RI population less diverse now, say many alumni

Raffles Institution at its current location in Bishan. PHOTO: RAFFLES INSTITUTION

A frank speech by the principal of Raffles Institution (RI) has sparked discussion among alumni and students, with many agreeing that the school's student population has become less diverse.

At RI's 192nd Founder's Day ceremony about a week ago, its principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, warned that RI is at risk of becoming a school that caters only to a certain class of Singaporeans and must do more to counter accusations of becoming increasingly elitist.

Most alumni interviewed said they agreed that RI, widely seen as Singapore's most reputed school, has become less diverse in its student population.

Mr Ted Chia, who attended RI in the 1960s, said: "Most of us came from unknown primary schools, gaining entry because we did pretty well in the Primary School Leaving Examination of the old days.

"Most students were from humble backgrounds, taking the bus to school and not driven by mum or dad," said the 64-year-old director of sales in an aerospace business.

Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, a senior fellow in economics at the National University of Singapore who went to RI in the 1950s, said out of his group of 10 friends, just three went to university.

"In those times, people would leave school to work because they could not afford to study further or they didn't do well enough," he said.

Mr Chia added: "Nowadays, kids are groomed from young to do extremely well in the PSLE.

"So inevitably, you will find the present students belong to a smaller and more privileged group."

Mr Kuek Jia Yao, 19, who graduated from RI last year, said: "Gradually, RI has shifted to the stance of being elitist, although not through the fault of students."

The son of a school vice-principal and housewife added: "Mr Chan gave us a challenge to do better. Being indifferent and unaware will just make the issue worse."

RI alumnus Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said RI should aim to be a "microcosm of Singapore", with students from all socioeconomic classes and races.

"RI is a great school and we don't want that to change. I am, however, concerned by his statement that RI has become a middle-class school," he said.

The concern that top schools are becoming closed circles has been raised before, even by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In 2013, Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, then a Nominated MP, said in Parliament that he was concerned that RI, his alma mater, was becoming less diverse.

But Mr Eugene Wijeysingha, RI headmaster from 1986 to 1994, defended the school, saying many Rafflesians have served the country despite being "chastised for continuing to live in an ivory tower oblivious of the plight of others around".

He noted that a "high premium" is possibly placed on one's linkage with RI today.

However, "these boys slog it out and the best find their way to the school... They deserve to be highly regarded and to regard themselves with pride".

"I do not believe that all this has gone to the head of the RI boy and destroyed his values as a balanced human being," he added.

Professor Koh said that RI needs to identify and mentor bright pupils from needy families and minority ethnic groups, so that they will qualify for and want to study at RI and Raffles Girls' School. "My hope is that their student bodies will be diverse and inclusive," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline RI population less diverse now, say many alumni. Subscribe