Raffles Institution now a ‘middle-class’ school, says principal

RI is no longer what many alumni remember it to be, and it "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore", Mr Chan Poh Meng told 1,400 students, alumni, teachers and parents on Founder's Day.
RI is no longer what many alumni remember it to be, and it "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore", Mr Chan Poh Meng told 1,400 students, alumni, teachers and parents on Founder's Day.PHOTO: RAFFLES INSTITUTION
RI is no longer what many alumni remember it to be, and it "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore", Mr Chan Poh Meng told 1,400 students, alumni, teachers and parents on Founder's Day.
Mr Chan Poh MengPHOTO: RAFFLES INSTITUTION

Principal says school now largely caters to the affluent, and pride in its achievements risks making it insular

Raffles Institution (RI) is a "middle-class" school that now largely caters to the affluent segment of the population. It also risks becoming insular, cocooned by the glowing list of academic and sporting achievements its students have racked up year after year.

These harsh words came from the school's own principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, in a speech delivered in front of hundreds of current and former RI staff and students.

Speaking at the school's 192nd Founder's Day ceremony about a week ago, Mr Chan, who took over as RI principal at the end of 2013, said the school has been accused of being elitist, a charge he did not deny. He is himself an old boy of RI.

Singapore, on the eve of its 50th birthday, has been successful, building up a system that is admired the world over. But fissures have erupted in the process, one of which is the faltering meritocracy that the country has been lauded for in the past.

"Our system of meritocracy is working less well than it used to, two generations in," he said.

CURRENT REALITY

"A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face. RI has become a middle-class school - that is the current reality."

MR CHAN POH MENG, principal of Raffles Institution

Wealthier families have been able to give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) no longer being "the level playing field that they once were", he added.

For RI, the school is no longer what many alumni remember it to be in the past, with many students coming from diverse family and socio-economic backgrounds. Today, it "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore", Mr Chan told the audience of 1,400 students, alumni, teachers and parents.

 
 
 
 

RI, widely considered the most prestigious school in Singapore, has long prided itself on its students' academic prowess.

"For a long time, we have measured our success by how high our PSLE cut-off and how low our L1R5 were. By how many Olympiads and competitions and tournaments we won... By the number of 'top' scholarships and places in the Oxbridge and Ivy League universities (students) secure," said Mr Chan.

But he questioned if pride in such achievements may have had negative side effects, making RI "insular - a school unto ourselves".

"A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face," he said. "RI has become a middle-class school - that is the current reality. What matters more now is what we do with this reality and this knowledge."

To this end, Mr Chan challenged students and staff to make RI a better school for Singapore, and not just for itself.

He set guiding principles for the school, emphasising that it must do its best to maintain the socio-economic diversity of its student population and reach out to the community with more purpose and heart.

He cited examples of recent initiatives undertaken by RI students and staff that have served society.

One was The Golden Page, a project started last year by student volunteers to improve the living conditions of the elderly by installing equipment such as ramps and handle-bars in their homes.

Several alumni have also raised funds for scholarships for students from lower-income families.

RI must lend a hand to people who need help, such as foreign workers, the elderly and the poor, said Mr Chan. "I put it to you that this is our wider duty to Singapore in 2015 and beyond - to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'RI now a 'middle-class' school'. Print Edition | Subscribe