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Title: Families and the state : relations of dependency, responsibility and educational inequality in Singapore
Author: Chiong, Charleen
ISNI:       0000 0004 8500 3795
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2020
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This study explores how socio-economically disadvantaged families in Singapore navigate the opportunities and constraints of Singapore's education system. Singapore's education system is widely emulated for its performance on international education benchmarking tests. However, there is growing recognition of persistent educational and income inequalities in Singapore, and how Singaporean meritocracy - a cornerstone of Singaporean education policy - flattens social disadvantage, rendering poverty invisible. Currently, there is little research on how disadvantaged families navigate this stratifying, yet putatively 'successful' education system. To understand families' perceptions and experiences of Singapore's education system, one needs an approach that meaningfully connects families' perspectives to the wider context. As such, I draw on the conceptualisation of the three tiers of governance (inspired by Michel Foucault, and extended by Nikolas Rose and Teo Youyenn), comprised of political rationalities and political technologies (macro) and technologies of the self (micro). I identify the key political rationalities in Singaporean governance (neoliberalism and developmentalism) and their instantiations in the key political technology of interest in this study (the meritocracy-education mechanism). However, this study's analytic focus is on families' technologies of the self - how families mediate these political rationalities and technologies, to achieve their goals. To this end, I conducted 72 interviews with 12 socio-economically disadvantaged (low income, ethnic minority) families. I primarily interviewed young people at the Secondary Four level, as well as their primary caregiver (usually a parent, or both parents). I conducted three rounds of interview with each family: two rounds of semi-structured, individual interview with the young person and parent(s) - followed by a focus group interview with each family. This study makes two original contributions to educational research. Firstly, I develop a way to understand macro and micro levels within a single analytic. To do this, I combine the three tiers of governance framework with the responsibility-dependency frame (which, I argue, weaves together these three tiers of governance). In this way, one can explore familial and individual pedagogic work, while paying attention to the structuring power of the wider context. Secondly, I analyse families' pedagogic work, drawing on concepts of responsibility and dependency. My findings demonstrate that in the 'strong', interventionist state of Singapore, dependency on the state and schools facilitates the acceptance of (individual and familial) responsibility. Unlike research in Anglo-American contexts which largely suggests that disadvantaged groups relate to state institutions with distance and disenfranchisement - the relations between disadvantaged groups and state (education) institutions in Singapore seem warm and collaborative. However, I problematise these relations, and discuss the equity implications arising from what I call the dependent-yet-responsible subjectivity. Overall, this study unpacks the politics of an education system's putative success, via the perspectives of 12 disadvantaged families in Singapore. Through the two abovementioned contributions, this study seeks to deepen our understanding of a little-understood, often invisibilised and de-politicised area of Singaporean education and family life.
Supervisor: Sriprakash, Arathi Sponsor: Cambridge Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: families ; educational inequality ; singapore