I was born in a country hailed as an economic miracle, a country whose skyscrapers lit up the night sky, glittering with the inexhaustible promise that hard work and hard work alone was the determinant of success. And I grew up in that very same country whose original ideals of meritocracy became increasingly unrecognizable, where success started becoming something that you were born with rather than something you earned. The phenomenon of the disenfranchised middle and lower classes rebelling against the choking privilege of the glitzy upper class is perhaps best captured at this very instant in the form of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s “revolution” against a crippled education system that can no longer be said to be representative or inclusive of the people who most need it — those who have been left behind even as society moves forward. It is a symbolic struggle that doesn’t augur well for the state of America, or the rest of the world for that matter.
Singapore has certainly not been shy about touting its education system as a triumphant bastion of meritocracy, one that assures equality of opportunity for all, regardless of class or resources. Yet, as prominent critics such as oft cited sociology professor Dr Teo You Yenn have pointed out, meritocracy has increasingly evolved into a game with a set of different rules for the rich and the poor. To quote observations cited by Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, “Meritocracy has become … a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy”. It can be argued that education has thus become one of the primary bifurcating forces within our society that have sequestered its participants into an increasingly hierarchical society (Teo You Yenn, 2018) and sharply deepened class divides.
Traditionally, hard work in the education system was seen to yield reciprocal results corresponding to the amount of effort put in. This has paved the way for the mentality that systemic inequality is justified, and that those who fail to advance up the academic and corporate ladder deserve their inferior position (Channel NewsAsia, 2018). Such a blinkered paradigm, however, fails to account for inherited social capital that flows freely across generations as the newly minted nouveau riche of the 20th century use their wealth to generate even more wealth for their children. Gateways to further heights of success such as The Ivy League through schools such as Raffles or Hwa Chong (The Wall Street Journal, 2004) are noted to have a disproportionate amount of students from the top one percent in society — with students of similar socioeconomic advantages naturally congregating together in the same elite echelons of the education system (The Straits Times, 2020).
The reasons for the above are essentially twofold. Structurally, rich parents can afford to spend more — and this is seen in the sickening ballooning of the private tuition industry to S$1.4 billion as of latest statistics, with the top 20 percent of income earners spending on average nearly four times the amount forked out by the lowest 20 percent (The Straits Times, 2019). Inter alia, this has manifested in a widening and drastic performance gap between the haves and the have-nots in society (Teo You Yenn, 2018) that plays out in a clear causal link towards better academic certifications and thus better jobs and income, and a perpetuation of the whole cycle all over again. Education has essentially become modern warfare without swords or guns.
But secondly, and just as pertinently, the “education arms race” has begun to open up a second front in “non-marks” competition, much similar to the non-price competition of monopolistic firms, where there are an indistinguishable number of similarly qualified individuals, all of whom bear identical academic achievements. Credentials such as internships are now the new key to success, with applicants struggling after them in order to stand out. Of course, given the more well-placed or managerial positions of wealthy parents, there are no awards to be won for guessing who are better poised for securing such CV enhancements. While students from lower income households often have to juggle part time jobs along with their studies, their peers are going for highly expensive classes on how to ace their university entrance exams, scholarship interviews, as well as tackling psychometric tests (Channel NewsAsia, 2018). The contrast has never been starker.
With the disadvantaged failing on both counts of the game, it is apparent to see how the current education model that we have been following cannot remain rigid, but must adapt to grow with the times. I am not saying that we should abandon meritocracy, but rather, we must improve it so that it can remain accessible to all. After all, meritocracy cannot survive without inclusion. What then, can be done? In the words of Markovits, we must ensure that “education—whose benefits are concentrated in the extravagantly trained children of rich parents—becomes open and inclusive”. The buzz phrase thus becomes “the public option”. It becomes a driving imperative for us to provide a public option available in the form of education, to make it such that our public schools are able to provide all with laudable enrichment experiences such that one does not need tuition to advance.
It must be one of our goals as a school and a nation to limit our idiosyncratic reliance on tuition, to curb the destructive prevalence of the tuition industry. Lodestars such as Victoria’s very own President’s Scholar Siow Mein Yeak point the way to how every one of us can make a difference in the education system by helping those who are less fortunate than us. In an interview with the Straits Times, he revealed that he was a regular volunteer in support of various causes, including helping children with special needs appreciate nature. In his words, “I realized that serving a cause greater than myself and doing my part for Singapore was what I wanted to do in life”.
It is essential for us to foster a spirit of humility and give back to society as it can help ensure a more equitable distribution of academic resources. It can be as simple as donating used textbooks and notes to others in our community. Just one small action that means a world of difference to those on the receiving end.
We must make our institutions work for us, not just for a select group in society. We must make it so that our education system can truly be a passport to the future for all, not just the rich and powerful. Only then can we recapture that greatest of all dreams with the same audacity of hope that one does not need to be rich to succeed in this land. Liberté égalité fraternité.
Kelvin Hong Jun Hao, 19A12
Fong; Lim, 2019. (Channel NewsAsia). Commentary: Can education fix inequality in Singapore? If not, what can? Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/can-education-fix-growing-inequality-in-singapore-10308796
Markovits, 2019. (The Atlantic). Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/meritocracys-miserable-winners/594760/
Jagdish, 2018. (Channel NewsAsia). Universal welfare and saying ‘no’ to tuition: Teo You Yenn goes On the Record about inequality. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/teo-you-yenn-this-is-what-inequality-looks-like-on-the-record-10246872
The Straits Times, 2019. Tuition is not an educational end. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/st-editorial/tuition-is-not-an-educational-end
Wee, 2018. (Channel NewsAsia). Commentary: A second education arms race may be on the horizon. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/education-arms-race-on-the-horizon-with-chase-for-qualifications-10133790
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