Our “meritocracy” is failing and it’s time to acknowledge it.

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Aptitude testing does nothing to address pernicious stereotypes that have existed in the Singaporean education system since time immemorial, and does little to address the systemic flaws of  Singapore’s brand of meritocracy. 

The government is now committed to aptitude-testing for polytechnics and ITEs. In principle, I believe aptitude testing is a laudable method of assessment. The Minister of Education, Ong Ye Kung, has recently announced his intention to extend aptitude-based admissions to polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

what is the government doing about the ever-present stigmas (concerning the JC-Poly-ITE divide)?

However, the question that crosses my mind is: what is the government doing about the ever-present stigmas associated with all three categories of schooling? For that matter, what is the government doing about the stigmas that exist within each sub-category?

What are these stigmas? Let me provide an example: “If you’re from RI/HCI, you must be smart, hardworking and talented. If you’re from YJC/MI , you’re from JC but you’re not quite the same as the 6-point-and-below breed. People from poly are street smart, but not very academically bright. ITE is where all the gangsters and people who fail their O levels go.”

These are all negative stereotypes that I do not agree with. My purpose is not to demean any school, but to highlight existing social attitudes. We know these stereotypes by heart and worse, we know people who actually believe and live by them. Remember Wee Shu Min? Society may have vanquished one Wee Shu Min but that does not mean we have conquered elitism. Far from it – it’s ingrained in all of us.

We forget how privileged one is to be born into wealth..

Our education system assumes those who have achieved ‘success’ achieved it because they deserved it.  It is easy for some people to forget how privileged they are to be born into wealth, or to have parents who can afford give them tuition when they are lagging behind, or provide them with the necessary guidance to get into the GEP program, or even to buy them the right books to read. They are fortunate that they can go on holidays, and travel the world to broaden their horizons. To put it simply, they were intentionally primed for success.

On the other hand, their middle income friends never had these luxuries. Their parents didn’t finish secondary school, let alone university. Hence, they may not appreciate the value of higher education, and had neither the means nor the knowledge to guide their children towards opportunities in an education system unfamiliar to them. These students didn’t go for enrichment classes or tuition classes. They had ‘ordinary’ childhoods that weren’t laden with privilege. They were unintentionally primed for “mediocrity” in our system.

Their poor friends could never really compete. While the middle-income friends didn’t have much privileges, they at least had a non-broken home free from abuse and want of necessities. The never had to experience coming home from school everyday to a flat their family did not own, or make a choice between having light/running water or having food. Some children’s homes are so dysfunctional they’d rather sleep in the HDB playground or void deck. They were unintentionally primed for “failure”.

When you compare the privilege of the “haves” and “have-nots”, it is so easy to see who is much more likely to succeed. Its so obscene that, apparently, one can even pay for people to prepare them for PSC scholarship interviews. Does this sound like something the son of a chicken rice hawker can afford? For those who were given all the extra support from the home, does this really make them very special, very successful or just very privileged?

The existence of the stereotypes distort the realities of the “meritocratic” process in Singapore. These stereotypes induce society to make the wrong kinds of value judgements on its members and incorrectly award opportunities – either by failing to award opportunities to those who would have merited it but for their circumstances or by awarding those who succeeded only by virtue of their circumstances. Essentially, we are losing much of our talent by failing to recognize them.

We need to get rid of the mentality that you’re either from this school or that school or you’re a disgrace.

I find it very very sad that we write people off based on the school they went to. Each one of us has a lot to offer to our society and to be rejected so categorically on such a superficial note is enormously crushing to the human spirit. This is not even about second chances, just because someone didn’t go to an elite school does not mean they need a “second chance” – they didn’t do anything wrong! We need to get rid of the mentality that you’re either from this school or that school or you’re a disgrace.

Furthermore, the government’s role in relation to this false stereotyping is extremely severe. Almost none of us would be willing to touch ITE with a 10 foot pole, if we had a choice – not because it is a bad place, but because of the stigma attached to it. We’re talking about an educational institute that the government has repeatedly thrown millions of dollars into developing and has infrastructural facilities that put some 6-point JCs to shame.

What is the government doing about this systemic problem? Surely they must be aware of the problem, since this kind of stereotyping existed before you and I were born. Perhaps they don’t see it as a problem or a problem that is not their problem. If so, then they are very wrong, for this problem is a very pervasive by-product of the education system they created. Perhaps when you are right at the top of the “pyramid scheme” you created, it is unsurprising that you would be unwilling to come down.

It is also very telling that the same kind of stereotypical value judgements seem to form the basis of candidate selection for the establishment. After all, virtually all their MPs-elect are the story of “Singaporean success”. It is not surprising then that they created a country for the “successful”, and not the “ordinary” – they created a country which is meritocratic only at face value.

It does not matter how much aptitude testing we adopt if we don’t address the fundamental problems with society’s perceptions. If we don’t learn that respecting others is not in anyway tied to the school that person attended or how well he did in school, we will forever be stuck in an educational and societal rut. If we are truly committed to providing opportunities to our youth, we have to move past the JC-Poly-ITE mental divide.

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