Education, Poetry


Every school is a good school
but some are (Independent).
Every school is a good school
but some are for descendants.

Every school is a good school
but some have balls and formals.
Every school is a good school
but some are not (Normal).

Every school is a good school
but some are (Higher Chinese).
Every school is a good school
unless you atas Chinese.

Every school is a good school
but few breed White on White.
“Every school is a good school.”
This helps them sleep at night.



In the last few months, a lot of attention has been on inequality in Singapore, prompted, I believe, by this book, “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”  written by Teo You Yenn and a social-studies guidebook that was criticised for describing a reality that we would rather not see so nakedly.

Coming off the back of the political upheaval across the Causeway in Malaysia, where the ruling BN got the boot after being in in-charge for eternity and a day, there has been a lot of nervous reflection and ironic protestation by the establishment of how inequality is poison and must not be allowed to sully the Singapore Dream.

What is this Singapore Dream? It’s one of the core stories we tell ourselves: “meritocracy”.

It’s a bit like the American Dream, but with a fatalistic twist.

It’s the concept that success comes as a result of hard work AND talent. And this talent is something innate – you are born with it and can’t really change it.

And when seen in reverse, it also justifies the people at the top of the social and political pecking order – they got there through hard work and innate abilities – the natural aristocracy that demands respect and deference. And, on the flip side, if you are at the bottom of the pecking order, it is due to your bad life-choices AND lack of talent, a toxic mixture of blame and acceptance.

Education is lauded as the mechanism by which meritocracy makes its magic.

This deterministic mindset is seen in an educational system that carefully sifts and filters students from as early as Primary 3 (age 9+) into different streams and different schools. And once you are shunted down an inferior track (euphemistically named Foundation and Normal), it’s tough to claw your way back up.

Add to this is the fact that students from lower socio-economic-status (SES) families are grossly under-represented in the better streams and schools.

Of course, you’ll never find such data in public domain. But just stand outside the gates of any top (Gifted-Education Programme, Express Stream-only, Independent, Special Assistant Plan, Integrated Programme, International Baccalaureate) school and count the BMWs, Mercedez-Benzes, Maseratis and Porsches. Count the trickle of students who walk to school instead of being driven by parents in a country where just a permit to buy a car (and not even the car itself) can cost in excess of SGD$50,000.

Students from high-SES families have many advantages such as access to private tutors and enrichment programmes that students from low-SES families do not.

And I would bet my bottom dollar that the educational experience of students in the top schools is far different from the experience of students in a what we (again) euphemistically call “neighbourhood schools”.

Yes, sure, the playing field is level. Just that there are many, many levels.

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