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Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Volume 38 Number 8. 1975

A Class Society

A Class Society

This upper 10% of the taxpaying population are those earning assessed incomes of over $15,000 per year. Most of these people earn assessed incomes of over $200,000. These figures contrast strongly with estimates of incomes earned by the majority of Singaporeans. According to the Prime Minister, 60% of Singapore's workers earn monthly incomes of below $200. It is possible broadly to distinguish five social classes in Singapore's society: a fractional upper class, an upper middle class, intermediate middle class, a lower middle class and a working class.


The upper class — it is predominantly European and Chinese, with most of its members business and professional men, bankers and financiers.

Elitist in outlook, with a tendence towards in-breeding, the upper class has acquired many traits of its British counterpart, without the traditions: it lives extravagantly, entertains lavishly, accumulates — and all too often hoards — capital; its members are race-horse owners, exclusive club-goers, frequent travellers, and presidents of a host of charities and such city institutions as Rotary and Lions. It is a strongly commercial upper class and, beyond commerce and finance, plays only an indirect innovating role in the economy. In its pattern of investment, a traditional tertiary bias persists. This 'power elite' derives much of its influence from the West's economic and political stake in Singapore. Its interests coincide with those of the West, and so do its values. Thus, it is not only a vital 'agent' of Western expansion in the area — it is also, despite its domestic insularity, an important filter for the processes of westernisation as they affect other groups in society.


The upper middle class — in this group come the bulk of Singapore's professional men as well as many university teachers, upper echelon civil servants, executives and managers. Upper middle class families comprise about 1.5% to 2% of the population, and earn some 10% to 12% of total personal incomes. In terms of personal income, we can define the upper middle class as comprising people who earn between $25,000 and $50,000 per annum.

The younger generation of the upper middle class are almost ostentatiously 'progressive'. Theirs is a highly stylised 'progressiveness', often harshly materialistic, but above all emulative. The structure of local political power and influence, together with readily available material resources, make the upper middle class very much a status-seeking class. At this level of society, the bulk of an extensive accumulation of capital is invested in relatively unproductive channels: in conspicuous consumption, in real estate, and in stocks and shares. In short, there is relatively little innovation, and a high rate of unproductive — and often speculative — investment.


The intermediate middle class — it accounts page 9 [unclear: r] about 5% of the population. Within [unclear: es] class, personal incomes range bet[unclear: en] $12,000 and $25,000 per annum. [unclear: gain], occupational structure is pre[unclear: minantly] commercial: proprietors [unclear: middle]-scale provision stores, cloth[unclear: g], hardware, and electrical goods [unclear: res,] agencies and restuarants const [unclear: ate] a Urge group in commerce. This [unclear: ss] has a far higher proportion of [unclear: vernment] servants, professional men, [unclear: vice] workers, and qualified technical [unclear: rkers] such as engineers, surveyors, [unclear: ctors], architects, and chemists.

The intermediate middle class is some extent a class of frustrated [unclear: tus]-seekers, particularly in the [unclear: eld] of government service. Taxpayers [unclear: a] fixed salaries express this 'bourg[unclear: is] dissatisfaction' most strongly — [unclear: r] here are people with limited in[unclear: me]/capital resources, generally [unclear: esternized] in outlook, unable to [unclear: ep] up with the pace set by richer [unclear: ad] socially more mobile people in [unclear: rms] of material possession. Western [unclear: e] styles, and social status. There is [unclear: sentment] against an elitist government [unclear: rongly] inclined towards foreign [unclear: eonomic] interests and large scale cap[unclear: lism]. It is at this level, that the [unclear: rict] discipline exerted over government [unclear: vants] is most resented — particularly [unclear: mongst] teachers and the large number of [unclear: middle] echelon civil servants whose [unclear: omotion] too often depends upon [unclear: bservience] to departmental heads [unclear: nd] an all-pervasive P.A.P. party machine.


Lower middle class families [unclear: ccount] 15% of the total population. In [unclear: is] class, personal incomes range from [unclear: 5,000] to $12,000, The vast majority [unclear: f]ower middle class household heads [unclear: ork] in commercial and servicing occup[unclear: tions]. For the few in professional em[unclear: loyment], lower-scale teaching is the [unclear: ost] common occupation.

Lower middle class workers thus [unclear: chieve] status only after a considerable [unclear: eriod] of employment, and rarely by [unclear: irtue] of either capital accumulation [unclear: r] higher education. Low educational [unclear: uaifications] mean low starting salary, [unclear: nd] may be anything up to fifteen [unclear: ears] or twenty years of continuous [unclear: ployment] before a man can assume [unclear: iddle]-class status for himself and his [unclear: mily]. Aspirations any higher than [unclear: at] are generally reserved for his [unclear: ildren]. English-medium education [unclear: s] seen by him as the best guarantee [unclear: f] seure employment.

In general, the lower middle-class is a politically conservative group. It cannot afford the luxury of liberalism, or the stigma of socialism. Although by no means prosperous, it manages to survive at a level of economic and social stability which distinguishes it from the working class. Its circumstances are restricted, even static, but they are relatively secure and predictable: in so far as social and economic mobility is determined to a large extent by things such as children's education, long service in employment, and regular salaries, there is a vested interest in maintaining a stable base. The lower middle class is defensive: it has everything of lose by active political dissent, and nothing to lose by implicit support of the ruling regime. Indeed, political patronage is often regarded as a means of upward mobility — with the result that a good many P.A.P. cadres and party workers come from the lower middle class. Conversely, it is to this class that the government looks for support below the upper middle class.


The working class — the largest socio-economic grouping in Singapore is that which we can broadly define as the working class, embracing about 75% of the total population. Occupational status is uniformly low: workers are mainly skilled and unskilled labourers, craftsmen, hawkers, shop assistants, service workers, drivers, and own-account proprietors of petty trading and manufacturing concerns; amongst these people, employment is usually irregular, often daily-rated, and low-paid. For main wage-earners, incomes range between $50 and $400 a month (or $600 to $4,800 per annum). Living standards are therefore low, in terms of conditions of housing, the degree of overcrowding, nutritional levels, material possessions and educational opportunities. Within the working class, socio-economic and political discontent is stronger than in any other class, and oppostition to the ruling group is most prevalent. Inevitably, the heavy concentration of impoverished and near-impoverished people in a city such as Singapore encourages the growth of a strong and militant left-wing movement: amongst the poor in Singapore, revolutionary sentiment is a deep-seated and widespread reality, despite repression of all open-front left-wing organisations. Amongst poor Chinese there is strong cultural and political antagonism towards Western values — for such values are, basically, those of an elite which has neither the desire nor the ability to empathise with the mass of the local population.

A minority of working class households, perhaps 20%, belong to the upper working class. Employment remains characteristically dependent, particularly when it is unskilled and earnings are irregular. A change of job, or a growing dependency burden, may bring households close to poverty. On the other hand — with great effort, sacrifice and sustained education — children may move onto the lower rungs of the middle class. But the failure rate is high amongst such children, simply because their domestic situation in incompatible with proper education.

The frustration of these 'partly-educated' children is of critical importance in working class life — for through education are acquired aspirations which reality cannot fulfill, and the sense of dispossession is thereby sharpened. Thus, the barrier of 'class' is more tangible, and education — however abortive it may be in terms of simple economic betterment — plays a vital rule in creating within the working class a group of people able to articulate class sentiments and act as a catalyst for political action.

Amongst the lower working class, poverty or near poverty prevails. The tenuous opportunities apparent to the marginally better off members of society are non-existent, aspirations are lower, and the sense of this dispossession is complete, This is the world of the early drop-out, the economically derelict, and the chronically under-employed; a world in which hope seems pointless, in which people feel they have nothing to gain — and nothing to lose. Here are some half a million people drifting on the margins of poverty — and another half a million people existing completely and chronically in poverty.

From the above analysis, we can conclude that there is a marked disparity in Singapore between a mass of economically depressed workers and their families on the one hand and a small prosperous elite on the other.