Thursday, August 13, 2015

Elitism vs meritocracy

Last week, the RI Principal gave a speech exhorting Rafflesians to guard against elitism. Which was welcomed by the community at large but all goodwill was undone when ex-RI boy, Russell Tan wrote a forum letter yesterday in response, claiming that elitism had its place in society.

I wonder if Russell realises that he unwittingly proved the RI Principal's point about some RI kids being insular.

Meritocracy is about rewarding the most outstanding and people like Russell believe that because the measurement for "outstanding" is standardised for all, it's only fair to reward purely based on who can complete the checklist. In Singapore, this checklist would include someone who does well in national exams, shows leadership, brings in medals for their CCA, etc.

In the past when the educational landscape wasn't so competitive, it worked to a certain extent. You had kids who could climb their way out of an underprivileged background just by working extra hard. Education was truly the social leveller then. But today, when competition is super keen and standards have been raised to differentiate the best from the best, working hard is no longer enough.

If you have tutors in every subject to clarify your every doubt and help you learn beyond what teachers teach you in school, you're most certainly likely to do better in your exams. If your parents can engage a tennis coach for you from age 5, you would clearly be a better tennis player able to lead your school team by the time you hit secondary school. If you have well-educated, English speaking parents who can bring you overseas on holiday to expose you to different cultures, read to you from when you were an infant and have connections to help you land internships, you would undoubtedly have a better looking portfolio and participate more confidently in interviews than a kid who doesn't even have internet at home.

And so on. In other words, just ensuring that the finish line is the same for all is no longer enough to attain meritocracy because the start line is so unequal. The unlevel playing field greatly affects the outcome and the problem arises when people don't realise that and believe that they are where they are purely on their own merit. And everyone else who didn't achieve what they did was somehow either incapable or didn't work hard enough. That's elitism.

The thing is, I find that many students who feel like Russell may not be deliberately elitist, just ignorant, and the education system contributes to this culture. In my time, parents too wanted their kids to go to "good" schools but in general, a "good" school was defined as one which had an ok academic reputation and was relatively near your home. Hence, there was a more diverse student population in each school.

Today, everyone clamours to go to the very top ranked school based on their cut-off points, failing which they would go to the next ranked school, etc. As a result, students are streamed very narrowly into schools based on their PSLE scores and you have pretty much a tiered system with all the best PSLE scorers congregating at RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH/ACSI and so on.

What happened then was that schools became much less diverse, especially among the top rung schools. If you're in a school which takes in the top 2% of a PSLE cohort, everywhere you turn, you find people similar in ability and background to you. (That's why these kids also tend to have a warped sense of who's good and who's not academically). Unless you run around with kids in your neighbourhood who are of different abilities, or you do a lot of community work with the underprivileged, you will simply not be aware of what other people are like. At that tender age, you take your cues from people around you and if all those you meet are the top 2% at RI, the same privileged kids at high end enrichment centres, and your neighbours in Bukit Timah, then you would inevitably think that's what typical society is like that.

And that's the danger I find not just with kids but adults. We can be lulled into oblivion because we tend to mingle only with people like us and can start thinking that we're the norm. Some time back, I had lunch with a group of friends, all mums. Quite typically when mums meet, we talk about our kids and some of the mums complained about how unmotivated their kids were and how they were doing badly for certain subjects.

Later, I commented to a close friend who had also attended the lunch, that this particular social circle was so skewed. Among the 6 of us, we have 13 kids, of which 8 were from GEP. That's a whopping 61%, compared to the national average of 1% GEP over the general student population. I have to qualify that these mums are super nice and easy going, and I like hanging out with them because they're not your kiasu *simi sai also send to Learning Lab* parents. But we probably have no clue what "doing badly" really meant to the general population. For that circle, it meant not getting an 'A' grade at ACSI or RI whereas I have another friend who told me her son was doing really well, ie he got into the Express stream in sec 1.

Maybe I'm just more conscious about it because I have one child (Lesley-Anne) in a branded school and another (Andre) in a neighbourhood school. Here's the contradiction: despite being in the "better" school, more of Lesley-Anne's friends have tuition than Andre's friends; and the attitude towards academic achievement couldn't be more different.

That's where I feel people are coming from when they express their concern about "ivory tower" civil servants or that those in government may not understand how people on the ground feel. It's a valid concern if all those in decision-making positions come only from a small and homogeneous pool. I'm not discounting their ability or their intentions. Both may be fantastic. But sometimes, ability and intentions are not enough. We need different perspectives.

So if we say we stand for meritocracy, we need to either diversify the student population in our schools or consciously widen the pool from which we scout talent. Does that mean we are creating unequal yardsticks for "outstanding"? Yes. But in today's context, perhaps that's what it takes to achieve true meritocracy.


Anonymous said...

Love this article, Mon.

Yup, you are right that a lot of the "elite" kids do not know what the real world is like out there. More ignorant than arrogant actually ...

I read/heard somewhere that in one of the branded primary schools, the teacher was asking the kids to take the public bus for a project or something. The teacher then realised that 90% of the kids have never even taken a public bus in their lives! How very insular indeed!


monlim said...

Thanks, Grace! Some kids really live sheltered lives, haiz...

Winston Thomas said...

Elitism is everywhere, not just in Singapore. True meritocracy is difficult as it is human nature to feel elitist when you are the top 1%. So what can we do to trample elitism for true meritocracy. Are we going to ban kids whose parents donated or are part of the alumni to take favorable placings? Are we going to stop a bank from employing someone based on their family connections? The list of questions goes on. Elitist attitudes are encouraged in society (whether we like to acknowledge it or not). What we need to do is balance elitism with meritocracy. When it tips, a chasm forms and society rebels, and we need to get the balance back. But hiding behind meritocracy and playing down elitism is not the $0.02.

monlim said...

Winston: Of course elitism is everywhere and we cannot ban all efforts by people to climb to the top using all their connections, etc. However, what you seem to be implying is that what is occurring is therefore inevitable and should be left alone, which is something people like the RI principal and others don't subscribe to. Just because elitism occurs doesn't mean we shouldn't try to balance it out (instead of just waiting till society rebels and explodes, which is so passive and destructive).

It starts with at least raising awareness among the elite about the privileges they have and breaking down the myth that their success is entirely due to hard work. This at least has a chance of stemming the perpetuating of this myth and perhaps using their privileges to contribute back to those with fewer advantages. If it encourages employers to look beyond the glittering cv, schools to look beyond the medals and grades, that's one step towards creating balance.

Winston Thomas said...

Never said do nothing. But I am a believer on doing something practical. We can talk about raising awareness, but to whom do we trust such a program to. So, in short, agree with you. But as you said, we need to "look beyond", and so how do we raise the awareness and remove the myth. Whom do we trust this with, and how do we make sure such an initiative is always updated and kept relevant to everyone's advantage (not just a few).

monlim said...

Don't think it can be a "programme" that needs to be entrusted to someone in charge. I think for a start, if schools are more diverse in terms of student background, that helps because nothing create a bubble as much as being surrounded by people like yourself.

Kyet said...

Do you believe that performance in academic field is a mix of hard work and natural ability and luck? Hard work can be improved by tuition. Natural ability may depend on inherited traits. No surprise that your middle class friends account for a disproportionate number of GEP kids.

What is society missing if middle class kids dominate GEP? There is only a problem if GEP kids become part of the rulers/management. If they are just workers/employees, then no problem.

monlim said...

Kyet: you are assuming my friends happened to have a large proportion of GEP kids when in fact, that was one of the factors for us meeting in the first place. The coincidence is that we happen to get along well.

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