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Dr Teo You Yenn: Pedagogical reforms, universal income needed to address socioeconomic inequality

According to Dr Teo You Yenn, author of "This Is What Inequality Looks Like" and Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, certain changes need to be implemented on a structural level in order to tackle the issue of socioeconomic inequality in Singapore.

Dr Teo believes that "many Singaporeans care about the problems of poverty and inequality, have aspirations toward greater equality, and are interested in knowing more about how to think about these issues.”

She suggested that her work urges Singaporeans to not view the poor in Singapore "as merely people who have fallen through the cracks,” according to Channel NewsAsia. 

Touching on the Singapore education system, she said that one of the ways socioeconomic inequality is manifested is through the capacity of some middle-class to upper-class parents to afford paying for tuition to supplement their children's lessons in school.

“Although there is a lot of public spending on education, we also know that too much of success in schools depend on private investments from parents in education and so there needs to be significant changes within education so that the private investments are not so significant in shaping the success or failure of kids in school,” she said.

In her book, she explains how by Primary 3, many children from low-income families are tracked and banded into lower-performing classes.

She also said that the current education system in Singapore is also rigged against students with developmental capacities that differ from the threshold set by its requirements.

“There need to be adjustments to what is being rewarded and when it’s being rewarded because we know that in our system, being an early reader and an early writer, for example, is a huge advantage."

"Requiring that children, when they enter Primary One, already know how to read and write, immediately puts at a disadvantage the kids who do not have the kinds of conditions that allow them do that at that point.”

She said that due to the varying innate developmental capacities of children, "some may just not be ready to read and write".

"It doesn’t mean that they are incapable. Learning is partly about what people think and believe they can learn. Many of the kids I see are demoralised quickly once they enter school."

"These are smart kids. These are kids who have capabilities and yet they are demoralised very quickly because they are framed as 'weak'," she said.

Dr Teo suggested doing away with the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), as early streaming might hamper otherwise valuable potential within students who might not fit the mold of the ideal academic achiever at such a tender age.

“We don’t have to be so quick to judge which child should be in which lane, which child should be in which kind of band. When we do that, we are losing our very precious human talent,” she said.

She implies that socioeconomic inequality is already being entrenched by the PSLE examinations and streaming into Normal and Academic streams, perhaps before certain children are able to fully explore where their true strengths lie, adding that “a huge purpose of the exams obviously is to sort and to create hierarchy,” according to Channel NewsAsia.

“We know what exams are like and what they test. If we are very honest, we also know that the fact that we did very well in a certain exam, doesn’t mean we really learnt those things that we were able to reproduce in the exams. I would say that if you ask me now about math, physics or chemistry, or any of the other things I aced my exams in, I have to be very honest and tell you that I’m not sure I learnt that much through that process,” she said.

She calls on in pedagogical experts to examine and publicly discuss "the benefits of specialised learning and how best to teach kids so that they can develop their capacities well," she said.

She also said that success stories of Singaporeans who hail from low-income families should be seen as outliers and not the norm. 

“We do not need to close the door on any individual’s story, but we must be able to place them in the wider context of larger empirical patterns, rather than cherry-picking isolated cases of exceptions," she said.

“In the three years when I did my research, I saw that for most low-income families, even just passing the PSLE is an achievement. Most of the kids get streamed into low tracks."

"A single case stands out in my mind of a child who might make it into university. These are not good odds for success, they are extremely poor ones."

"The doors to upward mobility through education are very much narrower for them than for kids from more affluent families,” she added.

In addition, Dr Teo argued that "universalism in meeting fundamental needs, such as housing, healthcare and retirement security, would protect everyone in society from precarity, instead of making dignity and security dependent on private earnings and wealth.”

She believes that people's dignity should not be dependent on whether or not they are able to sustain basic needs on their own, and that providing a universal basic income will not, in turn, make them complacent, or forgo meaningful work as a result.

“People are very reasonable in terms of thinking about what is basic for a decent standard of living. Universal welfare in this context is not a slippery slope."

"Empirically, I found that people value work. A lot of sociological work has shown that the value of work, the meanings people take from work go beyond the income they earn from the work."

"Work is a very important part of peoples’ sense of self and peoples’ sense of worth. The assumption that if you don’t make life difficult for people, they won’t work, is just not true,” she said, according to Channel NewsAsia.

She cited the economic prosperity of the Scandinavian nations to illustrate her argument for a basic universal income provided by the government, saying that “these are all places that are doing quite well."

She added that "often the argument is made that if you did a lot of these things, your economy would go bust, and that’s just not empirically true.”

Dr Teo also urged people in positions of power such as those in the executive and legislative arms of the government, as well as academicians to not monopolise the narrative in terms of pushing for structural change in addressing the growing socioeconomic disparity in the country, and that they should factor in the voices of the marginalised at the centre of their discourse, considering that the marginalised communities are the ones who often bear the brunt of the growing inequality in society.

“Research, writing and telling stories about society are often dominated by people who are in positions of relative power. This would include politicians and intellectuals."

"I think it’s important that people in positions to either make decisions or tell stories don’t tell their stories or make decisions as if their perspectives are the universal perspectives."

"The act of making decisions or telling stories should be one that includes the voices and perspectives of people outside that narrow class of people,” she said.