Saturday, 18 May 2013

Observations on Elitism

Since I posted A Response to the Ugly Truth about HCJC 3 days ago, I am honestly quite amazed that it has since been published on therealsingapore yesterday and commented on by Limpehft earlier today. 

Firstly, thanks for your comments and compliments Limpeh! As I mentioned, the discussion on elitism in Singapore will require a full post to do it justice and seems like you have done just that! To further enrich the discussion, I am going to respond to your post as well as add some of my personal thoughts on the issue.

1. Wealth and Elitism

In his post, Limpeh has elaborated about this aspect in great length and shared his personal struggles. I do agree with his insights on elitism in general and its obvious correlation to wealth in Singapore - the wealthy do possess a great advantage and often have an 'unfair' headstart in life compared to us common folks. In the context of education, money can buy unlimited hours of private tuition, many varieties of enrichment classes and possibly even a coveted placement in a top school. Taken to the extreme, money can even buy tutors who will do the child's school homework and assignments from other tutors! Good grief. Talk about rich, kiasu parents.

Evidently, money can buy a lot of tutors.

Wealth, however, can also be a handicap. Let me give some specific examples to illustrate this point - in my time as a teacher of an 'elite' Secondary school, I have met students who did not know:

-  how to use a can opener
- how to eat chicken with bones
- what a mop looks like
- how to use public transport
- what butter looks like in the fridge
- how to use an umbrella.

Believe you me, I couldn't invent such seemingly ridiculous examples even if I wanted to. 

Yes, most of the kids I described above came from a wealthy background. After the initial chiding of the child and subsequently enlightening them (e.g. Here, let me teach you how to use an umbrella...), I came to the awful realization that some parents had allowed their wealth to deny these children of critically important lifeskills. What is amazing is that when these kids are confronted about their apparent inadequacies in what I deem as basic lifeskills and common sense, they are genuinely perplexed. Most of these students sheepishly acknowledge that they are denied access to the kitchen at home and have not done a day of housework in their life because 'it's the maid's job / they are not allowed to waste studying time doing such things'. Please let me bang my head against the wall for a minute.

Let me teach you how to open an umbrella. You press this button here.

Defensive parents, I know what you are thinking. So what if my daughter cannot use a mop / cook / do housework? I have a maid at home who can do everything. Well, please ensure you continue to hire a maid for your daughter after she gets married, has kids and grow old. She may not be able to cope otherwise. So what if my son is pampered? Is it wrong to pamper my children? Of course not, but please keep it real. Can your son survive in adolescence and adulthood when your pampering ends? When are you going to cut the apron strings and stop fluffing him in cotton wool? Are you going to serve his NS for him? But my children have to study! Yes, but they also need to develop knowledge about everyday life! Lack of experience in the real world breeds ignorance.

Should SAF allow maids and mothers into the Army?

I acknowledge that at the moment I am generalizing and exaggerating to some extent because I am so frustrated- but yes, I admit there are also kids I have met who, despite their upbringing by wealthy parents, are genuinely down-to-earth and humble. There are students who have not allowed their (wealthy) family background and connections to hinder them in the wrong manner. Unfortunately, such well-taught (有家教) kids are genuinely rare, which brings me to my next point.

2. Attitude of and towards the 'Elites'

Clearly, the Wee Shu Min controversy has shown us what the attitude of the elite should not be - arrogant, unsympathetic and filled with a sense of entitlement. Money cannot buy respect. Respect, once lost, cannot be regained easily. Without respect, what good is your elite status?

Singaporeans, don't be disheartened by a few black sheep. Thankfully, not all students and graduates from top schools are like Wee Shu Min. I came across an insightful post of a Rafflesian who wrote about how he came to terms with being an labelled an 'elite'. I am particularly encouraged by his following comment "... we walked away very humbled and hopefully more aware. It was an important conversation because it also made me realise, despite it being only a few years since before I joined Gifted Education and the so-called “elite” track, how much less sensitive I had become to “the world out there”. And with that the determination that while there is no shame in pursuing my goals and ambitions, all the while I have to keep searching for a way to sensitize myself". There are also several facebook confessions pages (such as this and this) of 'elite' students whose comments display commendable maturity, considerable humility and good moral values. My takeway: The Chinese saying 别让一群人打翻整艘船 sums it up nicely. Don't let a few bad eggs tarnish the other good examples.

Remember the white sheep too!

Lastly, my 2 cents worth for current students from supposedly elite schools: Don't conform to the elite stereotype for conformity's sake! It will make you miserable! Learn how to fail, laugh at yourself and remain humble. Being labelled an elite is not really different from being called an 'Ah Beng/Ah Lian' IMHO - people will say what they want to say, but you can be who you choose to be.

- A


  1. I came acrossed your article through As an ex-school teacher, I strongly agree with your ideas about the 'smart' children who have done well academically but who are also 'handicapped' in terms of life skills. The mentality to look down on domestic duties is disgusting. Life should never be taken for granted- old chinese proverb -'it is hard to maintain your rich status beyond 3 generations'.

    1. Hi Swallowyen,

      Thanks for your comment. Glad we see eye-to-eye.

      My response to parents who give the excuse that their wealth can save their kids from doing things themselves is precisely that: don't fall into the trap of thinking that your wealth lasts beyond your lifetime. Even if you are wealthy, don't handicap your children please, for their own sake...

      I welcome your comments as an educator in my future posts on education issues :)

  2. Having read a number of your posts, I felt vindicated! I was an educator. Your views just echo my sentiments. Why deprive your child the joy of running in the field and the opportunities of developing psychomotor skills?! Helicopter parents warned their kids not to run in fields and some even get teachers to ensure their kids are 'exempted' from the grass. The poor kids who couldn't coordinate their body movements when they run during school sport's day were mocked by their peers. And the new trend is: PE teachers nowadays have to test our kids in their bodily coordination. Sad childhood... addicted to games on their mini-pads. Granting our children the access to gaming on I-pads and such at their tender age is as good as dishing out drugs to your children, crippling them and possibly exposing them to slow suicidal...

    1. Hi. S here.

      My take on this is that growing up in SG these days, it may be better to be on "drugs" (hand held gaming devices) than having to face reality, but that's me.

      Life in Oz is a world of a difference. of course, those who parent by iPad do exist. But those who want to offer their kids a real lifetime of experiences actually have pretty decent options without having to spend a bomb on air tickets and overseas travel...

  3. Hihi, by chance I came across your article. I am working in a sec sch laboratory and I have seen numerous cases of "daft" situations in what you mentioned. eg. Crying after being scalded. Using a beaker for titration instead of a conical flask. students hesitating to light up a bunsen burner. It brings me some worry that these generation will be our future leaders. But yes, amidst.all this, there is.still a flicker of hope. Gratified to hear on that rafflesian boy. TX.