Go with a smile!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Ten or Twenty Raffles Institutions

Something new has come up in Singapore. One of those issues is that people are wondering if Raffles Institution should be elitist. As with economic outcomes, on one hand we desire equality of outcomes, and on the other hand, we are concerned that when we strive too hard for equality of outcomes, the quality of the school – especially the one at the top – suffers.

It's been a tenet for a long time that RI is the elite school in Singapore. It's been around for almost 200 years, even if you consider that for the first 10 years it wasn't exactly active. It's one of the top feeder schools to Oxbridge, probably in the top 10, together with other schools like Eton.

As a person who has attended RI, here's the list of advantages you get from going there. (And this is on hindsight, because if you were to ask me when I was there donkey years ago, I wouldn't have been able to come up with this list.)

1. Classmates of high socio-economic status
2. Smarter classmates
3. Good ECA records
4. Name recognition when it comes to elite university admissions. (Although this will not help you much in getting into NUS)
5. More enrichment programs
6. Less disruptive environment. (It's not true to say that RI pupils aren't naughty, they're as bad as everybody else. But we do this in a way that doesn't affect our grades.)

There is this question about whether you're going to be a small fish in the ocean or a big fish in a small fishbowl. If you're a big fish in a small fishbowl, you never know – you could have gone to RI and found out that you're not just a big fish, you're a whale in the ocean.

But here's the flaw in the logic when it comes to RI being the best school:

RI takes in the highest scorers from the PSLE. Then these pupils are placed in an environment where all the ECAs are excellent, most of the students are excellent, the teachers – well they don't have to do that much to push the students, because the students can do it to each other. They have the best chances of getting into the best schools, they'll tell each other about all the opportunities there are out there. There's every possibility that a “mafia” will form up.

There are two problems that you can see already: first, this is about entry into a relatively closed and tightly knit group. And secondly, PSLE score is supposedly the criterion for entry into this tightly knit group.

Sometimes I wonder if this group can be widened. I don't think the problem is about RI people like ourselves getting the opportunities that we've been getting. The problem is about many other equally deserving people out there who aren't getting those opportunities. I don't know if there's a problem with expanding those programs to a larger number of people. Maybe elite programs don't scale up well. Your pre-U seminars, your Creative Arts Programs, your Science Research programs. But you should be exploring those things.

Another issue is that education is too narrowly focused on university admissions. University, or elite university is not for everyone. Ideally Singapore should be a kind of place where there are some trade schools that lead you to a path to success. (And you define what “success” is). They can be trained in setting up businesses, they can be accredited engineers, technical staff, foremen, coders. You can push them towards path that don't require universities. You don't need a degree to be an SAF officer. You can push people onto that track. SAF officers won't ever have careers as fulfilling as SAFOS scholars, but they won't necessarily be having shit lives either.

Do you need university degrees to be chefs, entrepreneurs, businessmen, operations managers? Not really. But what you need, in any case, is a passion to excel, you need soft skills, you need mental strength and character.

I thought about the RI education I had, the parts that were great. Interesting classmates. Thoughtful discussions. Gruelling physical feats. Exposure to the arts. Exposure to science and mathematics. I want to keep all those things intact, and I don't really want RI to lose what made it great.

And then I think about the parts of RI which were not so great. The public image we were asked to show to the world. It's not true that RI is really cruel to people who were struggling, but it was all tough love. If you weren't measuring up, people would scream at you, but they weren't necessarily going to pick you up when you fell.

At RI you could choose to excel at many ECAs, so maybe that was great. I'm still a little miffed that it was almost impossible to indulge in one or two of my favourite past times. But I managed to participate in a few things that I wasn't necessarily suited for, and I had to stretch myself in the process. It was weird. There were guys who never really fit in, but then later went on to be successful businessmen, or leading figures in Singapore's art scene. So that was the paradox of RI during my day: there were so many avenues for you to fit in, and somehow there were people who still didn't fit in.

So imagine how many RIs Singapore could have if we got better at bringing out the talents of all the students? I still remember Fandi Ahmad telling the story about how he got turned away from the gates of RI for having long hair. Who looks like an ass?

I credit RI with helping me stretch myself and discover abilities I never knew I had. Then again, I wish it could have been even more flexible. RI just wasn't good at teaching their students to empathise with other people. We produced a few good businessmen but I think that was in spite of his going to RI, rather than because of it.

We don't seem to be that short of people becoming critics of the government, though. So at least RI has done more than its fair share of producing rebellious people.

Up till the 1980s, RI was known as the elite government school. It was a place that took people of all backgrounds, and had no elite feeder primary school. It was non-sectarian, and not explicitly associated with any of the elite groups in Singapore. It was Singapore's school (actually for a long time it was Singapore's only school.) I wish they would remember this aspect of its own history.

It would be a great thing if you could build a more limited elite. Raffles Institution shouldn't be the top school year in year out. Instead, the top 10, or the top 20 schools should be operating on a relatively equal level. And it'd be better for your top students if you forced them to compete against each other instead of just pumping all the best ECA / enrichment programs to just 4 or 5 schools. You should challenge all the students to find their own way in life, or at least think of the day that would come when their academic achievements in school stopped counting for anything. So while you still wanted everybody to strive for the best grades, they had to balance that objective with some other things, and you challenged them to find for themselves what that some other thing would be.

What would these 20 schools be? You'd probably have the usual suspects (RI/RGS, HCI, ACS), maybe a few of the SAP schools, maybe even one madrassah to even things out.

One model, but that model is at the university level, is the University of California. You had Berkeley, who has always been the crown jewel of the system. And it seemed for a while that UCLA would be the only other well known school. But the other campuses in San Diego, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Davis and San Francisco would also excel in research. There were 3 layers in the California system, the University of California system, the second tier California State University system, and the Community Colleges. But the California system allowed people to transfer from a lower to a higher tier, so as to allow the best and the brightest a chance to move on up. And this always kept everybody else on their toes. It also meant that instead of having just 1 or 2 world class public universities, California has 5 or 6.

What we don't want is a system that people of higher socio-economic status can game. They can pump their kids with tuition all the way up till primary 6, and PSLE becomes a hurdle that you can only cross when you are really bright and really wealthy. Then there is a perpetuating class system.