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6 - The Mobility Game in Singapore: Poverty, Welfare, Opportunity, and Success in a Capitalist Economy

from Part II - Who are the Poor?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

Tan Ern Ser
Affiliation:
National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore
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Summary

By now, most studies on social mobility have consistently demonstrated that family background matters (Chen 1973; Quah et al. 1991). What fathers do for a living has a strong influence on how their children perform in school and eventually in the labour market. There are obviously a host of other contributory factors which can enhance one's mobility chances; however, they all boil down to the fact that a person's access to economic, social, and cultural capital has a significant impact on his or her future career and life trajectory.

My own study (Tan 2004), as well as that of Chen (1973) and Quah et al. (1991) before me, also suggest that despite official policy aimed at equalizing opportunities in Singapore, family background continues to have a strong influence on educational and occupational attainment among Singaporeans. Indeed, Ko (1991, p. 224) found that “about one fifth of the variance in education may be explained by the three background variables (father's education, father's occupation, and mother's education)”. This is hardly surprising, given that for practical reasons the provision of opportunities tends to focus primarily on economic capital, rather than social and cultural capital. In other words, even if economic capital could be equalized, it is unlikely that one could prevent the advantages associated with social networks, such as kinship and friendship ties, and access to knowledge and information from boosting the mobility chances of offspring of well-connected, welleducated parents.

I am not suggesting that people without the appropriate credentials and merits, academic and otherwise, could climb up the social ladder simply by hanging on to the coattails of their parents, but that, all things being equal, social and cultural capital may well tip the balance in one's favour. Consequently, meritocracy is not compromised. However, there is one important exception to this principle. Because of the institution of private property inheritance, a key feature of capitalist society, one could become a business owner simply by being born into wealth, and paradoxically be in a position to hire and control people with credentials, but without the privilege of family wealth.

Using A Game Analogy

In this chapter I will not continue to prove ad nauseam that family background matters or that the policy and practice of equalizing opportunities, or even economic growth with job creation, has led to greater absolute mobility or even relative mobility.

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Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2011

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