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You can’t preach meritocracy without also addressing privilege

Channel News Asia (CNA) released a documentary recently called ‘Regardless of Class’ which talks about the class divide in Singapore. Presented by MP Janil Puthucheary, the 48 minutes documentary attempts to explore the reasons behind the class divide and what Singaporeans think about it through surveys and on-the-ground conversations.

Response has been mixed with some people calling it a ‘mockumentary’ that doesn’t actually address the true underlying cause of the class divide and merely implies that it’s a problem of character, not the system.

The documentary also touches heavily on the system of meritocracy that Singapore so proudly stands on. It’s something that children learn from a very early age and something the entire country carries as a flag of a truly equal nation.

However, a former teacher took to Facebook to share her experience with this idea of ‘meritocracy’ and said that the CNA documentary only scratches the surface.

Quite succinctly, she wrote that in her experience as a teacher in secondary school, she’s noticed first-hand that “privileged kids look at themselves and believe their successes are due to their own intellect and talent. Underprivileged kids look at themselves and believe that their failures are a result of an innate lack. Then, they look at each other… and form all kinds of misguided impressions.” She added that these impressions are intolerant and dangerous and are likely to stick with them for a lifetime.

She also shared a few stories from her time as a teacher that sadly show just how entrenched these skewed impressions are, even in the youngest of students. From students blithely saying things like “the hard truth is some races are just dumber” to “didn’t Singapore have some policy where only smart people can have babies? Hard to swallow, but you gotta admit it’s for a greater good.”

It’s shocking to hear, but in hindsight, it’s not exactly surprising. These children were raised to believe that Singapore was built on this utopian idea of meritocracy but what they don’t see is the socio-economic inequalities that still prevail – so naturally they think that a poor person is poor because they don’t work hard enough or they’re not smart enough. Idea of access to opportunity (privilege) doesn’t even cross their minds precisely because it’s not talked about at all.

In her post, she touches on how teachers in Singapore are strictly instructed to avoid discussing race, religion, class and sexuality in the classroom. “In every ministry-sanctioned PowerPoint Presentation we preach respect and harmony and deplore discrimination, but each time we sing of meritocracy and ignore privilege, we only reinforce a divide," she writes.

She continues, “Children connect these imperfect dots and conclude that their fate is written in their DNA. That if they succeed, it is their doing alone. That if they fail, it is all their fault.”

What this teacher has pointed out should be blindingly obvious to anyone with even a shred of self-awareness about the world. It’s a fact that access to opportunity is the biggest barrier for lower income families – it is the highest mountain they have to climb to before they can make that jump up to ‘middle-income’.

But in Singapore, this fact is conveniently brushed aside while meritocracy takes centre stage. This has bred a toxic foundation where people think they deserve to be poor or rich, that it’s their own doing and right. Now that is a real slippery slope.

What the CNA documentary fails to address is the root cause of this social divide. The reluctance of people from both sides to interact with each other is merely the symptom of a deeper issue – inequality. And the system of meritocracy only serves to widen that crack that already exists.

Inequality, and consequently the social divide, is a complex issue that cannot be pegged on just one thing. It’s the lack of equal access to opportunities, it’s acknowledging that different people need different thinks to be able to stand on the same level, it’s understanding that money opens doors, and that poverty isn’t a problem that you can just throw solves through monetary donations.

Like the teacher said in her post, “we were never taught the concept of privilege. Sure, we knew we were more fortunate than others, but we didn’t really, truly, know. Our elitist attitudes were never addressed, unpacked, torn down” – and that’s really where we need to start if we’re serious about having a truly merit-based society.