Why It Matters

A hard look at averting elitism

Nanyang Technological University graduates at their convocation ceremony in 2014.
Nanyang Technological University graduates at their convocation ceremony in 2014. PHOTO: ST FILE

About a week ago, Raffles Institution principal Chan Poh Meng told students and staff at a Founder's Day ceremony to guard against being elitist and exclusive. His speech, which took an honest and hard look at these deep-seated issues, led to a discussion about elitism and the functioning of meritocracy in society today.

For a long time, the Singapore way to success has largely been through academic merit in national examinations. However, this style of meritocracy is no longer what it used to be, he argued.

Ironically, whereas it was once viewed as a social leveller, some now see it as reinforcing class differences, with the wealthier having more advantage - in terms of access to resources and life opportunities - than the poor.

The data available in recent years has shown that a disproportionate number of students in top schools come from affluent backgrounds. The students also tend to have parents who are well-educated.

In top secondary schools with the Integrated Programme, more than half of the students have parents who are university graduates; the figure is about one in 10 for those in neighbourhood schools.

At six top primary schools, only four in 10 live in HDB flats, when the national average for all primary schools is eight in 10. The worry is that this profile produces students who are increasingly disconnected from the concerns of ordinary folk.

It widens the gap between children and young people from well-to-do homes and their peers from disadvantaged backgrounds, leading to a fractured society where the best and brightest may not have empathy for the woes of the masses. This does not bode well, given that many of these high-achievers in prestigious schools go on to be leaders in society, enacting policies that affect people.

That is why premier schools must always remain open to all, and Mr Chan's speech was a long time coming, because education must help bridge the social gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline 'A hard look at averting elitism'. Print Edition | Subscribe