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Raffles Institution principal takes refreshingly hard look at elitism

Mr Chan Poh Meng (finally) admits to, and speaks out against, the reality that everyone outside has long known.

Jeanette Tan | July 31, 2015 @ 04:02 pm

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So, Raffles Institution’s Founders’ Day happened roughly two months ago — and Singapore’s oldest school (it’s now 192 years old) came together to celebrate it on July 25, last Saturday.

Indeed, 192’s a fairly meh number to commemorate with much fanfare, but at that day’s ceremony, the school’s principal, Chan Poh Meng, made a surprisingly honest and hard-hitting speech, which was published on the RI website a couple days ago.

And while according to alumni we’ve spoken to, past principals have occasionally reminded their academically excellent students to stay grounded and to remember to return the education they have received to the community, none seem to have spoken as explicitly about this as Chan did.

While he essentially said what pretty much the rest of us plebeians have been thinking for many years now, we think it’s pretty worth applauding the fact that he’s finally saying it.

And so we shall quote generously, the key juicy bits from it, followed by context:

1. He admits that meritocracy is failing, especially for RI: “We have become insular — a school unto ourselves… can we in good conscience go on with business as usual?”

As a school with its Secondary and JC 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 that deserved to be here. We were a special school with a spiraling 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.

 

2. He admits that they’ve been in denial for ages: “A long period of conditioning means that we often fail to see elitism even when it is staring us in the face.”

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.

 

3. He blames parents, alumni and staff for contributing to the elitist rot (our word): “If we must have blame for the current state of the school, we must each accept our share of it.”

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. As Rafflesians, are we able to practice an austerity of the spirit, and use that to nurture and revive a long-dormant creativity? Do we dare to ask ourselves – what can we do with limited resources to make this a better school not just for ourselves but for the country?

 

4. He says it is RI’s duty to link parts of Singapore’s community: “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.”

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. The old proverb ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ comes to mind – if we can help to close these gaps sooner rather than later, then let us do so.

 

5. Emphasising gratitude over entitlement: “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?”

This brings me to the final vector of gratitude. 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.

 

Read Chan’s full speech here.

Photo from here.

 

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About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to "Hakuna Matata" and a host of other Disney songs. She is also enslaved to Katherine and George, her two cats.

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