By Bhas Kunju
I am an alumnus of Raffles Institution (RI) having graduated in the early 2000s. I have been rather dismayed at the direction of the conversation. I had hoped that it would at least spark a discussion on the skewed education system in Singapore, instead it has largely swung the spotlight over RI’s alleged elitism.
Coming from a lower-middle income family, I believe I would be one of the few exceptions to the school’s typical intake and I would like to share my experience before anyone makes rash judgements or pours scorn over the school.
RI in my experience, has been the one place I could truly say that meritocracy was practiced and I say this having gone on to other educational institutions and entered the work force. Just three years prior to enrolling in RI, I recall visiting the campus with my dad (who worked multiple jobs to put me and my siblings through school) to pick out used textbooks during the school’s then annual book drive. The students who helped out on the occasion were friendly and forthcoming, and I made a personal promise to my father that I would be a part of the institution one day. At that time my family lived in a one-room apartment and my siblings and I shared the floor as bed.
I was accepted into RI based on my PSLE results which was amongst the top 10 in Singapore, allowing me to qualify for an MOE scholarship to an independent school. While my school fees were settled by the scholarship, I still had to fork out a token amount of monthly miscellaneous fees, which if I recall correctly amounted to just under $30 then, but a significant sum for my family. In my final year at the school, when I applied for my ‘O’ Level fees to be covered by bursary, not only did the school pay for the exam fees in full, but upon finding out my family’s income level, voluntarily paid my miscellaneous school fees for the remainder of my school term. On top of that, the school also reimbursed my family an additional year and a half’s worth of fees paid, without us never having asked.
To put this into perspective, when I was in a neighbourhood Junior College (JC) and applied for my ‘A’ Level fees to be covered by bursary (MOE funded bursary scheme), I was first outright rejected, and then upon appeal was given a 70% coverage. The reason being that I wasn’t ‘needy’ enough, even though there was no quota or restrictions in place and the bursaries were handed out entirely arbitrarily on the discretion of the school’s teachers who felt that one had to be in dire situation or be a remarkable student to receive assistance (one student who received full assistance was an orphan who lived in a shelter). These are factors that were never called into question by RI who unconditionally recognised the need to look after all their students and give everyone under their purview an equal shot at learning. I should point out that the neighbourhood JC in question was otherwise a warm and down to earth institution where I made plenty of close friends. But it did help me realise that meritocracy isn’t universally applied in the country, and can often be found in the unlikeliest of places.
While I’d agree that the RI school population is not reflective of the general population of the country, based on family background and income levels, I’d urge the public to rethink the notion that RI is entirely at fault for this or is the only educational institution facing this disparity. The school has always been welcoming of exceptional students regardless of their background or income level, a huge factor given that many top tier and higher institutions in Singapore still wrongly hold financial capability as a barrier to entry.
Today, I’m proud to say that I have a bright career and future, and I owe that to the school for having shown me that I could be somebody regardless of where I started out in life.
I will, however, begrudgingly concede that I form a small minority of the students in Singapore who have benefitted this way.
There is a key discussion that everyone should be focusing on and that is how the entire education system is structured to benefit those who come from affluent families, be it through better access to learning materials or an early headstart from entry to top primary schools through familial connections. One could be of average intellect but still make it to top schools due to these advantages because our education system still favours (and rewards) rote learning and financial layout. The mantra seems to be, ‘if you can afford it, you will succeed’. But if you’re not from a well-to-do family, your only shot at success is if you were intelligent enough to being with, and even then its subject to whether you can afford to reach the next level.
The other problem that I will concede is that given the general make-up of its intake, RI, just like many other top institutions in this country, does inadvertently promote an unhealthy insular perspective. I did face a difficult time assimilating with my more affluent schoolmates, who to me, shared a vastly different worldview. To its credit, the school did, in my time, hold various projects and schemes to ensure its students were better exposed to the rest of the world. But this in itself could sometimes re-emphasise the divide between its own students and the rest of the population, by inadvertently placing the students on a pedestal of power and influence. ‘You are better and thus you must help the rest,’ is the unfortunate message that is getting relayed over and over.
But, I have to reiterate these problems aren’t unique to, nor are they directly sourced from RI. The problem of equal opportunity is a lot more complex and doesn’t just stop at the gates of RI. These are problems inherent to our education system to begin with. After all, by what measure is RI and RI alone elitist? Wouldn’t a graduate be an elitist to a non-graduate? Wouldn’t anyone who has made it to a local university be elitist compared to those who didn’t? What about neighbourhood school alumni versus autonomous school alumni? The comparative argument can go on and on, because where exactly is this imaginary line of elitism drawn and how and why? That’s the pertinent question we should be asking.
I would never consider myself elitist, because your place of learning isn’t the source. Your own sense of entitlement, privilege, insular ideas and lack of self-awareness are what contribute to elitism. Even as I graduated from NUS and entered the work force, I came to see plenty of individuals who basked in this elitist privilege, having had the good fortune of coming from financially better off families, yet having never even set foot in a school like RI. If there is a divide that needs to be explored, this is it, the great advantage and cocoon that wealth builds. Income divide is the problem that needs to be addressed, not nitpicking over the status of being Rafflesian.
I gladly welcome the discussion of elitism and its ill effects but we will be steering the conversation off course and doing ourselves a great disservice if we hold the argument solely over the context of RI while letting the rest of the institutions at fault go scot-free.