TL;DR – The problem is if going schools like RI is the only way to be an elite.
The principal of RI, Mr Frederick Yeo, is trying to “debunk” the view that RI is an “elite school”.
It is apparently at the top of the school’s agenda. My Yeo said,
“We want people to move away from this mindset… Once you use the word elite, you divide, you separate, you segregate. And I think that is totally unhelpful.”
“The view that RI is a school for students from upper middle class families is a myth.”
That contradicts what Mr Chan Poh Meng, the principal of RI before Mr Yeo, said in 2015.
Former RI principal was right that RI is a “middle-class” school
In 2015, Mr Chan said that RI is a “middle-class” school that now largely caters to the affluent segment of the population. It also risks becoming insular, cocooned by the glowing list of academic and sporting achievements its students have racked up year after year.
Mr Chan pointed out that RI is no longer what many alumni remember it to be in the past, with many students coming from diverse family and socio-economic background. Mr Chan went as far as highlighting that:
“(RI) can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore”
“A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face. RI has become a middle-class school – that is the current reality.”
I think that Mr Chan is right. And if Mr Yeo truly believes that it’s a myth that RI is a school for students form upper middle class families, then he is quite deluded. I don’t have the statistics, but I’m quite sure that a disproportionate number of students in RI live in private property and have parents who are university graduates.
That reflects a bigger fault in our system
And there in lies the problem – that RI’s students are mainly from upper middle class families.
Not that RI is an elite school. This is not where the problem lies.
There is nothing wrong in being an elite school.
In the case of RI, it is an elite school in that it selects students who have the best abilities in academics, sports and the arts. Few students in RI are admitted for being average at what they do. But there are enough financial support schemes to ensure that nobody who is qualified to study at RI will be rejected on the basis of affordability.
Unfortunately, because children from families with higher social economic statuses (SES) have more resources for developing talent and additional tuition, it is far easier for them to be admitted to RI. That is a failure of the system of testing, streaming and competition to get into certain schools, not of RI.
Including our system of meritocracy
That failure of our system of testing and streaming is exacerbated by a very big problem with our system of meritocracy – we define merit very narrowly.
In our system, merit is often defined as the ability to do well in standardised national examinations, then going on to get a degree in a reputable course (e.g. engineering, medicine, law) from a world-class university, often on a government scholarship. If you can’t do that, then it’s very unlikely that you will become part of the elite.
Taken together, it means that children from lower SES will find it difficult to grow up to be part of the elite. And if we don’t make fundamental changes to our policies, in education and in other areas, children from lower SES will find it increasingly difficult to grow up to be part of the elite.
Those are the real challenges that we should be working to tackle.
Not whether RI is elite or not.