Successful must give back to society

In nudging the Raffles Institution fraternity to reflect on itself recently, principal Chan Poh Meng served as an exemplar for the kind of school leader society needs more of - a principled educator with the gumption to speak up openly about social trends and values. One could avoid controversy by remaining within the safer confines of school administration, benchmark-based educational outcomes and established school traditions. But such a principal is hardly likely to teach his young charges that education is more than just the acquisition of desired credentials - it's also "the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another", as writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton put it.

That view of education might hardly be embraced by parents supporting their children's quest for gilt-edged degrees from elite colleges abroad, often linked with social networks deemed useful for career-building. Carrying price tags of $200,000 to $400,000, as reported recently, such an education is clearly out of the reach of those from heartland households even if they have made the cut thanks to their innate abilities and first-rate training in a brand-name school like RI. Not that there are many Rafflesians who are heartlanders these days. Mr Chan rightly noted it is now a middle-class school as, among other things, "gatekeeping examinations are no longer the level playing field that they once were".

The middle-class profile of a school is not a bad thing in itself when it mirrors the nature of society as a whole. But it's worrying when it's the consequence of a closed circle of the privileged piling multiple advantages on their young to widen the gap between them and others.

To help tackle elitism, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam argued two years ago for not just a broader but also a "continuous meritocracy". Gratifyingly, there are now visible efforts to nurture diversity in educational institutions - like National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's broader admission criteria, which have drawn more polytechnic graduates and students from non-elite junior colleges.

Mr Chan was also spot on in arguing that those who have enjoyed the benefit of the best educational opportunities should feel a sense of duty to connect with others and give back to society with gratitude. In a similar vein, then US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told Princeton's graduates two years ago that the "only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair" is when those who have been lucky enough to have a host of privileges "contribute to the betterment of the world". To pull up the drawbridge and simply enjoy the ample fruits of their success is unacceptable. That's a form of elitism that would indeed diminish the soul of Singapore society.

This article was first published on Aug 12, 2015.
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