Combating elitism 'not just up to schools'

While National Institute of Education's Professor Jason Tan is glad RI gives scholarships to less well-off students, he and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan say such help is not enough if the students cannot fit in.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

To counter a rise in elitism, everyone in society - from schools to parents to students - has a role to play, said educators and others.

In a speech recently, Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng told students and staff members that the 192-year-old school is at risk of becoming insular and elitist, catering to a narrow class of Singaporeans. He said the way forward was for the school to maintain a socio-economic profile that is representative of Singapore society and for students to give back to the community with more heart.

In a bid to reach out to the disadvantaged, RI has, in recent years, given scholarships to needy primary school pupils who show potential.

Beyond financial help for needy students, top schools must focus more on shaping students' character so that they do not develop an elitist mentality, educators said.

Suggestions included getting students to mix more with peers with different family backgrounds from other schools and exposing them to more meaningful community work.

Many RI old boys said Mr Chan was right to have spoken up about elitism. One of them, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, said: "Our top schools are part of the education ecosystem, and they often reflect what's happening in Singapore society.

"To pin the blame completely on the schools is to point to the symptoms but not the cause."

He added: "The real question is whether every child, regardless of socio-economic background, can access the opportunities available."

National Institute of Education's Professor Jason Tan, who was in RI in the 1970s, pointed to the trend of "parentocracy", in which parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on a child's success than the child's own abilities.

"They can pump in financial resources to help children do well and get into good schools."

Alumni and experts said that giving students in these top schools more time to interact with others in the community could help them better understand and empathise with the less privileged.

Professor Choo Chiau Beng, former chief executive of Keppel Corp and now its senior adviser, said RI, his alma mater, and its students must "reach out to the rest of Singapore, to other children in neighbourhood schools and to the underprivileged". This is "so that RI can stand as hope for a better age for all Singaporeans", he added, borrowing the school's motto.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said: "We can create opportunities for teachers and students to mix by trying out collaborative lessons, shared syllabi and conducting co-curricular activities together.

"When you put students together, not for competition, but to learn from one another, it gives them space to form friendships and not remain culturally blind."

Prof Jason Tan said he was glad that RI has given out scholarships to the less well-off.

But he noted: "It's not as simple as covering students' costs. There are social intangibles that make students feel like they can't match up."

Prof Eugene Tan agreed: "If students from less well-off households feel they cannot fit in, no amount of scholarships will be sufficient."

Mr Sean Tsi, who left RI last year, said his schoolmates have reached out to various groups in society.

They have installed handlebars and ramps in the homes of the elderly, and alumni have raised money to fund scholarships for students from other schools, for instance.

But "we can sometimes get caught up with our academic or sports achievements", said the 19-year-old who will be studying medicine at the National University of Singapore this year.


This article was first published on Aug 06, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.