How Mobile is our idea of Social Mobility?


Everyone talks about returning CPF, no one talks about social mobility…how do we move up the rungs to improve our economic conditions?

Many of us use this term freely, complain and complain that Singapore doesn’t have enough social mobility. But do we actually know what kind of social mobility we want?

There are 3 kinds of social mobility.

Absolute social mobility – Determined by comparing the absolute pay of one’s parents to his or her current pay.

Have we successfully achieved this increment in absolute income from one generation to the next? I would say yes. Across the years, wages have indeed gone up across the board. Perhaps not homogenous increment, but there has definitely been an increase.

Relative social mobility – Determined by comparing one’s parents income percentile with one’s current income percentile.

This is probably the social mobility that most of us lament over. We are envious of the guys in the percentiles above us. However we often forget that relative mobility is a 0 sum game. In order for one to rise to a higher income percentile, someone else still needs to fall into that percentile. Since income levels are relative, there will always be a bottom 5 income percentile as surely as there will always be a top 5 income percentile. It is impossible to have everyone in the top few percentile much as all of us would like.

That being said, how relatively socially mobile would we want to be? There are 2 extremes. One would be being stuck in one place from the time of birth and unable to move up or down the social level. The other extreme would be to the point of instability, where one could very easily climb to the top and just as easily drop to the bottom.

Since both extremes seem.. Well too extreme, we will probably think of the spectrum and try to decide where on the spectrum we want our level of social mobility to be.

Now I’m assuming most of us want a country where social mobility continues to be high, where everyone, regardless of education or background, can do well if he is prepared to work for it. There will always be differences in the playing field, we can try to level it, but quite frankly we can only alleviate the inequalities but definitely not erridicate them.


Occupational mobility – Defined as workers who have the necessary skills to be able to work in more than one sector and are given opportunities and able to transition from one job to another.

One might wonder why this is even relevant to social mobility, but actually this matters because we are currently preparing our next generation for a future that we ourselves do not yet know. One is said to probably make at least 3 job switches in his or her life. The fact of the matter is that demand for industries and jobs flactuate constantly. If we are not flexible enough to adapt to changes in the job market, ultimately it is we who suffer when our job is being invalidated. Nothing in this world is constant, except change.

There are 2 factors at play here. Firstly, employers must be willing to employ someone who was previously from a different job scope. Secondly, we need to learn to pick up new skills more efficiently and be adaptable to change.


Usually, social mobility is associated with education because in Singapore, a country built on the foundation of meritocracy, we see the best way to move up the social ladder as becoming more educated.

Then the question is: Does our education system allow us to be socially mobile?

I say yes.

Is our fate sealed based on our grades in school exams? No.

Based on PSLE? No.

Based on N levels? No.

Based on O levels? No.

Based on A levels? No.

Although nowadays many view failing or doing badly in any of the above as something akin to the end of the world, they don’t matter as much as we make them out to be. One always has another chance to work hard and ‘redeem’ his or herself. There is always a chance to try again and there is not much of a ‘make it or break it’ scenario here.

If one wants to move up the social level in Singapore, I say: If there’s a will, there’s a way.

Then the next question we should ask is: Are adequate opportunities provided to those who are willing to try and not just who succeed?

Perhaps there are adequate opportunities offered to those who seek them, but being the kiasu people that we are, we often think of the fastest and shortest route as the only route. A straight As A level certificate is not the only way to become a lawyer or a doctor. We often don’t see that not taking the shortest route doesn’t mean that it is the end of a path. There can be one destination but many paths. The shortest one may just be the one most people travel by. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only one out there.

I think the sooner we realize this, the sooner we find more and more doors instead of dead ends.







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