Equity, equality without elitism

As a fellow alumnus of Raffles Institution (RI) who graduated almost two decades before Mr Russell Tan Wah Jian, I read his letter ("'Elitism' can be good for society"; Forum Online, Aug 11) with both dismay and alarm.

His letter ironically served to underscore the timeliness of RI principal Chan Poh Meng's clarion call on the faltering of meritocracy ("'RI now a 'middle-class' school/'Make RI a better school for S'pore'"; Aug 4).

Mr Tan's letter has three fundamental flaws.

First, Mr Tan argues that society is better off with equity, which we have collectively confused with equality.

Yet, the confusion appears to be his. Even in Mr Tan's view, equity requires equal opportunities.

To this day, the primary barrier to entry to RI remains the Primary School Leaving Examination.

That single examination ignores the hand a particular child has been dealt with in life in terms of external circumstance; a child who has to spend his after-school hours assisting in eking out a living for his family can hardly be said to have truly equal opportunities, when compared with a child whose parents put him through various forms of enrichment and prep school.

Second, Mr Tan argues that in RI's quest to nurture future leaders, we cannot allow ourselves to prioritise equality over intelligence and equity.

That vividly exemplifies what Christopher Hayes calls in his book, Twilight Of The Elites: America After Meritocracy, the "cult of smartness".

As Hayes argues, it is a mistaken assumption that intelligence is an ordinal quality - that it is possible for observers to accurately rank intelligent people in order from most to least smart, and that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest.

What society would benefit from are not simply the brightest leaders, however this is determined, but leaders who also possess wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigour.

Finally, implicit in Mr Tan's letter is a mistaken understanding of equality. Equality does not require making everyone stoop down to the lowest denominator of society.

Quite the reverse, equality of opportunity does not mean giving every child the exact same seat booster to watch a movie; instead we give each child varying seat boosters, according to his height, so that they each have the same opportunity to watch the movie.

Darius Chan