The Problematic Nature of Educational Inequality

By Justin Daniel Pereira | Thursday, 02 June 2016


In the past week, there has been much mention in the Singapore press about the unequitable nature of education, the disparities faced within by gender and ethnic groups (Neo, 2016; Teng, 2016a), and how class differences are perpetuated through Singapore’s elite school system (Teng, 2016b). While these research findings are not necessarily startling to many, they do expose and lend a degree of empirical credence in the public sphere that education can facilitate growing inequalities and is not always, as widely accepted and understood, a social leveller.

Yet, a simple duality of the purpose of education oversimplifies education’s systemic role in society leading us to neglect the intersectionalities of the state, economy, culture, family and the globalized world within the classroom. However, lest these reasons be perceived as an excuse or rationalized as a just move for inequality to happen, one must recognize that the effect of inequality is still a lived experience. It is when one bears the marginalized ’s lived reality in context can one then perhaps start to think about Singapore’s education futures in a far more nuanced manner. The ideal goal is that a balance be struck amongst the tenets of educational equity, access, quality while striving to meet the many expectations wrought within education. But as the complexities of education are multifold, the case of inequality is just one amongst many that needs to be considered.

The problematic nature of a country’s education system is that it has many functions, some of which necessarily run into conflict with each other. On one hand, the intent of education is to reproduce the state; hence, the emergence of national systems of education. Singapore’s adoption of an elite education for the country’s future leadership, consecrated by the Public Service Commission in sending scholars abroad (Ye & Nylander, 2014), is similar to what scholars (eg. Bourdieu, 1996) have theorized about how the state has an explicit role in ensuring its continued existence. Therefore, who succeeds in the grander scheme of things is limited to the select few who are privileged with certain investitures of ‘capital’.

On the other hand, education had also been pitched in Singapore through the axiom of meritocracy that its diverse ethnic groups will enjoy “a universalistic doctrine of equal opportunities and equal rights” (Hill & Lian, 2002, p. 101) – creating the meritocratic Myth that sustains a degree of social harmony and aspiration. Turning the complexity knob up a touch further, there is need for education to equip people for the workforce and with the right skills in an increasingly uncertain, globalized future. However, that intent may not always produce the desired outcomes. Biswas and Krichherr (2016) argued that a post-secondary education does not always lead to better employment prospects, further indicative that thinking about education without the economy and future interconnected trends can be a very naïve endeavour indeed. Undergirding the education mantra then are families, which situated in societal pressures and cultural expectations, demand that their children succeed to maintain ‘face’ or at the very least live a better life than they did.

It is clear, therefore, that as the issues in and around education are so multi-faceted, tackling the case of educational inequality or the effects thereof, must be done in a considered manner. In a similar line then, it is perhaps almost impossible to mitigate against the emergence of negative repercussions – be it because of an elite-driven or non-elite education system.

What then for the future?

As I wrote about in an earlier blog post (“Education Futures and CLA – A way of thinking about the society we wish to create”), there needs to be a concerted effort in re-thinking education futures within society. It is a conversation that must go beyond the systemic, and include an agreement amongst stakeholders that this is a new narrative and the way for society to move forward. In other words, there must also be consensus amongst stakeholders (government, educators, parents and students) on the society and futures we wish to create and therefore influencing the development of an appropriate education system that supports this vision. It is an idealistic but perhaps necessary first step.

Research plays a very important role in illuminating critically the challenges and gaps for change present in the current system. For example, the Singapore Ministry of Education aspires for and demonstrates that every school is a good school, but there is recognition within the research community that “every student comes into the classroom with a different set of ‘capital’” (NIE, 2016). As such, the presence of durable inequality in education needs to then be considered in a wider context, supplemented with a background that perhaps while relative inequality may have worsened, absolute mobility has risen. This does not mean that relative inequality be ignored. Instead, it is a call that this challenge be tackled with a string of measures that include and go beyond schools and the classroom. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in a recent address illustrated the example of KidSTART (Othman, 2016) – an initiative by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) which provides low-income and vulnerable children with early access to health, learning and developmental support. Though it may not necessarily address all the four forms of capital (i.e cultural, social, symbolic), it is an initiative that supplements the need for better provision of economic capital support for marginalised groups.

Education in Singapore, as it currently is, does reproduce inequality. While it can be unequal, it is also necessary to consider if the processes that have led to this situation is fair or was opportunity to perform deprived along the way. If there are forms of institutional blockage, then it is imperative that changes be made. However, if inequality is decided upon by society as the narrative to live in, then consequences of inequality while a lived experience, should be contextualized. Yet with all these said, this does not discount the government from ensuring a decent livelihood of its people. It is a balance that must be struck, and one actively sought by all stakeholders in this education system.


Biswas, A. K., & Kirchherr, J. (2016, May 30). Higher education that helps young land jobs. The Straits Times.

Bourdieu, P. (1996). The State Nobility. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Hill, M., & Lian, K. F. (2002). Multiracialism and the structuring of ethnic relations. In The politics of nation building and citizenship in Singapore (pp. 91–112).

Neo, C. C. (2016, May 27). Enrolment at some elite JCs show education can spawn inequality : Study. Today Online.

NIE. (2016). Equity in Singapore Education. Singteach Issue 56. March 2016.

Othman, L. (2016, May 26). Social mobility “in trouble” as social gaps widen: Tharman. Channel News Asia.

Teng, A. (2016a, May 28). More girls entered better JCs over past 4 decades : Study. The Straits Times.

Teng, A. (2016b, June 1). Study : Kids from affluent families more likely in IP , GEP schools. The Straits Times.

Ye, R., & Nylander, E. (2014). The transnational track: state sponsorship and Singapore’s Oxbridge elite. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), 11–33.

Justin Pereira is a Research Assistant at The HEAD Foundation. His research interests are in education equity, trajectories and futures. 

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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