From ‘Malays have less social capital:Study’, 10 March 2013, article by Rachel Chang, Sunday Times
Malay Singaporeans have less social capital than their Chinese counterparts, a new National University of Singapore study of nearly 1,000 people has found. This is worrying because social capital – the value found in personal networks – is a significant factor in someone’s ability to move from one class of society to another, said the researchers behind the study, assistant professor of sociology Vincent Chua and assistant professor of social work Irene Ng, yesterday.
They had analysed a 2005 survey of Singaporean residents for racial differences in social capital, and presented the findings at the Association of Muslim Professionals’ annual seminar. They found that Malays were six times less likely than Chinese to have university graduate contacts, and four times less likely to have someone in their network living in private property.
…The study also showed what sort of effect someone’s network can have on job prospects. Some 56 per cent of job-seekers from a minority race managed to get a job in the professional, manager and executives (PME) category if they were referred by a Chinese person. If the referral came from a non-Chinese, that number drops to 26 per cent.
“Minority members clearly benefit when they rely on job contacts from the dominant group,” said Dr Chua.The problem is that such inter-ethnic job help is rare, he said. Of 330 instances, only 18 were inter-ethnic. “More must be done to increase inter-ethnic integration so that resources can be shared between different groups,” he added.
If you didn’t know what this ‘social capital’ was, you would find the conclusion from this study mystifying, considering how tightly-knit the Malay community is, as any void deck wedding would tell you. ‘Value in personal networks’ is too broad a definition, which suggests that one would be better off generally if they had more friends, without specifying what ‘better off’ means. You’d be ‘better off’ at Facebook games if you had more ‘friends’ donating ‘lives’ to you. Narcissists would find ‘value’ in hundreds of people ‘liking’ their posts. I’d also make an excellent bounty hunter if I knew how to get into ‘inner circles’ (i.e have social capital) when my job is to find people and kill them.
In a corporate world that’s obsessed with ‘synergy’, ‘networking’ and ‘team-players’, it has become a given that the more people you associate yourself with the better. You don’t need a business guru or a professor of sociology to tell you that. So I dug a little further to find out in what context it is defined in Dr Chua’s paper (Social Capital and Inequality in Singapore). I thought ‘social capital’, as perceived by our Minister of Education, was a buzzword for the ‘value’ of integration and cooperation across race and creed in society, or to stretch it further, the ‘soul of our nation’. Instead, it is viewed in this paper as a personal resource and tool for success like IQ or having the ‘gift of the gab’. For some, getting this resource means bootlicking your way up rather than learning how to wear a sari if you’re not Indian.
Generally defined, social capital refers to the resources that people have potential access to from being connected to others possessing those resources
This is ‘having friends in high places’ reworded as social theory, which is a far cry from our PM’s definition of social capital:
Our success as a nation is increasingly defined not just in economic terms but also by our social capital. We need to strengthen our values of tolerance, mutual respect and empathy. This goes beyond being civil and considerate to one another. It involves us actively appreciating others’ perspectives, caring for our fellow citizens, conducting a constructive public discourse and accepting the need to make compromises that benefit the majority. These are essential attributes of a mature, gracious society which I believe we all want for Singapore.
This ideal is rather close to how one of the leading pioneers of social capital Robert Putnam calls it: “The value that arises when individuals learn to trust one another, make credible commitments, and engage in cooperative activities, such as giving to charity, joining civic and political groups and bowling together”.
The fairy-tale version distances itself from ‘economic’ factors, unlike Dr Chua’s linking it to ‘job contacts’. In fact, I think the two definitions of social capital contradict one another, one advocating harmonious, unconditional relationships even with those less privileged than yourself, the other calling for ‘strategic networking’ and mutual ‘back-scratching’. It’s obvious which social capital to rely on if you’re a Survivor contestant. In the cold, self-centred version, I’d have social capital if my ex-boss wants to bring me in to his current company for better pay and prospects. It can also refer to my ‘potential access’ to a beachside villa inheritance by virtue of being ‘connected’ to an eccentric billionaire grand-uncle. In other words, maximising your social capital means turning your interpersonal relationships into a personal goldmine. Another form of pop psychology related to social capital is ‘social intelligence’, and being no expert in this area, I’m not sure if being ‘socially intelligent’ necessarily assures one of ‘social capital’. Whatever happened to being, well, just ‘hardworking’?
The indicators of ‘social capital’ used in Chua’s paper include controversial ones like ‘Number of MEN’ among network numbers, ‘Number of wealthy private housing dwellers’, and ‘Number of CHINESE’. He explains his selection of ‘Men’ and ‘Chinese’ as follows:
(Being) ‘male’ is another potentially important resource given the highly patriarchal nature of Asian societies where men are more likely than women to control valuable resources (Lai, 2008)Chinese ethnicity represents a significant source of symbolic power in Singapore. As the ruling ethnic group, being “Chinese” is a form of social power independent of class
The results suggest that in order to accumulate social capital, you should try to score points with rich Chinese men living on landed property, but even if you have very powerful friends, you won’t benefit from your connections if nobody likes you. If the intention of this is to urge those with less social capital to mix around, as LKY once suggested to Muslims, it offers little assurance that collecting social capital translates to automatic dollar-and-cents rewards. The emphasis on having Chinese referrals as a factor in job attainment undermines other attributes such as job experience, skills or attitude regardless of your ties with people of a certain race. In a time where we’re promoting ‘inclusiveness’, where our women are steadily climbing ranks and we have a worsening addiction to foreign workers, such thinking about ‘dominant Chinese’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘wealthy private home owners’ seems rather dated. These days, you’re as likely to find rich people in million-dollar HDB flats as having a female Caucasian foreigner for a boss.
The whole concept of social capital contributing to success, in all it scientific rigour, has eliminated the element of ‘dumb luck’. It also bases its theories and assumptions on a very narrow definition of ‘success’; I don’t need the help of university graduates or Chinese men if I want to become a satay tycoon. It may be generally true that as social animals we thrive on human relationships, yet many happily successful, important people are misanthropes because people merely get in the way of what they excel in. On the flipside, many sociable people with contacts from Angola to the Antarctica end up being horrible bosses, charismatic cult leaders, dictators or serial date-rapists. If you’re an extremely lucky person you could build an empire after winning 1st prize in Toto even if you have the social capital of a mountain goat.
It pays to be well-connected, no doubt, but perhaps not in the predictable, categorical manner that advocates of social capital would like it to be. Nor is viewing people as simply a means to an end the right way to build a humane, compassionate society. Now excuse me while I touch base with my primary school classmate now bigshot trader on Linkedin.