RI must help students look beyond narrow class-based interests

Principal Chan Poh Meng delivered a frank critique of the school's efforts in upholding meritocracy. Below is an excerpt of his Founder's Day speech last week.

I would like to take some time to discuss the way forward for RI (Raffles Institution). We stand at an important juncture of Singaporean history. Fifty years into Independence, we are no longer an "improbable country" or an "unlikely nation". We have a public service that is widely admired for its incorruptibility, schools, hospitals, a transportation system and a public housing programme that have served us well.

But there are also gaps and fissures that have emerged in the impressive edifice of our country.

Our system of meritocracy is working less well than it used to two generations in. Families that have been successful financially have been able to create advantages for their children; the PSLE and other gatekeeping examinations are no longer the level playing field that they once were, thanks to an explosion in the numbers of tuition and enrichment centres. An influx of new immigrants into our country, judged to be important for our country's economic health, has led to feelings of displacement among Singaporeans who have been here longer.

The key question for us is how RI fits into all this.


As a school, we have prided ourselves on being the jewel in MOE's (the Ministry of Education) crown. For a long time, we have measured our success by how high our PSLE cut-off is, by how well our students do in the A levels, by the number of "top" scholarships and places in the Oxbridge and Ivy League universities they secure. We were comfortably supported by a stratified education system that gave extra funding to the best and brightest.

As a school with its secondary and JC (junior college) entry points defined in terms of academic merit, we cruised for many years with an untroubled conscience, serene in the faith that we were teaching the students who deserved to be here. We were a special school with a spiralling host of special programmes for the gifted and talented. One might ask if we have become insular - a school unto ourselves.

But given what we know today about how meritocracy's effectiveness is faltering, can we in good conscience go on with business as usual?

To our alumni who frequently lament how the school is no longer the school they remember, I want to say, like you, as an alumnus, I, too, ask the same question.

Yet, it is pointless and futile to deny the existence of class in RI.

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.


If we can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore, then the more pressing question that must now be asked and answered is: How does RI maintain a breadth and generosity of vision in its students? How do we continue being the hope of a better age for ALL of Singapore and not just some part, some group, some class of Singaporeans?

Are we able, as a school, to help our students look beyond narrow class-based interests? Our success in this area will affect the health of our country in approximately two to three decades hence.

This was something which the first principal of the reintegrated

RI and RJC, Mrs Lim Lai Cheng, frequently noted. I quote: "Given the numbers of doctors, lawyers and public servants that we produce, if as a school, we fail to instil a wider concern and care in our students, it is Singapore at large that suffers."

The ideals that we have - for RI to be non-elitist, for it to be a beacon of openness and inclusivity - all these are good ideals, but they cannot be accomplished overnight. A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face.

Our current students should not bear the full brunt of accusations of elitism - we as alumni, parents, staff must ask ourselves : what example have we given them in the expectations that we impose on them, in the system that we run, in the way that we treat other people? If we must have blame for the current state of the school, we must each accept our share of it.

The process begins now: The externally-imposed financial austerity which our school is undergoing is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The path forward

In support of these goals, I want to lay out certain vectors to guide the school in the years ahead. Briefly, I would describe these as duty, purpose and gratitude - but allow me to delve deeper into each of these vectors.

A duty to diversity: In saying that our school has a duty to diversity, I mean this in two senses. First and foremost, we have a duty to maintain the socio-economic diversity of our school to the best of our ability.

But there is also the broader sense of "diversity" as a range of different things. When groups and individuals are different from one another and have little contact, there is the chance for misunderstanding to arise and mistrust to fester. 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. Between Singaporeans new and old. Between Singaporeans and the community of foreign workers and expatriates. Between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots. I would like to invite the school to channel its service efforts into these pressing areas.

Thus, let us consider not just the question of who we can serve, but who we can serve alongside, who we can serve together with. If we can undertake such meaningful projects with peers from other schools, then I think the project is doubly meaningful, as it also helps us to move out of our insularity.

Awakened purpose: One of the great concerns that I have is that our students - and perhaps even teachers - see community service as one more check box to be ticked in a string of accomplishments, or as a chore, something boring and mundane, that must be done because the system says so.

There seems to me a better approach that we can take if we see community service as a vital way for us to grow socially, emotionally and spiritually. These aspects often take a backseat because our system has for so long emphasised the intellectual dimension to the exclusion of these other areas.

Principal Philip Liau spoke of (a higher summit). To go beyond acting out of a sense of duty, to acting upon the lived conviction of an awakened sense of purpose. To do what is right, rather than what is easy.

Mindful gratitude: This brings me to the final vector of gratitude. To cite (Buddhism teacher) Jack Kornfield, when our circle of care is expanded, when we recognise the blood of our own family in everything that lives, our heart is filled with gratitude, love and compassion. We receive physical and spiritual sustenance from the world around us; this is like breathing in. Then, because each of us is born with certain gifts, part of our happiness is to use these to give back - to our community, family, friends, as well as to the earth. This is like breathing out. As we grow in interconnectedness, the integrity and responsibility of a citizen - whether that of Singapore or of the world - naturally grows in us.

I am well aware of how hectic our lives are as a school community. We are caught up in a ceaseless cycle of classes, competitions, common tests, concerts and CCA practices.

Is there time for us to become aware? Are we able to make that time, to prioritise it, if we know that this awareness, this growing in gratitude is what gives everything else meaning? That is the question that we must answer both individually and collectively as a school.

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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 RI must help students look beyond narrow class-based interests. Subscribe