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Musings

“The Elite School Student’s Burden”

Taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Common_Driveway_by_RI_and_RJC_at_Bishan_Campus.jpg.

Raffles Institution.

The class divide in Singapore – highlighted by the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) “Study on Social Capital in Singapore”, which found that “Singaporeans who live in public housing have fewer than one friend who lives in private housing” (ST, Dec. 28) and that Singaporeans from elite and non-elite schools are not likely to have close ties with one another – needs to be bridged, yet the commentaries or responses which followed have tiptoed around structural fixes, focusing instead on superficial gestures which preserve the status quo. In particular, these gestures range from volunteering to social mixing through sports, arts, or heritage activities, prompting a TODAY letter writer to remark that “what we need to overcome this divide is social solidarity, not cosmetic social mixing” (TODAY, Jan. 3).

These gestures, furthermore, could even do more harm than good, when they paper over fundamentally unequal backgrounds. The attention then shifts unhelpfully to how assistance might be rendered to the disadvantaged, from the reasons for their disadvantages.

That the class divide and social inequality in Singapore could be widening should not be surprising. For years, persistent socio-economic inequality has been a bugbear for the government, which has since shifted to the left to help low-income households. Pieces in ST, however, are epitomising the problematic response thus far. A ST commentary correctly diagnosed the need “to get people to mix more across class lines” (ST, Jan. 7), yet stopped short of elaborating how elite schools could ensure diversity of its student population, while a ST forum letter insisted that the problem was not with the elite schools. Rather, he said, “a study should be made on how to replicate and inculcate this culture in all other schools instead of diluting it” (ST, Dec. 30). Five days before the IPS study was published, a ST commentary noted that meritocracy was not working as well. His solution? “We can try to help these groups on an individual basis, influencing policies and lending a helping hand in our workplace and daily lives where possible” (ST, Dec. 23).

Retiring principal of Raffles Institution (RI) Mr. Chan Poh Meng echoed these superficial gestures too. On the same day the IPS study was published, on the sidelines of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) annual appointment and appreciation ceremony, he was asked about his viral 2015 speech on elitism. Then, he had spoken of the duty of the privileged to reach out to society, warning against the insularity of RI as a “middle class” school whose student population was not representative of the wider Singaporean population. Three years later, when explaining how his school programmes might have encouraged students to be more inclusive, he pointed to a 10-week boarding programme at RI for students from other secondary schools, and a student-led initiative to improve the living conditions of seniors.

Quantifying and visualising the class divide

Quantifying and visualising the class divide in Singapore is a key reason, I think, why the recent IPS study got so much attention. Previously in the absence of such data – or with the use of imperfect economic measures such as the Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution and inequality within a country – interlocutors relied upon anecdotes or personal observations to make their points about the divide. Now, with greater precision, school and housing type are clearer markers of class in Singapore. Someone who went to an elite school has ties to an average of 2.7 people who went to an elite school, and 2.1 people who went to a non-elite school. On the other hand, for someone who went to a non-elite school, the numbers are 3.9 (non-elite) and 0.4 (elite) respectively.

Take for instance the 2015 claim by RI principal Mr. Chan that his school had become a “middle class” one. But what is that based on, and how exactly has changed over time? An ideal (research) study would involve comparisons of the median household income of students – or their housing type – across all schools in Singapore, though RI itself (along with the other elite schools) could share the distribution of its students across household income and housing type over time. With the assumption that most recipients of the PSC Scholarships come from the elite schools, the closest approximate came in 2008 (with no follow-up or public updates since then), when then SPRING Singapore chairman Philip Yeo commented that “a majority” of PSC scholars live in landed property.

It was revealed that just 47 per cent of PSC scholars stay in HDB flats. Over 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing.

The elite school student’s burden

Long-term consequences of the class divide in Singapore cannot be ignored. The answer to “Is it a problem if most PSC scholars come from similar socio-economic backgrounds?” cannot be “It is not a problem, since our scholars actively walk the ground to learn”. A lack of representativeness translates into a paucity of diversity when it comes to lived experiences – and first-hand knowledge of how public policies may affect these experiences – thereby increasing the risk of groupthink too. Equally troubling, in this vein, is that many of the mooted solutions to bridge the class divide are to volunteer or to individually mix more actively through different activities. The solutions, in other words, are framed as means to alleviate the elite school student’s burden. The aforementioned ST articles, moreover, lay out the structural problems potentially causing the divide, but do not take the next logical step to offer structural solutions.

Not that volunteerism is not productive, or that social mixing is necessarily deleterious. But they are poor band-aids for a problem with deeper roots. Not forgetting too, that in many instances of community service or volunteerism, the volunteers – should they present themselves to universities or scholarship boards as active, caring citizens – disproportionately benefit vis-à-vis the beneficiaries.

More pernicious – and something which has been missing from the discussion so far – is the extent to which social capital accumulates and accrues to subsequent generations in the future. These divides are entrenched when there are few opportunities or incentives for individuals, especially students from the elite schools, to break out of their bubbles: From secondary schools and junior colleges to universities (usually abroad and on scholarships), and then to the workplace that is frequently the civil service or the government-linked corporations. In the even longer term, the friendships or relationships within these persistent socialising circles could also continue through marriages and families, further limiting the chances of interactions beyond what is already familiar. And sentimental.

Slaying structural, sacred Singaporean cows

Perhaps the move to structural solutions starts with the concession that three generations later in Singapore, meritocracy is yielding very different effects as it did in the past. In April last year, Prof. Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore wrote that our idea of meritocracy is now criticised “for entrenching structural limits on mobility; for its overly narrow idea of merit and success; and for an increasingly self-regarding elite that seems too interested in staying in power and that citizens perceive as arrogant and unresponsive to their needs“. And while it is true that low-income households in Singapore have seen faster real wage growth from 2009 to 2014 and that in terms of inter-generational income mobility Singaporeans in their thirties have seen higher mobility compared to other countries – I wrote in response in “The Middle Ground” – that “meritocracy in an unequal society could reward those who are already ahead“, as grandparents and parents with more means help their offsprings to get and to stay ahead.

Changes to the (early) education system must therefore follow. To their credit in recent years, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the MOE have worked respectively to support children from low-income families and to introduce a new PSLE scoring system with wider scoring bands in place of a single, comparative T-score. Highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally speech last year, the KidSTART scheme gives children from low-income families extra help at MOE kindergartens, where one-third of the places are also set aside for them. Student Care Centres in primary schools have gradually been expanded and continue to be subsidised for low-income families. And in the long-term, the fuzzying of the PSLE scoring bands could gradually “level the playing field across secondary schools in Singapore“, as students with stronger academic abilities filter to the other schools, instead of flocking to the elite ones. Empowering these other schools with niches and resources is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Three other areas at the primary- to secondary-school (or junior college) levels – linked to the notions of fairness and porosity; that is, whether particular students of different classes are advantaged or disadvantaged at admissions – also deserve attention: Affiliated school priority, the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise, and the Integrated Programme (IP). With all three features, the intended policy aims might have been to reduce the stress of examinations or the overemphasis on academic achievement, yet we need a better understanding of their actual benefits as well as the unintended costs. Research studies are one way to get these answers.

Affiliated school priority, first and foremost, appears increasingly at odds with the fuzzying of the PSLE scoring bands. Having lower cut-off points for affiliates is no longer technically feasible, and the reasons to privilege affiliated students are far from convincing (notwithstanding the resistance from their alumni, with inevitable references to school culture and school heritage). Second, while taking into consideration a student’s wider range of achievements and talents under the DSA scheme is well-intentioned, “some of the potential problems of the DSA scheme can include: that those from the more well-to-do families could benefit more, with greater access to resources and even for applications to a wider range of schools; that going through an exhausting process of application, of interviews, and of placement and assessment tests could be asking a lot of the young, burdened students; and that the more well-established secondary schools of specialisations may be advantaged disproportionately“. And finally with the IP – which I benefited from – has the reduction of academic stress come at the cost of reduced diversity? Compared to days with the across-the-board “O” Level examinations, are the elite junior colleges today less diverse, and is it harder for other students to now gain entry?

Adopted collectively, the recommendations should reduce the monopoly elites schools have over academically-inclined students as well as the manpower and resources which accrue to these students, resulting in their wider distribution across a wider range of schools.

Beyond the primary and secondary schools, and again bearing in mind the aims of fairness and porosity, admissions to the local autonomous universities should likewise be reviewed. The discrimination between graduates of the junior colleges and the polytechnics too is becoming increasingly untenable, especially in fields where technical and vocational education and training are privileged. In the context of the class divide, questions which continue to remain relevant include: The composition of university undergraduates and graduates, based on income groups, and whether more students from the bottom fifth have secured admissions in recent years; as well as the adequacy of financial grants and assistance schemes in the universities, in comparison to rising tuition fees.

The conversation continues

What this speaks to in a broader sense is the disproportionate valuation of academic talent within the education system, which prioritises academics and by extension the book-smarts. It is a system I have benefited from, within which I have ascended a metaphorical ladder without hitches because of my middle-class background – which allows me to focus on my studies and co-curricular pursuits, without the distractions of familial instability or the need to make ends meet – together with my slight predisposition to the skills of writing and reading as well as the examination-friendly abilities of rote memorisation and regurgitation. Singaporeans within our education system, nevertheless, have other non-academic talents and may take more time to ascertain their interests. Stigmatising deviation from this ladder or those who take a longer time to ascend it will continue to be detrimental.

This discourse which has followed the IPS research study has shown two things. First, that research informs this discourse. Whereas we grasped at anecdotes or personal observations in the past, the research has quantified and visualised the class divide in Singapore.

Second, while the study has started a much-needed conversation on the divide, we desperately need to move away from superficial or cosmetic gestures which ignore the structural nub of the problems. The elite school student’s burden starts with an acknowledgement of disproportionate privilege, but it is not alleviated through volunteerism or social mixing through sports, arts, or heritage activities. What is instead necessary is the recognition that meritocracy in Singapore – as it stands, in the face of class divide and social inequality – is no longer as tenable, and thus broader work is needed to reduce unequal starting points, to continue empowering students from low-income families through the education system, and to maintain fairness and porosity through these endeavours. Anything less will not do.

About guanyinmiao

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

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