmes for preschool education, ensuring that the playing field for education can be levelled at an earlier stage. There would also be parenting programmes and social support structures to help uplift families out of poverty.

These changes help address the structural issue of generational poverty in Singapore, thereby likely to improve social mobility.

So as I stood there brooding on the shore of the Singapore River, staring at the tranquil, blue giants which have seen generations of white-collared workers come and go, I thought about my father’s initial wonder when he saw the tallest building in the area for the first time, imagining how lovely it would be to work here and vowing to craft a better life for his wife and daughter.

Would he now think it was a dream that slipped away through his fingertips, as he morphed into the shadows of the people that marched between these high-rise office buildings?

Written by:


Chenxi Zhang



Born in 2005, Chenxi lives a relatively comfortable life in Singapore and wishes to pursue Mathematics in her university studies.

Despite being a pure science student, she enjoys reading books extending from political nonfiction to epistolary novels, with 84, Charing Cross Road being one of her all-time sentimental reads.

During her free time, she may be found watching movies, playing table tennis, or playing chess.

Edited by:


Timur Boranbayev

Economics Section Editor

London, United Kingdom


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