I will be honest: as a member of the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) consortium in my school, I have sometimes used my “GEP status” while conversing in an attempt to assert my dominance over others. While I believe that this form of bragging amongst friends is merely harmless banter, this subconscious attitude can sometimes, intentionally or not, manifest in our interactions with others, and can be easily taken as elitist arrogance. Inevitably, there have been such blatant cases of elitism that resulted in public uproars, such as Wee Shu Min’s notorious controversy in 2006, as well as the various scornful comments made by RJC students when an “elite” RGS student was discovered to be dating a boy from an under-achieving neighbourhood school in 2004.
As a result of these various malicious elitist attitudes that were deservedly criticised, there has been endless controversy surrounding the Singapore education system, with many condemning it for engendering this elitist attitude in students – with good reason as well.
Meritocracy is intrinsic in Singapore’s education system, and it is the very root of elitism. It tells us that success is based on our own merits; that anyone can achieve if they have the ability, the gumption, and the diligence. At a glance, this may seem fair and just, but if we delve deeper, it is clear that meritocracy and elitism are inextricably linked. For instance, students who did well for the PSLE and get into a “top” school would believe that they deserve to be there, and that they are entitled to their success. Conversely, students who do not do well would believe that they lack academic merit and deserve their mediocrity. This creates a growing chasm between the winners of meritocracy and the masses, and may breed a “smarter-than-thou” attitude, since the elite would believe that they are inherently superior in terms of merit than the rest.
In addition, the streaming system in Singapore’s education system also reinforces the social divide among students. Students are streamed into different classes based on their ability as early as primary 4 due to the GEP. By segregating students based on their academic ability from young, students often remain in their respective streams throughout their schooling years. More often than not, the students in the “better” streams are showered with better resources, facilities, teachers and learning environments. As such, students might be led into the belief that they are more special than students in other academic streams, developing a superior attitude.
At the same time, that is not to say that we should completely eradicate the streaming system, for separating students according to their learning needs might still be best for different learners. Fostering cohesion among students from different academic streams should not come at the expense of the streaming system itself. We see this in Nanhua Primary’s Twinning Programme, where students from the GEP and mainstream are put together in a form class to learn, as well as the Pathlight Satellite @ Chong Boon, a collaboration between Pathlight school and Chong Boon Secondary to foster student integration. It is possible to avoid the breeding of elitism while maintaining this streaming system, but our education system needs to actively foster student integrations, and prevent these success stories of collaboration from degenerating into isolated cases.
The Community Involvement Programme (CIP) in all schools can also be considered as an approach to soften the elitist mindset of students. It is compulsory for students to serve the community through various activities, so that students are conscious of their responsibilities to society, and understand that no matter where they stand, they have a fundamental duty to help others, instead of mocking and looking down on them. Consequently, this might help to deflate the air of superiority that some students may have. However, a gaping flaw of CIP is that most students do not take CIP seriously at all, regarding it as a mere cumbrance and misunderstand the purpose of the programme, merely aiming to meet the most basic requirement of hours. This programme of the Singapore education system does not curb the problem of elitism if students merely meet the hours required to pass and walk away “scot-free”.
Indeed, why does “elitism” have such a negative connotation? It is not because we are simply indignant on the victim’s behalf – rather, it is because the discrimination reveals a disappointing and detestable character flaw in the “elite”: the people with the most prerequisites to be successful in the future. As such, the criticism of the education system should not be that it “breeds elitism”, but in its failure to develop and nurture students into kind, compassionate people with a desire to help others.
But can we really pin the blame on the education system for that?