Cutting Edge Research

Social class and the social compact

Published on 10 January 2024
SMU Assistant Professor of Psychology Jacinth Tan.
SMU Assistant Professor of Psychology Jacinth Tan.

As a university, SMU has showed continued commitment to creating meaningful impact by engaging with the community and conducting research with direct societal impact.

One of the most important considerations for multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore is to ensure that the diverse population lives harmoniously together – an area which overlaps with SMU Assistant Professor of Psychology Jacinth Tan’s research interests in social status and inequality.

Thus far, the Singapore Government and the different communities in Singapore have been working hard to ensure harmony within the population. All religious holidays practised by the three main races – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – are celebrated, with these holidays being settled upon after careful consultation with the various groups. There are also strict laws in place to deter people from denigrating another religion or race.

Nonetheless, a recent survey by the Institute of Policy Services highlighted that social class divide has emerged as an issue that divides Singaporeans.

To probe into this pertinent issue, Asst Prof Tan was awarded the prestigious SSHR (Social Science and Humanities Research) fellowship grant from the Ministry of Education, making her the first awardee from SMU for this grant.

How to understand the impact of social class divide

Asst Prof Tan believes that a strong social compact is fundamental to the country’s survival. She explains, “The threat of class divisions growing in Singapore is naturally concerning to me — both as psychologist who studies class disparities and as a Singaporean.

“Greater social mixing is an important step towards addressing class divide. But we know from decades of research on intergroup relations that there are double-edged effects of increased intergroup contact—it can unite if individuals can overcome differences, but potentially divide if differences are salient.”

With this research, Asst Prof Tan hopes to find the answer to several questions, specifically:

  •  What is the representation of different social class groups – or social class diversity – in Singapore neighbourhoods, based on actual data and as perceived by Singaporeans?
  • Do these actual data and perceptions predict how much Singaporeans interact with others from different social classes and how they feel about different social class groups?
  • What are the factors that might foster or undermine the benefits of greater social class mixing?

To this end, Asst Tan has planned to conduct three separate studies over the next five years. The first is a large-scale field survey that will cover 30 residential areas across Singapore. The primary objective of this study is to provide correlational evidence using large-scale representative data of Singaporeans, of how exposure to neighbourhood aspects of class diversity and class salience – how noticeable the different social classes are – shapes attitudes about different social classes and willingness to mix more with them.

The second study shares similar objectives to the first but looks to provide experimental evidence of how increasing or decreasing class diversity and class salience in one’s neighbourhood might influence attitudes about different social classes and the desire to mix with different social classes.

Study three is a pilot intervention study that aims to see if exposing people to messages that emphasise embracing class differences or equality regardless of class helps to reduce class salience and produce a more positive and engaging interaction between two strangers of different social classes.

Asst Tan does not have any clear expectations of what the findings will reflect. However, she has a working hypothesis that being exposed to greater socio-economic diversity, or being in an environment where there are more different social class groups than similar ones, will help to foster more positive cross-class attitudes – provided that the environment is low in class salience.

“In other words, greater mixing or living with different social classes is good for shaping positive class relations, as long as people are less aware or not constantly reminded of class differences in their environment.”