“What school did you go to?”
If you, like me, grew up in Singapore and came through the country’s education system, you would surely have come across this question at least once before.
Frankly, I used to hate it when people asked me that.
Because while this question appears to be straightforward and innocuous on the surface, there usually is an underlying subtext to it – essentially, your answer will be used by others to form an immediate impression of who you are.
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Went to an elite school? You’ll immediately be thought of as someone who is smart, hardworking, well-behaved, responsible, and ultimately, destined for a successful life and career.
Conversely, those who studied in neighbourhood schools – like I did – are frequently associated with less savoury adjectives, such as lazy, rowdy, unscholarly, ignorant, and even unintelligent.
Sounds like an unfair, unjustified, and even archaic way of judging someone? That’s because it is.
Regrettably though, there are many in Singapore who still choose to form preconceived opinions of others based simply on their educational background.
I’m sure you can understand now why I hated being asked that question.
It didn’t matter what I did, or what I said. My worth in the eyes of others would invariably still be linked to the school that I went to.
For the record, I attended neighbourhood schools with less than savoury reputations. My secondary school, in particular, was notorious for having recalcitrant and unruly students who seemed to get into trouble with the law on a regular basis.
So, on the one hand, I could understand the judgemental – even wary – looks I would get when I told people what school I went to. That is, if they had even heard of my school in the first place.
But I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
It was especially demoralising whenever I found myself in social situations where there was an elite school student present. Because I subconsciously felt inferior to the elite student, I would retreat into my shell so as not to embarrass myself by saying or doing something wrong.
Of course, in hindsight, I now know that I could have held my own in those situations, and there was no need for me to think that the student from the elite school was in any way superior to me.
Singapore’s unhealthy fixation on a person’s educational background doesn’t end at the secondary school level. It extends to tertiary education institutions, and, to some extent, even affects National Service.
In fact, it is at the tertiary level – be it Institute of Technical Education (ITE), Polytechnic, Junior College (JC), University, or even private college – where the comparisons between schools become more pronounced, especially among students.
Indeed, a friend of mine who attended one of the top JCs in Singapore once admitted to me that there was an “elitist culture” in his school back then, which subconsciously caused many of them to have a “low opinion” of those who studied in less prestigious tertiary institutions.
It was only when he began working full-time and interacting with people of varied educational backgrounds that he realised how misguided that mindset had been.
Unfortunately, my friend’s experience at his JC is not uncommon – elitism, and to a certain extent, discrimination, has been present in Singapore’s education system for decades.
But it needs to stop. Now.
Because at the end of the day, does it really matter where you studied at, or how well you scored in school?
Not really, no.
The reality is that many students from neighbourhood schools have subsequently gone on to achieve great things in life, while there have also been instances of elite school students failing to fulfil their potential.
Yes, elite schools generally have better facilities and more resources for their students to tap on as compared to neighbourhood schools. So, in theory, elite school students do have an academic advantage over their peers from neighbourhood schools.
But there are still many valuable lessons and experiences that one can gain from studying in a neighbourhood school.
I, for one, had the privilege of interacting with all sorts of students – from the brash, loud Ah Bengs and Ah Lians, to the so-called gaming geeks, to the ones who came from broken, incomplete families.
These interactions exposed me to various – and, admittedly, often darker – facets of Singapore, which in turn provided me with a better understanding of how certain segments of society function.
I learnt different communication styles, and how to switch from one to another depending on the individual I was interacting with.
I also learnt humility – the proud and boastful seldom fare well in neighbourhood schools – and I learnt that respect should be earned based on one’s behaviour, rather than factors like family background or academic results.
So, while my schoolmates and I may not have been academically inclined, we certainly grew to be street-smart, thanks to the experiences we had while studying in a neighbourhood school.
We’ve also come to appreciate that all the experiences we went through in school – both good and bad – have enriched our life in one way or another.
Many of us now are successes in our own rights, with good jobs, happy families, and a comfortable life.
Now, I recognise all this is based on my personal experience, and that not all neighbourhood school students will have the same learning journey that I did. And of course, it’s entirely possible for students from elite academic institutions to learn the values and lessons outlined above during their school life as well.
But the point is this: contrary to what the Singaporean obsession with brand-name schools may indicate, the schools we go to and the number of As on our old report cards are not the be all and end all for success. There are many other ways one can have a fruitful life, so let’s stop judging people based on the schools they attend.
Furthermore, there are many other experiences beyond our school life that will influence who we become. Our jobs, our friends, and even our interests all play integral parts in shaping the person we are.
And at the end of the day, the values that you live by paints a much more accurate picture of who you are as a person. Your character, morals and behaviour will always speak louder than your academic qualifications.
So, treat others with kindness, help those in need, and do things fairly and with integrity.
That’s how you become truly successful in life.