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Is our education system slanted towards favouring the elite?

Danger in our education system

Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor

In a letter to the Straits Times’ forum page, Ang Kian Chuan replied to the remarks made by the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Professor Kishore Mahbubani. (See here: “Prof, here's why parents look to Aussie universities.” )

The professor had said, in an interview with the paper last Friday (“Don’t sniff at our education system”):

Look at the number of parents who are paying to send their kids to Australian universities when, frankly, the NUS provides a far better education than most Australian universities.

Prof Mahbubani was well, upset that Singaporeans “still think of the National University of Singapore (NUS) as being in the 'second league' of higher-education institutions”. He also claimed that NUS “is more respected by its overseas counterparts than by Singaporeans.”

“The NUS is one of the best places in the region to study Asia, as a steady stream of visitors from top universities in the West testify,” says the professor.

It is thus ironic, as Ang pointed out in his letter, that Mr Mahbubani revealed that his own children studied overseas, and not in local universities. “I'm reminded of the time when those who chose to study and stay on to work abroad were branded 'quitters' by our leaders,” says Ang. “I was dismayed to read later that many children of leaders themselves were studying and staying overseas.”

The Prime Minister’s son, Li Hongyi, is currently studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. He is on the PSC Overseas Merit Scholarship (Foreign Service). (RJC)

In another letter to the Straits Times, Muhammad Farouq Osman raised the question of how scholarships are awarded. (“Elitist danger in S’pore education”)

Straits Times writer Zakir Hussain had reported that “about 53 per cent of Public Service Commission scholarships go to those who live in private property.” (“Meritocracy's hidden danger”)

Hussain wrote:

In a paper published this year, Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy argues that Singapore's meritocratic system 'has been practised so extremely that it is starting to show signs of becoming a victim of its own success'.

'As the economic and political elite are rewarded with larger prizes, a vast and visible inequality of outcomes will replace the incentive effect with a sense of resentment, helplessness, social disengagement, and even envy among those who perceive themselves as systematically disadvantaged,' he notes.

He continues:

Where 80 per cent of people live in HDB flats, only some 47 per cent of Public Service Commission scholarship recipients this year do. Some 27 per cent are in private, non-landed property, and the other 26 per cent live in landed property.

It is a distortion former A*Star chief Philip Yeo hinted at recently when he said scholarships could 'uplift' students from poorer families, and that if two applicants had equally exceptional grades, he would award a scholarship to the one from a humbler household.

Hussain ends his piece with something to think about:

Disdain for the poor is the hidden danger that lurks in meritocracy.

Farouq Osman is concerned that:

As a result, Singapore's education system, which has always been held up as a model of social mobility for all, is attenuated because one group benefits from a distinct advantage over the others. The public perception that there is an inherent link between students from wealthier households and high academic achievement is pervasive.

It would thus seem that there are two distinct questions about our education policy:

One, whether our schools (especially the tertiary institutions) are increasingly being seen as favouring foreigners, resulting in parents sending their children overseas.

Two, whether the manner in which scholarships are awarded is creating an elite class of younger Singaporeans whose parents are from the same elite class. In the words of Farouq Osman:

There is the danger of a dichotomy developing in an increasingly stratified Singapore society, exacerbated by widening income gaps where the mentality of 'us versus them' prevails.

What are your thoughts about the issues? If you have personal experiences in these areas, please do share them with us. Alternatively, you can write to us at [email protected].

Is our education system slanted towards favouring the elite class?

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Cartoon from My Sketchbook.

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