Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Raffles Institution now a ‘middle-class’ school, says principal

Principal says school now largely caters to the affluent, and pride in its achievements risks making it insular
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2015

Raffles Institution (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.

These harsh words came from the school's own principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, in a speech delivered in front of hundreds of current and former RI staff and students.

Speaking at the school's 192nd Founder's Day ceremony about a week ago, Mr Chan, who took over as RI principal at the end of 2013, said the school has been accused of being elitist, a charge he did not deny. He is himself an old boy of RI.

Singapore, on the eve of its 50th birthday, has been successful, building up a system that is admired the world over. But fissures have erupted in the process, one of which is the faltering meritocracy that the country has been lauded for in the past.

"Our system of meritocracy is working less well than it used to, two generations in," he said.

Wealthier families have been able to give their children an edge through tuition and enrichment, leading to exams such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) no longer being "the level playing field that they once were", he added.

For RI, the school is no longer what many alumni remember it to be in the past, with many students coming from diverse family and socio-economic backgrounds. Today, it "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore", Mr Chan told the audience of 1,400 students, alumni, teachers and parents.

RI, widely considered the most prestigious school in Singapore, has long prided itself on its students' academic prowess.

"For a long time, we have measured our success by how high our PSLE cut-off and how low our L1R5 were. By how many Olympiads and competitions and tournaments we won... By the number of 'top' scholarships and places in the Oxbridge and Ivy League universities (students) secure," said Mr Chan.

But he questioned if pride in such achievements may have had negative side effects, making RI "insular - a school unto ourselves".

"A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face," he said. "RI has become a middle-class school - that is the current reality. What matters more now is what we do with this reality and this knowledge."

To this end, Mr Chan challenged students and staff to make RI a better school for Singapore, and not just for itself.

He set guiding principles for the school, emphasising that it must do its best to maintain the socio-economic diversity of its student population and reach out to the community with more purpose and heart.

He cited examples of recent initiatives undertaken by RI students and staff that have served society.

One was The Golden Page, a project started last year by student volunteers to improve the living conditions of the elderly by installing equipment such as ramps and handle-bars in their homes.

Several alumni have also raised funds for scholarships for students from lower-income families.

RI must lend a hand to people who need help, such as foreign workers, the elderly and the poor, said Mr Chan. "I put it to you that this is our wider duty to Singapore in 2015 and beyond - to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other."

Missed the Founder's Day ceremony last Saturday? You can now read our Principal, Mr Chan's speech on the school website:
Posted by Raffles Institution on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

RI population less diverse now, say many alumni
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2015

A frank speech by the principal of Raffles Institution (RI) has sparked discussion among alumni and students, with many agreeing that the school's student population has become less diverse.

At RI's 192nd Founder's Day ceremony about a week ago, its principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, warned that RI is at risk of becoming a school that caters only to a certain class of Singaporeans and must do more to counter accusations of becoming increasingly elitist.

Most alumni interviewed said they agreed that RI, widely seen as Singapore's most reputed school, has become less diverse in its student population.

Mr Ted Chia, who attended RI in the 1960s, said: "Most of us came from unknown primary schools, gaining entry because we did pretty well in the Primary School Leaving Examination of the old days.

"Most students were from humble backgrounds, taking the bus to school and not driven by mum or dad," said the 64-year-old director of sales in an aerospace business.

Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, a senior fellow in economics at the National University of Singapore who went to RI in the 1950s, said out of his group of 10 friends, just three went to university.

"In those times, people would leave school to work because they could not afford to study further or they didn't do well enough," he said.

Mr Chia added: "Nowadays, kids are groomed from young to do extremely well in the PSLE.

"So inevitably, you will find the present students belong to a smaller and more privileged group."

Mr Kuek Jia Yao, 19, who graduated from RI last year, said: "Gradually, RI has shifted to the stance of being elitist, although not through the fault of students."

The son of a school vice-principal and housewife added: "Mr Chan gave us a challenge to do better. Being indifferent and unaware will just make the issue worse."

RI alumnus Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said RI should aim to be a "microcosm of Singapore", with students from all socioeconomic classes and races.

"RI is a great school and we don't want that to change. I am, however, concerned by his statement that RI has become a middle-class school," he said.

The concern that top schools are becoming closed circles has been raised before, even by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In 2013, Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, then a Nominated MP, said in Parliament that he was concerned that RI, his alma mater, was becoming less diverse.

But Mr Eugene Wijeysingha, RI headmaster from 1986 to 1994, defended the school, saying many Rafflesians have served the country despite being "chastised for continuing to live in an ivory tower oblivious of the plight of others around".

He noted that a "high premium" is possibly placed on one's linkage with RI today.

However, "these boys slog it out and the best find their way to the school... They deserve to be highly regarded and to regard themselves with pride".

"I do not believe that all this has gone to the head of the RI boy and destroyed his values as a balanced human being," he added.

Professor Koh said that RI needs to identify and mentor bright pupils from needy families and minority ethnic groups, so that they will qualify for and want to study at RI and Raffles Girls' School. "My hope is that their student bodies will be diverse and inclusive," he said.

Combating elitism 'not just up to schools'
Educators say everyone, including parents and students, has a role to play to stem trend
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2015

To counter a rise in elitism, everyone in society - from schools to parents to students - has a role to play, said educators and others.

In a speech recently, Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng told students and staff members that the 192-year-old school is at risk of becoming insular and elitist, catering to a narrow class of Singaporeans. He said the way forward was for the school to maintain a socio-economic profile that is representative of Singapore society and for students to give back to the community with more heart.

In a bid to reach out to the disadvantaged, RI has, in recent years, given scholarships to needy primary school pupils who show potential.

Beyond financial help for needy students, top schools must focus more on shaping students' character so that they do not develop an elitist mentality, educators said.

Suggestions included getting students to mix more with peers with different family backgrounds from other schools and exposing them to more meaningful community work.

Many RI old boys said Mr Chan was right to have spoken up about elitism. One of them, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, said: "Our top schools are part of the education ecosystem, and they often reflect what's happening in Singapore society.

"To pin the blame completely on the schools is to point to the symptoms but not the cause."

He added: "The real question is whether every child, regardless of socio-economic background, can access the opportunities available."

National Institute of Education's Professor Jason Tan, who was in RI in the 1970s, pointed to the trend of "parentocracy", in which parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on a child's success than the child's own abilities.

"They can pump in financial resources to help children do well and get into good schools."

Alumni and experts said that giving students in these top schools more time to interact with others in the community could help them better understand and empathise with the less privileged.

Professor Choo Chiau Beng, former chief executive of Keppel Corp and now its senior adviser, said RI, his alma mater, and its students must "reach out to the rest of Singapore, to other children in neighbourhood schools and to the underprivileged". This is "so that RI can stand as hope for a better age for all Singaporeans", he added, borrowing the school's motto.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said: "We can create opportunities for teachers and students to mix by trying out collaborative lessons, shared syllabi and conducting co-curricular activities together.

"When you put students together, not for competition, but to learn from one another, it gives them space to form friendships and not remain culturally blind."

Prof Jason Tan said he was glad that RI has given out scholarships to the less well-off.

But he noted: "It's not as simple as covering students' costs. There are social intangibles that make students feel like they can't match up."

Prof Eugene Tan agreed: "If students from less well-off households feel they cannot fit in, no amount of scholarships will be sufficient."

Mr Sean Tsi, who left RI last year, said his schoolmates have reached out to various groups in society.

They have installed handlebars and ramps in the homes of the elderly, and alumni have raised money to fund scholarships for students from other schools, for instance.

But "we can sometimes get caught up with our academic or sports achievements", said the 19-year-old who will be studying medicine at the National University of Singapore this year.

RI must help students look beyond narrow class-based interests

Principal Chan Poh Meng delivered a frank critique of the school's efforts in upholding meritocracy. Below is an excerpt of his Founder's Day speech last week.
The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2015

I would like to take some time to discuss the way forward for RI (Raffles Institution). We stand at an important juncture of Singaporean history. Fifty years into Independence, we are no longer an "improbable country" or an "unlikely nation". We have a public service that is widely admired for its incorruptibility, schools, hospitals, a transportation system and a public housing programme that have served us well.

But there are also gaps and fissures that have emerged in the impressive edifice of our country.

Our system of meritocracy is working less well than it used to two generations in. Families that have been successful financially have been able to create advantages for their children; the PSLE and other gatekeeping examinations are no longer the level playing field that they once were, thanks to an explosion in the numbers of tuition and enrichment centres. An influx of new immigrants into our country, judged to be important for our country's economic health, has led to feelings of displacement among Singaporeans who have been here longer.

The key question for us is how RI fits into all this.


As a school, we have prided ourselves on being the jewel in MOE's (the Ministry of Education) crown. For a long time, we have measured our success by how high our PSLE cut-off is, by how well our students do in the A levels, by the number of "top" scholarships and places in the Oxbridge and Ivy League universities they secure. We were comfortably supported by a stratified education system that gave extra funding to the best and brightest.

As a school with its secondary and JC (junior college) entry points defined in terms of academic merit, we cruised for many years with an untroubled conscience, serene in the faith that we were teaching the students who deserved to be here. We were a special school with a spiralling host of special programmes for the gifted and talented. One might ask if we have become insular - a school unto ourselves.

But given what we know today about how meritocracy's effectiveness is faltering, can we in good conscience go on with business as usual?

To our alumni who frequently lament how the school is no longer the school they remember, I want to say, like you, as an alumnus, I, too, ask the same question.

Yet, it is pointless and futile to deny the existence of class in RI.

RI has become a middle-class school - that is the current reality. What matters more now is what we do with this reality and this knowledge.


If we can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore, then the more pressing question that must now be asked and answered is: How does RI maintain a breadth and generosity of vision in its students? How do we continue being the hope of a better age for ALL of Singapore and not just some part, some group, some class of Singaporeans?

Are we able, as a school, to help our students look beyond narrow class-based interests? Our success in this area will affect the health of our country in approximately two to three decades hence.

This was something which the first principal of the reintegrated

RI and RJC, Mrs Lim Lai Cheng, frequently noted. I quote: "Given the numbers of doctors, lawyers and public servants that we produce, if as a school, we fail to instil a wider concern and care in our students, it is Singapore at large that suffers."

The ideals that we have - for RI to be non-elitist, for it to be a beacon of openness and inclusivity - all these are good ideals, but they cannot be accomplished overnight. A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring at us in the face.

Our current students should not bear the full brunt of accusations of elitism - we as alumni, parents, staff must ask ourselves : what example have we given them in the expectations that we impose on them, in the system that we run, in the way that we treat other people? If we must have blame for the current state of the school, we must each accept our share of it.

The process begins now: The externally-imposed financial austerity which our school is undergoing is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The path forward

In support of these goals, I want to lay out certain vectors to guide the school in the years ahead. Briefly, I would describe these as duty, purpose and gratitude - but allow me to delve deeper into each of these vectors.

A duty to diversity: In saying that our school has a duty to diversity, I mean this in two senses. First and foremost, we have a duty to maintain the socio-economic diversity of our school to the best of our ability.

But there is also the broader sense of "diversity" as a range of different things. When groups and individuals are different from one another and have little contact, there is the chance for misunderstanding to arise and mistrust to fester. I put it to you that this is our wider duty to Singapore in 2015 and beyond - to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other. Between Singaporeans new and old. Between Singaporeans and the community of foreign workers and expatriates. Between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots. I would like to invite the school to channel its service efforts into these pressing areas.

Thus, let us consider not just the question of who we can serve, but who we can serve alongside, who we can serve together with. If we can undertake such meaningful projects with peers from other schools, then I think the project is doubly meaningful, as it also helps us to move out of our insularity.

Awakened purpose: One of the great concerns that I have is that our students - and perhaps even teachers - see community service as one more check box to be ticked in a string of accomplishments, or as a chore, something boring and mundane, that must be done because the system says so.

There seems to me a better approach that we can take if we see community service as a vital way for us to grow socially, emotionally and spiritually. These aspects often take a backseat because our system has for so long emphasised the intellectual dimension to the exclusion of these other areas.

Principal Philip Liau spoke of (a higher summit). To go beyond acting out of a sense of duty, to acting upon the lived conviction of an awakened sense of purpose. To do what is right, rather than what is easy.

Mindful gratitude: This brings me to the final vector of gratitude. To cite (Buddhism teacher) Jack Kornfield, when our circle of care is expanded, when we recognise the blood of our own family in everything that lives, our heart is filled with gratitude, love and compassion. We receive physical and spiritual sustenance from the world around us; this is like breathing in. Then, because each of us is born with certain gifts, part of our happiness is to use these to give back - to our community, family, friends, as well as to the earth. This is like breathing out. As we grow in interconnectedness, the integrity and responsibility of a citizen - whether that of Singapore or of the world - naturally grows in us.

I am well aware of how hectic our lives are as a school community. We are caught up in a ceaseless cycle of classes, competitions, common tests, concerts and CCA practices.

Is there time for us to become aware? Are we able to make that time, to prioritise it, if we know that this awareness, this growing in gratitude is what gives everything else meaning? That is the question that we must answer both individually and collectively as a school.

Class divide in the classroom
Top schools are becoming segregated, catering to academically bright students from well-off families. To tackle the class divide, schools have to work harder to lower financial and cultural barriers to entry for poor students.
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2015

Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng hit the headlines recently when he warned students to guard against elitism and seeing themselves as a class apart.

Hinting at a widening gulf in the education system between the haves and have-nots ("Raffles Institution now a 'middle-class' school, says principal", Aug 4), he even suggested that the Primary School Leaving Examination is no longer the level playing field it once was in this world of tuition and enrichment classes.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had in the past also warned against a system where top schools shut out those at a disadvantage.

Mr Chan's comments were notable as they were a welcome instance of an educator who was not afraid to address uncomfortable realities.

His comments come as data increasingly shows that a disproportionate number of students in prestigious schools that cater to academic high-achievers come from affluent backgrounds and tend to have parents who are well-educated.

With a larger concentration of academically bright and well-to-do students in a handful of schools, the worry is that class disparities are created, reinforced, and carried with them even till adulthood.

As one successful generation pass on their resources to the next, helping them to greater success, the gap between income groups widens. A term for this is "parentocracy", in which parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on success than the child's own abilities.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, himself from RI, said: "The question is whether every child, regardless of his or her socio-economic background, is able to access the opportunities available. Does our system incentivise opportunity-hoarding at the top?"


True, as Nanyang Technological University economist Euston Quah noted,having more wealth does not necessarily imply better grades and opportunities. But he pointed out that children from such families have more access to resources.

That is a significant factor, given the billion-dollar tuition industry, with parents willing to fork out thousands of dollars for private coaching to give their children an edge.

And, realistically, "it's logical and they're doing the right thing from their perspective", said National Institute of Education's Professor Jason Tan.

But a system in which tuition is seen as a necessity - seven in 10 parents enrolled their children in extra classes, according to a recent poll by The Straits Times and research company Nexus Link - may itself need some reviewing.

Still, in the meantime, much is being done financially to give lower-income students a leg-up. The four self-help groups, including the Singapore Indian Development Association and the Chinese Development Assistance Council, have played a part in providing affordable tuition, for example.

Some prestigious schools themselves - RI and Hwa Chong Institution - are taking steps to ensure student diversity. They work with primary schools to encourage talented pupils to enrol with them, regardless of financial background. In recent years, RI has offered 25 to 30 scholarships annually to promising pupils from lower-income families - although only three to five eventually join the school.

The Government is investing more in early education so that children from disadvantaged families do not fall too far behind before starting formal schooling. And it has pumped in resources for pupils who need after-school care through student care centres providing homework supervision and guidance.

Last year, the Government also enhanced the Independent School Bursary Scheme. A student whose household's gross monthly income is below $4,000 or monthly per capita income is below $1,000 now receives a 90 per cent school fee subsidy - up from 75 per cent previously. Independent schools charge around $300 a month, compared with $22 at mainstream secondary schools.

Ministry of Education figures show that 2,700 students benefited from these bursaries in 2013. At RI, about 15 per cent of Singaporean students are under the scheme.

In the US, reputable universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University practise "needs-blind" admission - where they do not consider an applicant's financial situation when deciding whether to accept them.

Prof Jason Tan said Singapore already has some forms of needs-blind admissions. For instance, the Edusave Entrance Scholarship for Independent Schools is given to the top one-third of local Secondary 1 students in such schools. It is awarded based on PSLE results, regardless of financial background.

"But some people might ask why we're subsidising the fees of those who can afford it. So instead of a blanket tuition grant, maybe a scholarship system that is based on a 'sliding scale' would work better," he said. "This would also allow for some flexibility in support based on how much a student needs, instead of a crude income cap."


But there are calls for more to be done to help those from less-privileged families level up, and from a younger age.

Said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser: "Scholarships are useful, but more importantly, children from poor class backgrounds must have the opportunity to shine and thereby qualify for scholarships, meeting the requirements of a meritocracy.

"Children not only need money to afford fees, books, nutrition, enrichment programmes, but also a conducive, supportive home environment. They also need good role models and mentors and support networks."

There are intangible barriers to overcome, too. Prof Eugene Tan pointed out: "If students from less well-off households feel they cannot fit in, no amount of scholarship will be sufficient."

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds might do well in studies, but might lack "soft skills" such as social graces, leadership and even simple confidence. These gaps can lead to a culture shock when top performers from neighbourhood schools qualify for a premier institution. Some end up not even applying because they feel that they would be out of their league. Mr S. Magendiran, RI's senior deputy principal (student development and alumni relations), has previously said that students who qualify for RI but do not enrol cite reasons such as distance, worries about costs and not being able to fit in.

To be fair, neighbourhood primary schools are trying to equip their pupils with soft skills through courses in leadership, public speaking and social etiquette.

Some US institutions and scholarship foundations support lower-income university students by helping them craft resumes or in applying for graduate school. Some even allow students to borrow clothes so that they look professional in interviews.

Prof Jason Tan said low-income students would benefit from more socio-emotional help. "Each school has to decide to what extent it wants to initiate these helping-hand measures."

But he pointed out: "This must be done sensitively so that we don't end up taking them out for special attention and labelling students."

NUS sociologist Paulin Straughan agreed: "Targeting help at poorer students may have a backlash effect as it could lead to more social stigmatisation."


Educators and sociologists believe top schools should also encourage their own students to step out of their comfort zones.

While students are already required to clock hours of community work and come up with projects for the vulnerable in society, what could have a stronger impact in the long run is helping them form friendships with peers from other backgrounds.

The need for this can be seen in the experience of an RI boy who was in his school's water polo team for six years and did not get to meet students from elsewhere. "Most of the students from other schools we interacted with were those from water polo, and that's limited to just a few schools with swimming pools," he said. He made his first polytechnic friend this year - in national service.

Associate Professor Straughan suggested creating spaces for students and teachers from elite and neighbourhood schools to mix. "It cannot be forced, it has to be an organic social network where friendships are formed. Hopefully, these connections continue after school," she said.

What is also important is that the clash between meritocracy and elitism continues to be discussed.

Mr Chan was brave to admit that his school, even with its achievements, is not perfect. His words were directed at his students and teachers, but they apply just as much to other schools where such fissures may exist.

It is about time that principals and educators enter and help shape this conversation.

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