May 23, 2007

Ahh, the Foolish Masses

They simply do not know their own society. Here's an excerpt from Warren Fernandez's article "All societies have elites, but some become elitist", in the Straits Times on 19 May 2007:

".... perhaps the most striking finding was that when asked what contributed to a person's success in Singapore, the vast majority, whether from top schools or otherwise, said it was hard work, ability to do well, talent, intelligence, in that order.

Only 2 to 3 per cent of those polled from all backgrounds cited family wealth as a major factor in someone making it to the top."
So 97% or 98% of Singaporeans do not believe that family wealth is a major factor in determining one's success in Singapore. But is this true?

Well, let's take living in a private home (as opposed to a HDB flat) as an indicator of family wealth. And let's take the achievement of getting a PSC scholarship, as a symbol of success in our society. I did a little googling, and this is what I found:

Only 15% of Singaporeans live in private homes; the other 85% live in HDB flats. However, it turns out that about 47% of of all PSC scholars live in private homes.
In other words, almost half of all PSC scholars belong to the richest 15% of the population.
Details here.


Anonymous said...

This is why the state's times is such a lousy paper.

Oh c'mon...the 'survey' is a joke.

Anonymous said...

Well, at least one man is trying to give more scholarships to the lower income strata.

kitkat said...

Mr Wang,

Not forgetting, there is a higher probability of the richest 15% staying in HDB, i.e. someone like you, than the poor being able to afford private housing.

I do think there are really more than 47% of PSC scholars belonging to the richest 15%. PSC will have all that statistics. I agree with one comment in takchek's blog - the way the family income is presented (<$5k per month) is very misleading.

That and the fact that president scholars from poorer families are always highlighted in the media, to exemplify our meritocratic society. Why is that of news value if 98% of us in society thinks family wealth is a non-determinant of success?

The survey results was skewed because only students were polled. These young people will realise the cold hard truth only when they are out in society - it's all about who you, or your daddy, know.

Anonymous said...

To kitkat:

You are so damn right! Then again, it is like this all over the world.

Anonymous said...

State's Times is nothing more than pages of advertisements and in between these advertisements, there are sheets of black words stringed together in white space.

If we can trust ST, we might as well trust the aliens on the moon.

simplesandra said...

When you don't have the family wealth to flaunt, hardwork is possibly your best bet for success in life - doesn't matter whether you're intelligent or not. Like my mother would say: "don't talk about the rich, cos we ain't got that sort of money" ;-)

Sam said...

Big deal. The rich can afford to spend 4 years for a graduate course, 2 years for a masters, and then maybe another couple for a doctorate. The poor has to get out to work or starve, with or without "O" levels. Always have been, always will be.

Anonymous said...

On a flip side, there will always be a mixed bunch of PSC scholars. 47% in the 15% bracket also means 53% in the lower-income earning bracket.

For as long as humans are involved in the process, there will be 'guanxi'. The govt will, through their pet media, always resolve to print favourable statistics to sway the public; which govt will not do likewise?

Mezzo said...

Well, the PM's own son, as well as the sons of his cabinet ministers have taken up government scholarshiips.

I'm sure it was meritocratic. After all, who has the ability to get more things done - the son of a Yio Chu Kang hawker, or the son of a Cabinet minister who has all kinds of strings to pull?

Fernandez's article didn't seem to have looked at the survey results properly. I got the impression that he never really looked at the survey, as his article suggested that they were representive of ALL Singaporeans. Kenneth Kwek's original article with the survey results at least had the honesty to point out its own limitations.

Then again, I'm not sure Fernandez cares about hard data. His article went on to say that the proof that scholarships are a great levelling mechanism was that "scholarship interviewees told me that they couldn't afford to go overseas otherwise."

PC said...

Not sure if the indicators are right to begin with.

Assume HDB 5 room flat owner vs Private Condo unit owner.

Who's richer?

You say the Pte Condo guy? What if I told you that Mr HDB's S$400k unit is fully owned? While Mr Pte Condo still has a S$300k loan on his S$500k condo?

What about a guy who pays off his Toyota with cash, versus the guy who takes a 90% loan on his Mercedes SLK?

Who's richer than whom?

Unless I know more, I cannot be satisfied that the stats mean anything

G said...

pc: So you would like to say that people living in HDB are statistically richer than people living in Condoes?

If not, then MrWang's stats are showing something.

(Speaking about individual cases as you did does not lead to much conclusions in stats.)

Anonymous said...

Warren is only saying that when he interviewed the SPH scholarship applicants, most of them cannot afford to go overseas on their own. I believe he didn't make any comments on PSC scholarships.

Anonymous said...

HDB 99yrs tenant folks are richer than private home owners. Right.

PC said...

g and anonymous 2:25pm :

I'm amazed I even have to explain this... but I'm talking "what if's" here. Let's not let appearances fool us (but if that's your choice, what the hey!)... I just raised a couple of examples to show how your final answer can be influenced as more facts are added.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Now, boys, don't fight. Click on the link I provided and you'll see that the other indicator used is household income. PSc scholars also come from households with higher income.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"The govt will, through their pet media, always resolve to print favourable statistics to sway the public; which govt will not do likewise?"

Heheh. How about govts which are not majority shareholders of the largest media cororates in their country and which do not appoint ex-government ministers to be the Chairman of such media corporates?

Anonymous said...

It's simple.

Any form of financial assistance or benefit given without a means test will tend to attract people who do not actually need it, but are eligible nevertheless. With brand-name education being such a key to social and economic success, people naturally will try to get a hold of any financing to get what they want.

I think it is fine for pure merit scholarships, as long as it is balanced with means-and-merit grants as well. And I think Mr. Wang has said it before. Moving forward and moving forward together are two different things, but they need not be mutually exclusive.

Mezzo said...

"Warren is only saying that when he interviewed the SPH scholarship applicants, most of them cannot afford to go overseas on their own."

No, actually he said that they told him they couldn't afford it. Not the same thing.

I'm quite prepared to believe him. I just believe that if he wants to substantiate his point, he should provide stats that show that his scholarship applicants are from middle and low income families, not rely on them telling him so.

After all, what person in the scholarship interview is going to say "Yes, I can afford it actually"?

klimmer said...

The most important factor is luck.

Anonymous said...

Well, working from the assumption that intelligent and hard working people earn more money then the parents of the PSC scholars are more likely to be hard-working and intelligent than the rest of the population right? And there is a correlation between the intelligence of the parents and the intelligence of the kid. Also if the parents are intelligent and hard working they are more likely to provide a stimulative environment for the kid, thus the kid is more likely to be hard-working and intelligent coming from a richer home. Then there is of course additional factors like more money spent on tutors and the like. So the fact that richer kids are more likely to get a scholarship doesnt mean it's not meritocratic...

Anonymous said...

i think in most societies, offspring of affluent/intelligent/influential parents are inevitably much more likely to succeed in life than those of parents otherwise. various reasons are applicable: genes, nurtures and connections etc etc. that is why 100% meritocracy is 100% bullshit. to really level the playing field in sg, the gabramen needs to dispense much more assistance to lower income families than it does presently.

think magical figures of $290 and $XXX (obscene) million, and you will see that pap is shameless in trumpeting meritocracy.

superman said...

I am not an expert in psychology, but I recall reading about attribution theory many years back. Most people tend to attribute their achievements to personal hard work rather than external factors, such as family wealth or luck. It is silly to conduct such survey in the first place as there are inherent bias.

I tend to agree that coming from good family background ensure a higher chances of success in scholastic achievements or even future career success. That's life, we see that everywhere. My only issue is how the press keep trying to overplay this meritocracy slant when it is clearly not.

whybegay said...

Scholarships are not just for poor people which is why there is the mentioning of meritocracy, because scholarships are for all people in society who deserves them.

Society is not just about being charity.

So who is really foolish to think that scholarships are only for the poor?

Half of scholarships goes to poor people, I say that is pretty fair and balanced distribution.

About the definition of being rich. Being truely rich is not needing to work at all to support one's lifestyle. Even if one now makes alot of money a month but still lacks enough money to retire, he is not truely rich period.

Working class blue and white collars people are not rich socialites, they are still workers. Until one has made enough enough money that one does not need to work any longer, he is then truely rich, monetary sense of course.

Anonymous said...

When asked, someone commented "I dont insult my intelligence by reading Straits Times".

For me, that summed up the paper in one line. Even today i wonder how people read such an openly biased and stupid paper.

Euterpe said...

I believe Warren was commenting on the results of the Ken Kwek survey, which students participated in. When I was a student, I also believed that hard work, ability to do well etc etc determines whether you do well in life or otherwise. Of course, this belief got shakier and shakier as I climbed up the academic ladder, now that I am working, I'll say that hard work and ability gets you places, but an able person who works hard AND had family wealth probably gets further.

Anonymous said...

"Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions." - Niccolo Machiavelli

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Would you care to disclose whether you yourself came from a rich family?

lau min-tsek said...

"The govt will, through their pet media, always resolve to print favourable statistics to sway the public; which govt will not do likewise?"

The British government and the BBC.

The British government funds the BBC (even though the BBC is profitable already), but the government basically adopts a hands off approach for the editorials and programming of the BBC, which is seen as independent and can be (and has been) critical of the government or even the opposition.

It is common to see our limited experiences and what we have been constantly told by the PAP -- ie, we must have a nation building press, and that the press must be accountable to the government -- as "normal" and something to be expected around the developed world. But often is the case, other countries have done just the opposite and got on pretty well. The above is just one example.

lau min-tsek said...

What WF is guilty of is to read too much into the survey in order to make a political point. Perhaps the political motive is to serve the PAP by downplaying all the fallouts of the "elite" debate that has been slowly but surely gaining momentum.

In essence, what student would not say that hard work and not family connections is important? A student look around him and see that he has to study hard to get an A in O-level mathematics. Daddy being an MP will not gaurantee him one. That's simply common sense.

(hehe, the real issue in this case is whether family connection will get your son to an elite school to begin with, or in the case of LKY dylexic grandson, to schools not normally accessible to Singaporeans. But I digress).

The error made by WF is to try to link the students perception to the concept of elitism. The link is suspect at best. The students were not commenting on elistism.

This is like asking the question to students: "Do you want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend (preferably not of the same sex as you)?" And if they mostly say yes, we conclude erroneously that our fertility rate is going to increase, or if they say no, our fertility rate is going to drop we must import in more FT. The issues are not related, even if they do share common denominators.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Would you care to disclose whether you yourself came from a rich family?"

Oh, not rich. Not poor, but not rich. Comfortable is the right word, I would say.

Anonymous said...

To quote one of the comments on the other post

", well it sounds quite logical. you see, parents who are smart are usually more capable which makes them easier to climb up the social ladder. Good brain = better in studies = higher education = good job = faster promotions = richer family.

When the genes pass on to their kids, it's no wonder that the rich make up the larger percentage of the scholars.

Where will you find doctor parents living in an old dilapidated hut? If huts do exist in Singapore. "

Furthermore, ricker students can afford more tuition, spending less time on transport by being chauffered about.
Its quite common sense that a disproportionate amount of students come from richer household. Its social capital.

moomooman said...

There are more HDB Flats that cost more than Private apartments.

Some 5 rooms in Bukit Merah, Toa Payoh, EM in Bishan is over half a million.

Many ECs are still below 500k.

I agree with what PC has mentioned.

So these stats may not totally be that meaningful.

Also tieing the no. of PSC scholars to Family Gross income of $5000 may not be that meaningful as well.

Chances of someone with a gross income of 5k staying in HDB flats is extremely high.

Even our dear Mr Wang stays in HDB.

So what does this says about the stats?

moomooman said...


I don't mean more HDB flats costing more than private apartments.

I meant nowadays some HDB flats are costing more than private apartments.

W said...

I was sceptical of the survey results when I first read them, but is it not possible to give them a more charitable reading? Suppose the following: a person can be Hardworking or Lazy, and can come from a Wealthy or Poor family.

Would one agree with the following statements--in Singapore:

A1) Given Wealthy family, a Hardworking person is more likely to succeed than a Lazy person.
A2) Given Poor family, a Hardworking person is more likely to succeed than a Lazy person.
B1) Given a person is Hardworking, the one from the Rich family is more likely to succeed than the one from the Poor family.
B2) Given a person is Lazy, the one from the Rich family is NOT more likely to succeed than the one from the Poor family.

Given that the effects of Hardworking-ness is unambiguous, and that the effects of Wealthiness is ambiguous (the Lazy Rich person may be materially comfortable, but is likely not to be successful if we think about success as "making it in life" because the Lazy Rich has not "made" anything, but merely been "given" everything), can't we say that hard work is a more significant determinant of success, than wealth? Or is there some fault with my logic here?

Shuwen said...

Hi Mr Wang, I read Sg blogs instead of the ST for more interesting social and political commentaries. If there are students out there who are interested in finding out more about alternative funding sources for an overseas education (graduate school), they can email me

Anonymous said...

Shuwen, you might want to consider contributing to this instead of duplicating effort.

Anonymous said...

"Would you care to disclose whether you yourself came from a rich family?"

Oh, not rich. Not poor, but not rich. Comfortable is the right word, I would say.

Thanks for replying. It might be interesting if anyone has any idea the percentage of people from super "uncomfortable" family backgrounds and yet have made it to the top echelons of society. Would it be 0%? You think?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Sze Meng,

You directed us from Mr Wang's blog to yours in reply to my question:

"It might be interesting if anyone has any idea the percentage of people from super "uncomfortable" family backgrounds and yet have made it to the top echelons of society. Would it be 0%? You think?"

Thanks for that. I think you echo my sentiment. There is not much upward mobility in Singapore. But then, this world is like that. No? America might be better, or it might not.

PS Your blog does not allow anonymous postings, so I posted here instead.