Last Monday I met two shining examples of hope and endeavour amid poverty.
If there were a SEA Games competition for students in this category, they would be my choice of gold medal winners.
Jia Qi was 11 when her father died of pneumonia, leaving her mother to look after her and two brothers, then nine and six.
Mother could not work full-time as the youngest had a medical condition and she found a part-time job as a canteen assistant earning $5 an hour
All three children applied for and received help from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (STSPMF) which is this paper's charity project providing financial assistance to needy students.
Last year Jia Qi aced her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), scoring 255 points, and she now studies at Chung Cheng High.
Khairul Irzhan was another beneficiary of the STSPMF who scored an identical 255 at the PSLE last year.
He is now at Raffles Institution.
He has six siblings and, as his mother told me, they often run out of table space in their small flat when everyone is doing homework.
She is a housewife; her husband works as a delivery driver earning $1,400 a month.
Jia Qi and Khairul are the top STSPMF Primary 6 performers, and we recognised their achievements for the first time this year by giving each a Samsung Galaxy tablet, courtesy of the Korean company.
When I handed them their prizes on Monday as chairman of the fund, you could feel the weight of expectation of their parents who were present there, their hopes pinned on their children to continue to do well in school and find good jobs that will lead to a better future.
But you could also feel the extra burden these students have to carry because of their difficult circumstances compared to those from higher-income households.
Theirs is a world without tuition lessons or enrichment classes, no private transport to ferry them to and from these activities, and with parents who are less resourceful and unable to spend as much time with their children.
Instead, they struggle with meagre household incomes, and often have to cope with emotional and other problems in the family, some of which arise from their financial circumstances.
Amid these difficulties, they have to try to do well in a stressful education system that doesn't recognise the additional problems they face.
All our STSPMF students come from the poorest families because, to qualify for help, they have to be from a household with a monthly income no higher than $450 per member.
That puts them in roughly the bottom 13 per cent of families in Singapore.
Not surprisingly, our survey shows that as a group, they perform poorly in school.
Of the 664 beneficiaries who sat the PSLE last year, 35 received T-scores of less than 100; 225 between 101 and 140; and 238 between 141 and 180.
Based on these scores, only about 25 per cent would have made the Express stream compared to the national average of 66 per cent.
Did poverty affect their academic results?
It is hard to say and there is no direct evidence to prove the link.
But it doesn't take a genius to deduce that, everything else being equal, those with fewer resources and opportunities to develop their abilities will be at a disadvantage.
Conversely, if these students do get financial help and worry less about money matters, they might have a better chance focusing on school work and doing better.
That's what we found out in a 2011 study done with researchers from the National University of Singapore.
Out of 134 school report cards checked in the study, 37 students had failing grades before they went on the fund, and 15 of them - or about 40 per cent - achieved a pass grade after receiving pocket money. Their participation in co-curricular activities also went up.
It shows what can be achieved from a relatively small disbursement - STSPMF provides $60 a month to a primary school pupil and $95 to those in secondary school.
The pocket money enables them to not just take the bus to school or buy food during recess, but also to take part more fully in school activities.
Those of us who don't have to face financial hardship do not understand the anxiety these children and their parents face every day and which affects their ability to perform whether in school or at work.
A study published in the journal, Science, found that poverty produces stress and anxiety in people struggling to make ends meet, affecting their decision-making abilities.
So much of their mental and emotional energy is taken up trying to meet their most basic needs, they have not much left for anything else.
That is why we should recognise and reward the extra effort required of poor students when they do particularly well.
Better still, provide them with additional help so they can do even better.
To its credit the Government has, over the years, tried to level the playing field by subsidising early childhood education, and primary schools now have remedial classes for late starters. There are also bursaries and other financial schemes for students from low-income households.
But more can be done, especially for those with the potential to do well.
One suggestion: Identify the cream of the crop from among low-income households - say the top 20 - in all the major examinations, including the PSLE and O levels, and provide scholarships and other assistance to these students.
The help should be substantial enough to make a difference to these children and their families and it should be made clear that this isn't a handout but a reward for exceptional performance under challenging circumstances.
Top schools like RI and Hwa Chong should also open their doors to these students who might not otherwise have met the schools' PSLE admission criteria.
Some of America's Ivy League universities, like Harvard, practise this by admitting the top students from poor inner city schools who would not have qualified in the usual way.
They recognise that these students must have something extra to be able to emerge tops in these rough neighbourhood schools.
There is a place in Singapore's brand of meritocracy to do likewise.
This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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