This is part II of my three part special on the topic of education. If you notice the titles of the entries, all of them has a question mark to them, which means, that it is not a statement but rather, a question. And how you view, know, determine and answer it, is all up each and every individual. Portions of the article below is taken off the net in bits and pieces and I have also added some of my own thoughts as well. Please do read it with an open mind.

Part II – Elitism In The Education System ?

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In Part I, Education – A Pursuit Of Certification & Grades?, I posted about the state of education nowadays and how I’ve felt, read, and seen it has became over the years. I posted that it has leaned more towards certification and grades and no longer about the basics of essential learning and knowledge anymore.

And at the end of that article, I’ve stated that upon popular belief, one of the reasons on what the education system has became and also how it can come to this state, is partly due of the presence of ‘elitism’ in our education system. If you’re unaware of that term, let me repeat yet again and put it to you in a single line.

The term Elitism comes from the word Elite which means —> A class of people enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.

Over the past years, the issue of the existence of elitism in education has been brought upon to light in both online and offline media and also through word of mouth. And of course, in 2006, the Wee Shu Min elitism controversy sparked a public outrage and backlash.

A lot of people believed the controversy served as an evidence that Singapore’s education system was suffering from increasing signs that political elitism, “smarter-than-thou” snobbery and class consciousness anxiety were creeping into its meritocracy model, a widening social stratification that will cause long-term implications for Singaporean society, and problems in the education system that need to be addressed.

The controversy was subsequently raised and hotly debated again in the opening session of the parliament meeting by a fellow MP, who pointed out that elitism was now an open secret in several aspects of Singapore society, including education, the military and the civil service, commenting that it is necessary to break down the institution of snobbery within our society

In response, a neighbourhood schoolgirl then blogged about her opinion of students from prestigious institutions, claiming that people from the so called elite schools often make snobbish remarks and look down on students from neighbourhood schools. It only created more controversy and response. And over the years, it has simply refused to die down.

There’s been countless of online debates, discussions, forums, articles and also news reports that focus on this issue. And of course, early last year, the infamous Samantha and her remarks about Holland V presents and signifies the case even more. While that has really nothing to do with the education system, a lot agreed that it shows and potrays the attitude and thoughts of an elitist all so well. Since then, many people noticed and realised that elitism is happening in almost everywhere in this country, not just education.

In Singapore’s context, the definition of an elite appears to be one who has attended top secondary and post secondary institutions, won prestigious government scholarships and armed with a top class honours degree. Some of these people might or might not come from rich families, but if the “elite” came from a rich family, the damnation goes up one notch, I suppose.

While growing up and in my schooling years, I too have come across people from proper and high upbringing who looked down at the average or poor heartlanders and find their antics very amusing, rritating and not pleasing to the eye and made degrading remarks about them. And of course, it always works both ways. The latter have no love lost for the former as well.

While it’s disturbing to know that this crutch mentality and class differences seemed to have found its way into our society, it’s also good to know on why it happened. I read an article published online by the Straits Times that in 2008, only 47% of Public Service Commission scholarship recipients goes to who lived in HDB houses. Some 27% of that scholarship are in private, non-landed property and the other 26% live in landed property.

Which means that if my mathematics is correct, about 53% of Public Service Commission scholarships go to those who live in private property. While there is general acquiescence that these scholarships are indeed awarded on the basis of academic performance and individual achievement alone, the preponderance of the socially privileged among them merits scrutiny.

These students largely hail from the cream of the crop of schools and have benefited from the various schemes that cater to the academically talented, such as the Education Ministry’s Gifted Education Programme. Their dominant social status arising from higher household incomes suggests that they possess the cultural capital required to ‘make it’ in life, as nurtured by their parents who are likely to have attained qualifications at the tertiary level.

In their scholastic journey, this group of students are likely to be enrolled in the Integrated Programme where, since 2004, they have been allowed to bypass the O-level examinations, in favour of taking the A Levels at the end of a six-year course.

This is a manifestation of greater elitism being built into the education system, where the same elite minority continue to receive value added education throughout their schooling years at the expense of vast amounts of public funds. As a result, Singapore’s education system, which has always been held up as a model of social mobility for all, is attenuated because one group benefits from a distinct advantage over the others. The public perception that there is an inherent link between students from wealthier households and high academic achievement is pervasive.

Over the years, there have also been concerns about the attitudes of these students who are among the best and brightest and who are likely to secure positions of pre-eminence in society in the future. The reason for this stems from the fact that there have been several scholars who are known to have broken their government bonds in favour of more lucrative job offers, which smacks of individualistic competition and selfishness, among other factors.

There is the danger of a dichotomy developing in an increasingly stratified Singapore society, exacerbated by widening income gaps where the mentality of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ prevails.

While I do understand that elitism can have negative connotations, this entry was not meant to discuss elitism in that light. While you can read and understand more in detailed here, the reason why I am revisting and discussing the elitism issue here is simply because I find the entire debate about elitism to be over a very narrow definition.

Whatever it is, grumbling about elitism is a futile exercise because no matter where one is, elitism is bound to manifest itself. The only difference is the form of manifestation that it takes on. In Singapore, our society is built on the basis of meritocracy, and therefore the elites are those who are able to show measurable achievements. In other words, most of the elites in Singapore are created by the effort of the individual.

I believe that there is a distinction between elite and elitism. Elitism is a derogatory term. Elitism is the belief or attitude that the people who are considered to be the elite are the people whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously, or that these are persons whose views should be regarded as carrying the most weight, or, more simply, these people are best fit to govern or whose views and/or actions are mostly likely to be constructive.

It has more to do with the mindset of arrogance. Thus when people grumble about elitism, I believe it’s not that there is an elite per say, but because of the attitude of the elite, a fact that’s been the problem with the education system.

The point here, is all societies have a group of people which the society deems to be elite. I am not sure if this is natural, but it is certainly the truth. The problem with elitism in a society, is the definition of an “elite”. In Singapore, our definition of an elite is certainly superior over countries where elitism is conferred on the basis of some physical attribute. At least a person who aspires to join the ranks of the elite has an opportunity to do so.

Singapore’s definition of elitism, although superior to some of our neighbours, is still too narrow in my opinion. We place far too much emphasis on hallmarks of formal education in defining our elite. As an example, a hawker might not have much formal education, but does this necessarily mean that he/she is less capable than a graduate? I think not. There are many graduates struggling to land jobs, while there are many hawkers who can afford to drive a Mercedes.

I think that for the good of our society, we should expand our definition of elitism. The hawker, having little formal education, might not be able to articulate his/her thoughts and opinions as well as a graduate. However, the difference probably ends there. In terms of producing measurable results, a hawker might not necessary be inferior. We need to get out of the mindset that only graduates are capable of doing things.

Perhaps Singapore can start revising its definition of elitism by starting with our parliament. I presume that each and every Member of Parliament can be considered an elite, since they are leaders of our country. But seriously, are doctors, economists and lawyers the only groups of people intelligent enough to lead our country? Are we so biased towards certain groups that we confer them the elite status while blinding ourselves to the potential of others ? Or perhaps, is it true that if you are not an elite, you could not change a thing here. Ain’t that sad ?

Meritocracy has been tampered by the powers that be. It resulted in a certain mode of thinkers, who eventually become the movers and shakers of the world, to dictate its agendas. The rests, aligned in supportive roles unable to divorce from economic realities, mostly become willing participant. Disdain for the poor is the hidden danger that lurks in meritocracy.

The problem here is beyond domestic. It will take a different breed of people to set a new course. Elitism is good only when the elites give back and care for the society.

The question is, do the present elites really understand that? Or are they just more worried or concerned about themselves ?

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I believed that the conformist system has to change in order to change and mould the general mindset and thinking of the masses. And of course, as we all are aware, in education, the role of a teacher played a heavy role in nurturing the thinking process of the students from young. It is a truly noble job. But as with every other profession, some people just do it for the money and not for the passion. And some people thought they got the passion to do it, but got an extreme shock when reality bit them hard later on.

I read an article lately about a senior teacher who wrote in to Lianhe Wanbao some time ago, of an fresh NIE trained teacher who studied in an elite school but was assigned to teach in a normal neighbourhood school instead. After a few days, he got a supreme culture shock. He immediately asked for a transfer due to the fact that he couldnt fit in. Well, as much as I would like to continue on, I shall reserve it for the next installment – Part III. So please do stay tuned for part III which will be posted soon aitez. Thank you for reading.

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