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The Straits Times

What Elitism Reflects About Singapore’s Meritocratic System

Many of the products of our top schools forget they have to give back to the society that allowed them so many opportunities” (Scoring High In Grades, But Not In Values, Miss Sandra Leong).

I would like to thank Miss Sandra Leong for her excellent commentary, “Scoring High In Grades, But Not In Values” (April 3, 2010), on an issue that has been brought up consistently; yet conveniently ignored. Having graduated from Hwa Chong Institution – both High School and College – I echo Miss Leong’s sentiments, particularly in terms of the prevalent intellectual snobbery, and the “bubble-wrapped existence” many of my juniors and counterparts continue to dwell in.

My greatest gripe with the current situation is that students treat the school as some form of sanctuary; a haven insulated from the plethora of challenges that face the on-the-ground Singaporean. Such an observation is worrying because while they are elevated up the socio-economic ladder, their visions are clouded by their personal pursuits and pressures to be the crème de la crème within their cohorts. Competition is stiff. The entire high school struggle is viewed as an extended preparation for applications to colleges and scholarship boards; so as to jumpstart careers and hence continue to outclass. Can we count on these elites – many potential politicians and leaders in various spheres – to enact responsible, well-intentioned policies and plans for the people?

Many have seen community service and grassroots activities as platforms for students to interact and comprehend aspects of Singapore they had been previously blinded too. When I began my stints with Heartware Network and Children-At-Risk Empowerment (CARE) Association, not only was I uncomfortable and awkward when working with my peers from very different backgrounds, I was cognisant of the pragmatic considerations involved: to boost my curriculum vitae, to look good on applications. Those feelings of snobbery and elitism – elements Miss Leong had highlighted – can never be unwrapped by the school or society; rather, the individual has to constantly reflect – which I eventually ashamedly yet proudly did – and remind himself of his duties and responsibilities to his family, his country, and maybe even the world.

Of course, it would be unfair to generalise the general population and label the students as a whole; because there are individuals who have passionately and genuinely rendered their services within and outside the school throughout the years. Most admirably, many of my friends who had come from less-than-privileged backgrounds or who were facing considerable financial constraints were never short-changed in terms of opportunities and commitments; and many excelled in an assortment of areas. These are the true merits of  Singapore’s meritocracy, where students are given the chance – with bursaries and deserved financial assistance – to progress despite of their beginnings.

We cannot afford to allow elements of elitism blind ourselves to what truly matters; encouraging privileged students and professionals to step out of their comfort zones, contribute, and ultimately make a difference in Singapore.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “What Elitism Reflects About Singapore’s Meritocratic System

  1. Those from less financially well-off backgrounds are most certainly short-changed. They are less able to afford to pay for tuition lessons, music lessons, and so on. Given the early ages at which students are channelled into certain schools and streams, a small shortfall in such supplementary activities at a crucial stage can make a huge difference.

    In my secondary school, a majority of students in my class went for tuition. It’s too hasty to conclude that a meritocracy exists when there is such a huge confounding factor that, as far as I can see, no one who makes the claim of meritocracy has tried to correct for.

    Posted by twasher | April 6, 2010, 9:36 am
    • It’s hard to deny the number of individuals who do fall through the cracks and unfortunately start on an uneven footing. In some cases – many my close friends and peers – their less-than-well-off backgrounds actually spur them to work much harder in the absence of all the tuition and lessons. Help must be dispensed to those who need it; but at a certain point individual attitude matters a fair bit.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 8, 2010, 4:19 pm
  2. … and for that, kudos to you.. it is very evident in SMU as well where I graduated from couple of years back.

    A society is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Meritocracy, elitism and materialism are all embodied in our society and it does not help that our ruling party is showing signs of losing touch with the grassroots as well.

    Great to know that people like you are aware. Let’s spread the wisdom .

    Posted by Nabs | April 6, 2010, 11:54 am
    • Sorry for this really delayed reply. Thanks for the comment.

      I do feel a little sad that many of my counterparts choose to dedicated themselves into more pragmatic or “realistic” areas, in terms of their academics or careers in the future. It is the most logical thing to do, but if only they could spend a little more time contributing back: that would be awesome.

      Not to mention; many get locked up in their bonds and an assortment of life constraints, and end up going through the motion in terms of their careers and lives.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 18, 2010, 4:42 pm
  3. So kudos to you Jin Yao for taking the time to reflect.
    Time passes us so fast sometimes that it can be difficult to have that moment of reflection.
    “If only I have the time” Is that an excuse or a fact of life that engulfs those who pursue materialism over volunteerism?

    What the heck do I know?

    Posted by Zul | April 19, 2010, 9:53 pm


  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 6 Apr 2010 - April 6, 2010

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