Petir Explains: How Self-Help Groups promote social mobility in S’pore

“From time to time, people ask: are ethnic-based SHGs (Self-Help Groups) still relevant in our multi-racial society?” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recounted at the Chinese Development Assistance Council’s (CDAC) 30th Anniversary Open House this past Sunday (18 Sep).

And the next question he inevitably hears?

“Why not merge them all together, and create one larger and more inclusive outfit to serve all ethnic groups?” 

Important questions, these. Especially since the Government continues lending support to, as well as partially fund, Singapore’s four ethnic-based SHGs: the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), Eurasian Association (EA), Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) and Yayasan MENDAKI (MENDAKI). 

So, a merged group? It just might scale more efficiently and economically. It might help people look past ethnicity and towards a more catch-all ethics of care.

But these SHGs already work in an ecosystem where the Government uses its resources to help all Singaporeans, regardless of race. These SHGs are additionally in a unique niche — they provide customised solutions tailored to the needs and sensitivities of their particular ethnic group.

So here, the SHGs’ traditional focus on tuition and social support programmes can combine with 

a) their bespoke community solutions and

b) their consistent collaborate between themselves whenever there’s the need 

Here, then, they reduce social inequality and promote social mobility while Singapore progresses.

Education and role modelling

You see, after-school tuition is a billion-dollar industry in Singapore. These extra classes boost grades, impart new life skills and help form new social networks — for those students whose families can afford these classes. 

In other words, good for the haves, not so much for the have-nots. You know how it goes: The haves, already advantaged in life, pull ahead even further while the disadvantageous position of the have-nots compounds. 

Enter the SHGs. 

SHGs provide highly-subsidised tuition programmes, as well as study loans and awards, to all levels of students from low-income families. MENDAKI in 2021, for example, ran 866 tuition classes for over 7,000 students at 88 centres islandwide, and distributed a total of over $48 million under its Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy and scholarship awards plans to nearly 20,000 students. 

Similarly, the CDAC’s 2021 student and parent education programmes and bursary schemes impacted 22,560 participants and 8,520 bursary recipients respectively on a $17.61 million portion of the CDAC’s overall budget.

These, frankly, are lean budgets; all four SHGs had a combined S$80 million to spend in 2017. This is less than that for some individual government ministries. Yet, as the impact statistics show, SHGs are adept at doing more with less. 

A SHG Mother Tongue teacher can, perhaps, contribute further as a Math or Science teacher. This putative-doubling up can also create stronger bonds between SHG teachers and students, reinforcing the notion that SHGs lessons provide more than classrooms — they provide communities for students who need them.

This is important. Education and its outcomes are not simply about classrooms and homework. As a 2019 study and a follow-up one in 2022 by Singapore University of Social Sciences researchers both show, academic performance strongly links to the socio-economic status of primary school pupils: the lower this status, the worse these children perform in school.

Why SHGs are here to stay

“Performance in school is not just a function of individual talents and attributes, but also a function of complex, multifaceted and interlinked social problems,” observed Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in June this year.

“We have to work harder to address these problems in Singapore,” he added. “Work harder to make sure that the early disadvantages in life do not replicate themselves and become stubborn disadvantages throughout life.”

And so, where many factors matter to educational success, SHGs are in a unique position to provide role modelling. 

Research by pedagogy scholars consistently bears out SM Tharman’s statement. This scholarship finds that children do better when they see adults of their race and gender succeed in the world.

Conversely, children’s performances decline when they see negative stereotypes of their ethnic social group — especially if these children are from a disadvantaged ethnic social group.

The ethnic base of SHGs, then, are a powerful boost for students. Not only are SHG classes a unique “one’s-own” space for them within the overall education and charity ecosystems of Singapore, they also showcase teachers of the same ethnicity as positive role models. 

The fact, too, that these teachers are volunteers able and choosing(!) to do this outside the normal demands of work and family while others cannot or choose not to is testament: Ethnicity does not mean disadvantage. 

Rather, with its common understanding and respect for a community’s uniqueness, shared ethnicity instead means shared strength. 

Government support here, then, recognises that education is important and also a holistic process. It acknowledges the roles that diverse community models and teaching play in making sure that “have-not” is simply a phase; that those who “have not” now will someday have.

Customised social support

“SHGs better understand the unique characteristics and needs of their different communities,” PM Lee added.

“They are well-placed to tailor their assistance and customise programmes most relevant for their communities. They can also address issues forthrightly, without raising racial or religious sensitivities.”

The particular programmes which SHGs run do confirm PM Lee’s point. 

Briefly, the CDAC’s Character Building Programme enhances knowledge of Chinese culture among Primary One and Two children. Its Connecting Seniors programmes teaches seniors about current affairs and information technology in, often, their Mother Tongue..

Similarly, SINDA’s Elderly Befriending Programme allows seniors to speak with a new friend in their shared Mother Tongue; it is also a two-way street for seniors to share their lived experiences with another member of Singapore’s Indian community. 

Elsewhere, MENDAKI’s #DigiSmart programme educates the Malay/Muslim community to embrace digital solutions in their daily lives and be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be digitally ready while the Women At Work (W@W) facilitates and supports Malay/Muslim women to restart, rebuild and re-integrate into the workforce. 

Most of these very particular ethnic-focused services would be inefficient (or nearly impossible) if organised by a conglomerate social program. Rather, Government support here best taps upon the deep knowledge of community nuances and aspirations unique to each one. It is a way too, of safeguarding and honouring Singapore’s diverse origins.

A consistent willingness to collaborate

But this is not to say that our SHGs work in silos. This simply isn’t the Singapore way — these SHGs are no exception. 

They run Singapore-wide joint programmes and student care centres where different races interact. 

The Collaborative Tuition Programme hosted in over 175 centres islandwide, for example, helped 630 students, regardless of race, sit for the 2020 PSLE, N-Level and O-Level Examinations. SHGs also run a total of 30 Big Heart Student and KCare Centres. These cater to students of all races, providing tuition, care and all-round family-centred assistance.

In particular, the Self-Help Groups (note the s) Centre Vibrance@Yishun is the SHGs flagship place for working together. 

There, enrichment programmes for students and parenting workshops for all races feature. Yishunites and Centre attendees regularly celebrate Singapore’s cultural festivals in it — it is a concrete example of SHGs providing a common space for the nation’s different races to integrate. 

And it speaks volumes about the high levels of trust between Singapore’s ethnic groups. Enough exists such that SHGs working together for the common good there is, like the ethnic role model teachers of individual SHGs, an everyday testament, though this time  to inter-ethnic harmony.

Against inequality

So the Government’s support of SHCs stems from wanting to reduce inequality and promote mobility. A starkly unequal society has few benefits, even for the self-interest for people who think they have it all: what use, really, is having a fancy house when the streets outside are unsafe?

The SHCs, then, are a precision treatment for preventing inequality. They uplift the needy through education and role modelling, show all races that their cultures matter and that unity with other races matters as well.

As PM Lee pointed out in his CDAC speech, “We will lose something precious if we do not have the SHGs”.