“Of course, there’s a culture of elitism in top schools!”
That was the unequivocal response Joel Tan gave when asked if it was fair to say that most students from top schools were – whether knowingly or not – ‘elitist’.
Tan’s firm belief that academic elitism is present in top schools in Singapore stems from the fact that he has experienced it first-hand, having studied in some of the top educational institutions from primary school to university.
Tan recalls his main goal in life every year while growing up was to score exceptional grades in school – not because he genuinely wanted to do well, but because he was afraid of being outcast by his peers if he failed to do so.
“There was that unspoken expectation and pressure on us (students) from our parents, our teachers, and even from one another to do well academically,” said Tan, who currently works in the finance industry. “Those who underperformed, however, were often mocked and made to feel like they were lesser than the rest, albeit in subtle ways.
“Once, after I scored a B in a Math test, some of my friends stopped inviting me to their study groups. It was almost as if they were afraid that my B grade was contagious. Strangely, though, I didn’t get offended. I think when you’re in that sort of competitive environment, day in, day out, you come to accept such behaviour as the norm.”
Tan’s experience in school is similar to that of 33-year-old medical professional Regina Lim, who also attended top schools while she was growing up.
In Lim’s case, however, it was she and her group of friends who subconsciously ostracised a classmate who had failed an exam.
“Our attitudes towards that classmate immediately changed,” Lim told The Pride. “Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t consciously make a decision to exclude that classmate from our group. But I think we all sort of lost respect for her the minute we found out she failed one of the papers.
“In hindsight, of course, it was wrong of us to do that. However, we were young and immature then, and we were all being reminded constantly, by the adults in our lives, that grades were important. So, it was only natural that academic results formed the basis of our impressions of one another.”
But what about one’s family background? Were students who came from a lower socio-economic status looked upon differently in these top schools?
“Not really. To us, academic grades were what we judged one another upon,” said Lim. “Indeed, on some level, we probably respected the students who didn’t have as privileged an upbringing as the rest of us even more.
“After all, they didn’t have the sort of resources that the rest of us had, in terms of being sent for tuition and enrichment classes. Yet, they matched and even surpassed us academically, which is a testament to the hard work they put in, as well as the intellect they possessed.”
There are some, however, who disagree with Tan and Lim, and insist that such elitist thinking is not widespread in top schools.
Despite those assertions, what is undeniable is that the topic of elitism at top schools is one that has cropped up time and again – from the cashier who exposed elitist Singaporean parents on Reddit, to the furore over ‘elitist’ comments from administrators at various top schools, to discussions over whether it is right to sort National Servicemen into vocations and training batches based on their educational backgrounds, it is clear that the issue consistently strikes a chord with Singaporeans, and mostly for the wrong reasons.
So how then, should the prickly issue of elitism in Singapore’s top schools be tackled?
The answer, says Tan, is that it can’t be solved. Not yet, anyway.
“This elitist mindset in top schools is a natural by-product of Singapore’s meritocratic education system, and the country’s fixation on academic results in general,” explained Tan.
“By and large, students in top schools were able to get in because they prioritised their studies. Now, you put a whole bunch of youths with that same mindset in a school, and of course you’ll end up with a culture of everyone striving to be the best…to be the elite.
“And because we’re closeted in that sort of competitive environment, mixing with peers who have that same drive and focus on studying, it’s no wonder that we regard academic results as the barometer of success ahead of anything else. This, in turn, leads us to subconsciously view those who are less academically-inclined as failures. And, because we were teenagers then, we didn’t really understand how wrong we were to think that.”
Two years ago, the issues of elitism and meritocracy in schools were highlighted in a Facebook post by Yann Wong, a former Ministry of Education (MOE) policy officer who oversaw the ministry’s Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme between 2011 and 2012.
In his post, he highlighted that meritocracy as a concept dictates that success or failure is dependent on how hard one works. However, it does not take into account one’s personal circumstances, like family or financial background.
He wrote: “In Singapore, dignity is not a given. It has to be earned, and not every individual is given the opportunity to earn it.”
Nonetheless, the issues surrounding meritocracy in school is something that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is aware of, and has taken steps to try and resolve.
Speaking at Raffles Institution’s (RI) 196th Founder’s Day ceremony in July last year, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: “The impetus is on us – not just the Government, but all of us – to overcome the limitations of meritocracy, and consciously fight against the ossification of social classes.”
To that end, the MOE introduced the Uplift Scholarship, which provides financial aid to low-income students in independent schools. Under this scholarship, cash awards of S$800 are given to eligible students annually.
In addition, school fees for independent school students from low and middle-income families were also reduced to match that of government schools.
Unlike Tan, Lim doesn’t think that the concept of elitism is in itself a problem.
Instead, she argues that it’s not a bad thing to want to be the best. But, she says, there is a fine line between being elite and being arrogant.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with being focused on being the cream of the crop,” Lim mused. “That’s something to be encouraged and celebrated, rather than suppressed.
“And this applies to all facets of life, not just in terms of studies. You look at Cristiano Ronaldo – he worked towards being an elite footballer, and he achieved it. The same goes for Jack Ma, who joined the ranks of the elite in society because he worked for it.
“But being part of the elite does not mean you have the right to be rude or look down on others. You still have to treat everyone you meet, regardless of the strata of society they belong in, with respect, dignity and humility.”
Tan agrees. And, through his experience during national service (NS), Tan learnt that there was more to success than just good academic grades.
“It was in NS when I first began to really mix with those who didn’t come from top schools,” Tan recounted. “But what they lacked in terms of academic intellect, they more than made up for with their street smarts and charm.
“I came to realise that everyone possesses different strengths and talents in life. In fact, some of my friends from NS, who didn’t come from an elite school, now have very successful careers.
“Crucially, however, I think we must all recognise there are other values in life, like being generous, helpful, kind…these are important. These are the traits that will earn you real respect among your peers, and will get you further in life than good academic grades.”