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By Joshua Yim,

Achieve Group

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung sparked much debate among netizens after he spoke about income inequality, social mobility and social stratification in Parliament several weeks ago.

He discussed how government policies in the area of education and skills training are key to addressing these issues, and added that employers’ hiring and human resource practices have to “wake up” to this new mindset.

As a human resource practitioner and recruitment specialist in Singapore for almost three decades, I wish to share my views on this debate by taking a much broader perspective on ways we, as a society, can endeavor to bridge the gap between income inequality vis-à-vis the merits of meritocracy.

There is a saying in our recruitment and executive search trade that the mileage of any qualification for a job candidate goes as far as only 7 to 10 years.

Broadly speaking, in the context of the Singapore labour market, this means that the upwards mobility of an individual’s career is highly dependent on his or her performance and contributions to his or her employers beyond that time span, and where professional recognition via achievement and accolades eventually begin to outweigh the paper qualification.

Here, critics of meritocracy-based social mobility would argue that the socio-economic background to which one is born determines – and may therefore limit – the individual’s access to education, rendering the concept flawed in the first place. And it therefore stands to reason that individuals with strong qualifications could make great strides in their career during that 7- to 10-year window, thereby leaping ahead of the have-nots.

I do not deny that a paper qualification gets your foot in the door, and will often help to secure the job interview, especially in the civil service sector. But there are many cases, particularly in the private sector, where other factors like passion, drive and a solid work ethic may trump academic qualifications in certain industries that are less contingent on occupational-specific knowledge and expertise acquired from vocational training such as the practice of law.

While I certainly see the value of disciplinary training in building mental capabilities through formal education, my experience as a business leader has time and again shown that what companies are ultimately looking for are leaders who make things happen and produce spectacular results.

One simply has to look at trailblazing entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who did not even graduate university, to see how having strategic mindset, forward-looking vision, and boldness in innovating change, are more highly valued for their ability to impact the world and as such, a greater determinant of business success.

Therefore, I am of the belief that what essentially determines a person’s success in life are the core values and character traits that reside within the individual.

In the best-selling management book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t”, for example, author Jim Collins identified resilience as one of the most important traits in all successful entrepreneurs. It is this spirit of determination and perseverance that separates the wheat from the chaff, defining those who will ultimately succeed in life.

On the stand that an unfavourable socio-economic background may place an individual in a disadvantaged position due to limited access to education, hope of social mobility can come in the form of entrepreneurship. I sincerely believe that through entrepreneurship, one has the power to take control of one’s destiny. There are so many inspiring rags-to-riches stories within our own Singapore society, of entrepreneurs who have risen above adverse social, cultural and economic upbringings to run multimillion dollar businesses today.

Billionaires Ron Sim, founder of OSIM International who sold noodles for a living when he was a child, and Sam Goi, affectionately known as Singapore’s “Popiah King”, who dropped out of school to help in his father’s grocery store, easily come to mind.

Certainly, these are extraordinary individuals who have beaten the odds. But they serve as a beacon of hope to light the way for what’s possible; that even in an environment that is not conducive to human flourishing, one can still rise above and change the cards they were dealt.

Yes, it takes a remarkable amount of drive, determination and mental fortitude for a child to overcome the very real challenges of being born into a severely unfavourable or even hostile family environment, which may include financial strife and perhaps even mental, emotional or physical abuse. Neither am I denying the reality of the social issues that may arise, like falling into bad company and suffering academically, which could set these youth on an undesirable life path. And it is an indisputable truth that despite current best efforts by the government and social welfare organisations, there will still be some of these at-risk youth who fall through the cracks.

But the key message here is that it is possible to pull oneself up and out of such a challenging environment even as social, economic and cultural factors point towards a negative trajectory for these disadvantaged youth.

What we need to do is plant the seed of possibility in our younger generation, as there is great power in being able to envision a better possibility for oneself. This brings hope and with hope, one is more empowered to aspire to something better. When we are able to see a better possibility for ourselves, we will be more energised to work towards improving our circumstances.

Therefore, it is crucial to help our youth cultivate a mindset that is able to see beyond the challenges and limitations that may prevail, be they from truly underprivileged or low- to middle-income households.

This is not simply a utopian ideal.

If parents are not in a position to help enrich their children due to a lack of financial resources, the government needs to take up the gauntlet and intervene with more targeted measures.

We can achieve this via enhancements to the public education system, through programmes and initiatives that seek to instill in children the right belief system, core values, character traits and life skills that will help set the foundation for success in life.

We should at least make such programmes and educational initiatives available and accessible to all children within the public school system, perhaps as part of the official curriculum, so that every child gets an equal access to these programmes, to help level the playing field.

Why should it be only international schools – with hefty tuition fees that only the affluent can afford – that take this more holistic approach to education? And therefore, reinforcing the framework for social stratification.

The Pareto Principle & Income Disparity

Many of us are aware of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, which states that for many events, about 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The principle was named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who showed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population in the era he lived in the 1800s.

This principle also plays out in business, underlined by the saying that “80% of sales come from 20% of clients”, and in the book “The 80/20 Principle” in which author Richard Koch illustrates the principle against other practical applications in business management.

The 80/20 connection between population and wealth continues today, with the richest 20% of the world’s population controlling about 80% of global income.

The Pareto Principle is therefore still very much at play in today’s world, and explains in part the wide disparity in the distribution of global income.

What is interesting is that Pareto also hypothesised that even if all the wealth available was distributed evenly across Italy, 30 years down the road, 80% of that wealth would somehow find its way back to the 20% of society.

This concept is underscored by how it’s said that family wealth often doesn’t last beyond the third generation. And how American-based studies have shown that nearly one-third of lottery winners of massive amounts of money end up declaring bankruptcy.

What’s striking about these theories is that it leads us to conclude that perhaps the 20% do indeed possess something innate that distinguishes them from the rest of the population. And it is very likely the positive mental and character traits described earlier, which enable them to manage their wealth better than the 80%.

So the question is, how do we learn and emulate these 20%, and instill these qualities in our young?

Here, one may also argue that the logic inherent in the Pareto Principle may therefore render all hope of social mobility fruitless and all attempts at such pointless. Notwithstanding, I believe that all youth should be given an equal opportunity to succeed, and then perhaps “the survival of the fittest” concept of Social Darwinism may prevail henceforth.

Besides making available to all children through the public education system programmes and initiatives to inculcate in our youth the right mindset, core values, character traits and life skills for success in life, we can also seek to learn from these 20% so to speak – by tapping on the wealth of knowledge and experience of some of the successful entrepreneurs in our society.

I find entrepreneurs to be an extraordinary group of individuals. Many of them started from zero but what they have is vision and an iron will to succeed.

If you were to interview some of these top entrepreneurs, you would find a commonality of traits within them such as resilience, self-belief, self-discipline, perseverance and a “never-say-die” spirit. These are qualities that are not only valuable in an entrepreneurial journey; they are essential character traits for success in life beyond academics and career, important for success even in relationships and marriage.

In my daily dealings as a business owner, I meet many of these successful entrepreneurs some of whom are our clients. Many of them desire to give back to society and share their learnings and knowledge to lend others a hand up.

I acknowledge there are currently initiatives where these entrepreneurs are invited to give talks in educational institutions. I myself am often invited to share my entrepreneurial journey in schools. But it appears that these are conducted on a more ad-hoc basis, based on the individual initiative of each school. Therefore, the government could perhaps implement a more structured initiative nation-wide to this end.

Another strategy is to pump in resources to reach out to the youth where they live and play: social media. The government could create outreach campaigns and galvanise young social media influencers to convey these messages in a way that is fun yet meaningful, to inspire and give hope to the youth.

The ‘Passion Made Possible’ campaign by the Singapore Tourism Board, for example, has potential to grow legs and expand on its themes of a passion-driven, never-settling spirit of determination and enterprise in the pursuit of possibilities.  These are powerful themes that could be adopted by a multi-agency initiative, and geared towards demonstrating the possibilities the youth can aspire too; that through hard work and diligence, they too can make it and become “somebody” in society.

In conclusion, while our life circumstances are shaped by the luck of the draw of the socio-economic conditions to which we are born, this holds true only to a certain extent. We are a First World country and an affluent nation with access to resources. Our children do not have to live in a war-ravaged territory under political or religious oppression. There is no reason they cannot be given every opportunity to succeed. The only real limitation would be in their inability to see a possibility of a better life. And it is the duty of our country’s leaders to help calibrate young minds and inspire the younger generation, especially the underprivileged and disadvantaged groups, to aspire to a better life for themselves through strategic and tactical intervention.