Archive for April, 2010

Diary of a reformed elitist

Apr 8, 2010

I AM as Rafflesian/Raffles Girls’ School (RGS)/’elite’ as they come. My father was a Raffles Institution boy; I went through Raffles Girls’ Primary School (RGPS), RGS, then Raffles Junior College, then on to the National University of Singapore, boarding at Raffles Hall. My sisters went through much the same route. My little girls are in RGPS.

I recognise the syndrome Ms Sandra Leong talks about (‘Scoring high in grades but not in values’, last Saturday). I live it, breathe it. Most of my friends are like me, graduates. Most of us live in landed property, condominiums or minimally, executive condos or five-room flats. None of us talks about making ends meet, or how we must turn down medical treatment for our aged parents because we cannot find the money.

But I will add to her essay: that those traits, that aura is not unique to RGS girls. It resonates within a social group, and its aspirants, the well educated or well endowed. I hang out with so many, I have stories by the barrel.

– My doctor friend, non-RGS and one would even say anti-RGS, was shocked when she found out how many As I got in my A levels, since I opted to do an arts degree. In her words, ‘I thought all arts people were dumb, that is why they go to arts’. Her own family boasts only doctors and lawyers – she said they would never contemplate any other profession – and by implication, all other professions are below those two.

– A church-mate who lived in a landed property in District 10 – definitely not an RGS girl, and I venture to guess, not even a graduate – once, in all sincerity and innocence, prayed for all those who had to take public transport and live in HDB flats, for God to give them strength to bear these trials.

– Another friend, also non-RGS and a non-graduate, shudders when she recounts the few months she lived in an HDB flat. And that was a five-room flat. Imagine the culture shock if she had lived in a three-room flat.

I continue to meet people who never visit hawker centres, who wonder why the poor people do not work harder to help themselves, who fret if their children do not get into the Gifted Education Programme (reserved for the top 1 per cent of nine-year-olds).

The pattern repeats itself in the next generation. When my 11-year-old had to go on a ‘race’ around Singapore, using only public transport, the teacher asked for a show of hands on how many had never taken public transport (bus and MRT) before. In a class of 30, five raised their hands. I think if the teacher had asked for those who had taken public transport fewer than 10 times in their young lives, the number would have more than doubled or tripled.

Many of us live in ivory towers. I know I did. I used to think Singapore was pretty much ‘it’ all – a fantastic meritocracy that allowed an ‘HDB child’ from a non-graduate family to make it. I boasted about our efficiency – ‘you can emerge from your plane and be out in 10 minutes’ – and so on.

It was not that I thought little of the rest of the world or other people; it was that I was so ensconced in my cocoon, I just thought little of anything outside my own zone. ‘Snow? Yes, nice.’ ‘Starvation in Ethiopia? Donate $50.’ The wonders of the world we lived in, the sufferings and joys of those who shared this earth were just academic knowledge to me, voraciously devoured for my essays or to hold intelligent conversations at dinner parties.

Then I lived in China for seven years. I looked on in amazement as the skinny tree trunk in front of my yard blossomed and bore pomegranates when spring thawed the ground. And marvelled at the lands that spread east, west, north and south of me as we drove and drove and drove, and never ended. I became friends and fans of colleagues and other Chinese nationals, whom so many Singapore friends had warned me to be wary of.

I realised it was not the world and other people who were limited in their intellect, in their determination, in their resourcefulness; it was me and my world views which were limited. I also know full well that if I had stayed in Singapore, in my cushy job, comfortable in my Bukit Timah home, I would have remained the same – self-sufficient. I had always believed that if I put my mind to it, I could achieve anything. For example, I used to look at sick people and root: ‘Fight with all your willpower, and you will recover.’ And when they did not, I’d think they had failed themselves. I, like Ms Leong, believed ‘mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue’.

But those years in China taught me terrible lessons on loneliness. I learnt that money (an expatriate pay package) and brains (suitcases of books) did not make me happier than my maid who cycled home to her family every night in minus 20 deg C on icy roads to a dinner of rice and vegetables. The past few years, I have known devastating loss and grief so deep I woke up in the morning and wondered how the sun could still shine and people could go on with their lives.

And so perhaps I have learnt the humility I lacked. Humility about how small I am in the whole schema of things. About how helpless I truly stand, with my intellect in my hands, with my million-dollar roof over my head. To remember, in the darkest valleys of my journey, it was not Ayn Rand or other Booker list authors who lifted me, but the phone calls, the kindness of strangers, that made each day a little less bleak.

And perhaps finally, to really see other people, and understand – not deflect, nor reflect their anger and viewpoints, but see their shyness, pain, struggles, joys. Just because I was ‘fortunate enough’ to have trawled the bottom levels. And perhaps that is the antidote to the oft unwitting elitism so many of us carry with us.

Sim Soek Tien (Ms)

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April 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm 1 comment

Scoring high in grades but not in values

Elite school students who never mix with others lose perspective

Apr 3, 2010

By Sandra Leong

OVER the past two weeks, the words ‘meritocracy’ and ‘elitism’ have stirred feelings of loyalty, indignation and dismay all at once.

Just ask the old boys of St Joseph’s Institution (SJI), who have been making a very public case for and against the lowering of the school’s entry requirements to enable more students from its feeder schools to make the cut.

Meritocracy must prevail, argues one camp. Easing entry requirements will only cause academic standards to slip. But SJI must not become elitist, counters the rival camp. Boys from the Christian Brothers’ schools, based on that affiliation alone, should qualify.

The imbroglio once again puts the focus on the uneasy relationship between meritocracy and elitism. A cynical take is that the race to the top will always leave behind stragglers, and those who cross the line first are bound to look down on their weaker counterparts. Given this attitude, it does not surprise me that some SJI alumni are campaigning fiercely against the ‘E’ word.

I attended Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) and Raffles Junior College (RJC), both elite institutions. I confess that as a young adult, I was conceited and felt unsympathetic to the world around me. These days, when people ask me what is my alma mater, I often say I’m a Rafflesian – but a ‘recovering’ one.

Before I incur the wrath of Rafflesians past and present, let me say I am grateful for the all-rounded education I received. Way before the term ‘holistic learning’ became a Ministry of Education catchphrase, my $300-a-month secondary school fees in RGS paid for classes in speech and drama, etiquette and philosophy.

My teachers did not teach us to be snobs. But neither did they teach us not to be snobs. As a Rafflesian, one never spoke in terms of examination pass rates. It was the number of As one got that signified one’s mettle.

We felt entitled to big things in a merit-driven society where mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue. We felt so because we had trumped the system, even if it was the ‘system’ that had allowed us to get this far in the first place.

Intellectual snobbery can be a scary thing. A running joke when I was sitting for the A-level examinations in RJC was that the National University of Singapore law faculty half consisted of Rafflesians. The other half came from ‘students from OJ’ – other junior colleges.

I did not have a single friend from a neighbourhood school. In our world, we did not see a need to venture beyond what we knew.

Many of my friends came from rich families and lived in the Orchard or Bukit Timah areas. I remember a then 15-year-old friend asking me where I lived.

‘Siglap,’ I said. She asked quizzically: ‘That’s where all the Malays live right?’

I never learnt that failure was sometimes an unavoidable option. Two years ago, I sank into a funk when I did not get a scholarship. A non-Rafflesian friend jolted me to my senses when he asked: ‘How many people even get to think about doing a master’s?’

Growing up this way, you lose perspective. You forget that you belong to a privileged minority, that in the real world there are those for whom a C grade (and not an S-paper distinction) represents the pinnacle of academic achievement – but who may be wiser in many ways than the academically gifted.

It was only when I left the comforts of my flock that I realised how close-minded I was. Unlike some of my peers, I did not win a scholarship or study overseas. I studied at Nanyang Technological University, where classmates told me they were initially wary of me because I was a ‘Raffles girl’.

I learnt that brandishing my elite school background, from the way I spoke ‘proper English’ to wearing my RJC physical education T-shirt around my hostel, rubbed people the wrong way. I learnt there were other ways to win respect without riding on the coat-tails of a brand-name education.

My work as a journalist also quickly brought me crashing down to earth. Loftiness goes out of the window when you have to talk to everyone from politicians to cancer patients to victims of natural disaster.

I hasten to add that for every misguided smart-aleck I encountered among Rafflesians, there were others who were humble and well-adjusted. Still, an Old Rafflesians’ Association president once quoted in this paper defined the Rafflesian character as ‘predominantly achievement-oriented and goal-driven’ – traits I dare say which tend to create a type of ultra-competitiveness that leaves little room for empathy and humility in the absence of a countervailing value-system.

Many of my schoolmates went on to become civil servants, lawyers, bankers and doctors. They keep to the same small social circle they grew up in, married within it and will probably wish the same life for their offspring as well.

I’m not saying they grew up into mean-spirited, Ayn-Rand spouting adults just because they excelled in what they did. The pursuit of intellectual excellence is a virtue that our educational system quite correctly promotes. But the pursuit of intellectual excellence to the exclusion of character or value excellence breeds an exclusionary attitude to the rest of society. Many of the products of our top schools forget they have to give back to the society that allowed them so many opportunities.

It is especially worrying when the exclusionary attitudes bred in school become accepted life values. You judge success using markers that only you and your like-minded friends agree upon. For example, my unmarried girl friends tell me they will never date a man without a degree, a car or a ‘respectable’ job – and they are entirely unapologetic about it.

These are people who live for years without having to step outside their comfort zone, leading a bubble-wrapped existence.

The sooner that wrap is removed, the better.

sandral@sph.com.sg

April 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm 2 comments


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