Scoring high in grades but not in values

Elite school students who never mix with others lose perspective

By Sandra Leong
03 April 2010

Over the past two weeks, the words ‘meritocracy’ and ‘elitism’ have stirred feelings of loyalty, indignation and dismay all at once.

Just ask the old boys of St Joseph’s Institution (SJI), who have been making a very public case for and against the lowering of the school’s entry requirements to enable more students from its feeder schools to make the cut.

Meritocracy must prevail, argues one camp. Easing entry requirements will only cause academic standards to slip. But SJI must not become elitist, counters the rival camp. Boys from the Christian Brothers’ schools, based on that affiliation alone, should qualify.

The imbroglio once again puts the focus on the uneasy relationship between meritocracy and elitism. A cynical take is that the race to the top will always leave behind stragglers, and those who cross the line first are bound to look down on their weaker counterparts. Given this attitude, it does not surprise me that some SJI alumni are campaigning fiercely against the ‘E’ word.

I attended Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) and Raffles Junior College (RJC), both elite institutions. I confess that as a young adult, I was conceited and felt unsympathetic to the world around me. These days, when people ask me what is my alma mater, I often say I’m a Rafflesian – but a ‘recovering’ one.

Before I incur the wrath of Rafflesians past and present, let me say I am grateful for the all-rounded education I received. Way before the term ‘holistic learning’ became a Ministry of Education catchphrase, my $300-a-month secondary school fees in RGS paid for classes in speech and drama, etiquette and philosophy.

My teachers did not teach us to be snobs. But neither did they teach us not to be snobs. As a Rafflesian, one never spoke in terms of examination pass rates. It was the number of As one got that signified one’s mettle.

We felt entitled to big things in a merit-driven society where mental dexterity equated strength of character and virtue. We felt so because we had trumped the system, even if it was the ‘system’ that had allowed us to get this far in the first place.

Intellectual snobbery can be a scary thing. A running joke when I was sitting for the A-level examinations in RJC was that the National University of Singapore law faculty half consisted of Rafflesians. The other half came from ‘students from OJ’ – other junior colleges.

I did not have a single friend from a neighbourhood school. In our world, we did not see a need to venture beyond what we knew.

Many of my friends came from rich families and lived in the Orchard or Bukit Timah areas. I remember a then 15-year-old friend asking me where I lived.

‘Siglap,’ I said. She asked quizzically: ‘That’s where all the Malays live right?’

I never learnt that failure was sometimes an unavoidable option. Two years ago, I sank into a funk when I did not get a scholarship. A non-Rafflesian friend jolted me to my senses when he asked: ‘How many people even get to think about doing a master’s?’

Growing up this way, you lose perspective. You forget that you belong to a privileged minority, that in the real world there are those for whom a C grade (and not an S-paper distinction) represents the pinnacle of academic achievement – but who may be wiser in many ways than the academically gifted.

It was only when I left the comforts of my flock that I realised how close-minded I was. Unlike some of my peers, I did not win a scholarship or study overseas. I studied at Nanyang Technological University, where classmates told me they were initially wary of me because I was a ‘Raffles girl’.

I learnt that brandishing my elite school background, from the way I spoke ‘proper English’ to wearing my RJC physical education T-shirt around my hostel, rubbed people the wrong way. I learnt there were other ways to win respect without riding on the coat-tails of a brand-name education.

My work as a journalist also quickly brought me crashing down to earth. Loftiness goes out of the window when you have to talk to everyone from politicians to cancer patients to victims of natural disaster.

I hasten to add that for every misguided smart-aleck I encountered among Rafflesians, there were others who were humble and well-adjusted. Still, an Old Rafflesians’ Association president once quoted in this paper defined the Rafflesian character as ‘predominantly achievement-oriented and goal-driven’ – traits I dare say which tend to create a type of ultra-competitiveness that leaves little room for empathy and humility in the absence of a countervailing value-system.

Many of my schoolmates went on to become civil servants, lawyers, bankers and doctors. They keep to the same small social circle they grew up in, married within it and will probably wish the same life for their offspring as well.

I’m not saying they grew up into mean-spirited, Ayn-Rand spouting adults just because they excelled in what they did. The pursuit of intellectual excellence is a virtue that our educational system quite correctly promotes. But the pursuit of intellectual excellence to the exclusion of character or value excellence breeds an exclusionary attitude to the rest of society. Many of the products of our top schools forget they have to give back to the society that allowed them so many opportunities.

It is especially worrying when the exclusionary attitudes bred in school become accepted life values. You judge success using markers that only you and your like-minded friends agree upon. For example, my unmarried girl friends tell me they will never date a man without a degree, a car or a ‘respectable’ job – and they are entirely unapologetic about it.

These are people who live for years without having to step outside their comfort zone, leading a bubble-wrapped existence.

The sooner that wrap is removed, the better.

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