Racial Equality: Meritocratic system gives everyone a chance

When she was a primary school pupil, Ms Nadrah Sadali would often go down at night to the void deck of her family's Housing Board flat to study.

She did so because her family could hardly afford to pay their electricity bills.

Her mother would also go to Beach Road to buy second-hand textbooks for Ms Nadrah and her five brothers.

The worn books were passed from sibling to sibling until the school syllabus changed and newer editions were needed.

Her mother, a nurse, and her father, an Islamic finance business owner, worked hard to put all their six children through school.

But Ms Nadrah, 25, and a trainee teacher, said she believes she owes part of her progress to the country's meritocratic system, a pillar of Singapore society that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his team built and reinforced in education and employment.

The former national hockey player said being a minority did not stand in the way for her to excel, whether in her studies or sport.

"Today, as I train to be an educator, I have neither been discriminated against nor had to worry about possible discrimination."

The insistence by Mr Lee and the Old Guard on equal opportunities in education for all Singaporeans to progress by dint of hard work and not by race, religion, descent or place of birth, is enshrined in Singapore's Constitution.

Also, financial aid from the Government and community groups is readily available for bright students from low-income households.

Still, there was always the nagging worry of whether her parents could afford the school fees, she said.

"It is a feeling I carried through my school years, from Juying Primary to Crescent Girls' Secondary and St Andrews Junior College.

"It was always at the back on my mind, especially in my JC years as most of my classmates came from families that could send them to an overseas university," she said.

"But I remember my mother telling me that if I do well enough, the system will find a way to help me.

"True enough, with only my academic credentials, I qualified for university," she added.

"It did not matter that I could not afford the fees, it did not matter that I was Malay, and it most definitely did not matter that I was a woman," said Ms Nadrah, who is second among six children.

She took a bank loan for her first three years at Nanyang Technological University, where she majored in sociology.

In her final year, she got a Mendaki scholarship that took care of her course fees.

Currently, she is studying for a postgraduate diploma in education (physical education). The fees for the course are fully paid by the National Institute of Education.

She said: "We reap what we sow, and the system of meritocracy pushes us along the way."

She also acknowledged the value of the bilingual policy in schools, which is invariably associated with Mr Lee.

The policy requires each child to learn his mother tongue as well as English, and it is something Ms Nadrah said helped to remind her of her cultural roots.

She was an active member of the Malay Society in each school she attended as well as in university.

"The bilingual policy had plenty to do with it," she added. "The emphasis on our mother tongue encouraged me to not just speak and learn the language but also retain the values that come with it."



Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.