According to some news reports, it is class and not race that divides Singaporean society. Looking at an informal style discussion moderated by Member of Parliament (MP) Dr. Janil Putucheary between children from different schools and streams, I would tend to agree. Although the discussion began about grades and academic performance, it was clear that to the students involved, school results were invariably linked to “social class”. How did this come to be when education was meant to be the great social leveler?
Watching the documentary “Regardless of Class” was thought-provoking on many levels. Firstly, it drove home the point that we live in a society where many feel excluded and left behind – certainly not the “meritocracy” we pride ourselves to be. Secondly, it highlighted many of the unconscious biases that we all have. We go about our busy lives and sometimes, it is easy to forget that we do live in a multi-tiered society where we mix only with those in the same schools or professions thereby creating the caste system that we thought wasn’t prevalent.
Streaming is an obvious reason why we may end up only hanging out with those like us, leading us to forget that there is a whole wider society out there. Hanging out with similar people creates a little bubble where we convince ourselves that our group represents societal views and values when in reality, we are simply shrouded in our own reality, totally unaware of how someone else who may not be in the same type of profession or school may feel. This is not only morally regressive but dangerous for society as well. Great social upheavals occur when the chasm becomes so wide without those that perpetuate it even being aware.
So-called intellectuals sit back agape at election results making Donald J Trump the American President and the UK committing economic suicide by voting to leave the European Union (Brexit). For many coming from elite schools with high paying city jobs, these results were a shock – no one saw it coming. The truth of the matter though was that inequality was rising but the ones who run and rule the system were blind to the struggles of the general public. Not because they deliberately choose to ignore the rest of the society. Not even out of arrogance. Rather it is an ignorance that is created by a system that makes it easy for one within the so-called upper echelons of society not to ever see how the other half live. The system does not give these privileged ones the opportunity to understand as it created parallel worlds of existence. Unless one took the effort to really look, one would never see outside his or her own life. Without genuinely understanding each other’s perspectives, it is easy to stereotype and make summary judgments that really help no one.
Take for instance the student who felt that mixing high performing academic students with poorer students would not work because it might lead to poorer students giving up altogether. While I mean no disrespect to her point of view, I do wonder where her perspective came from. Does she have personal experience with this or is this based on a misunderstanding of what poorer performing students may feel? The problem with loose assumptions is that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy without any bearing on the truth.
Another example was the recent discussions on the role of the social worker with some experts pointing out that in many instances, we don’t end up genuinely helping those in need because of our own inherent biases.
It is never easy to step outside your comfort zone and yes, it does take effort to talk to people from different walks of life but I think we should all take that effort because we are all part of society. A cohesive society benefits everyone. Social upheavals on the other hand benefit no one. I grew up in the 80s and early 90s. That was when there was a larger middle class and we all mixed a little more. There was a greater ease in society which now seems to have sadly vanished.
Tragedies like the French revolution occurred because the inequality was too wide. Apart from streaming, the government needs to ensure that it has a greater variety of people within its ranks. As it stands, it is almost a cookie cutter assembly line. Don’t create ridiculous criteria such as that set for the President because that simply perpetuates class divides.
I will never forget how politicians from the People’s Action Party (PAP), including the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew mocked Mr Chaim See Tong for his school results. In truth, many a PAP MP would be happy to have the popularity Mr Chiam possessed. Moral of the story – grades are not relevant when it comes to serving the public so why do we imply that good results equate to good MP? Name me a current PAP MP that has not gone to university? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Again, is the government promoting elitism in every aspect of society?