I recently came across a forum letter in The Straits Times, written by an alumnus of Raffles Institution, about how elitism is a natural consequence of meritocracy and that it is good for the society.
Having never enjoyed the privileges that the author has, as I come from an average Singaporean family, I immediately took offence - like many of you did too.
However, despite how simplistic and insubstantial the points made were, the author did draw our attention to a very important problem: income inequality.
And this is exactly why elitism thrives and not because talent and leadership is hereditary, as the author suggests.
A little background about me: I come from a middle-income family and my father earns enough for us to live our days comfortably. I went to a primary and secondary school where most of the students had similar economic backgrounds to mine. So, it was only after going to poly did I realise what "income inequality" truly meant.
This is because I got to meet many rich people, ranging from the Longchamp to the Hermès rich.
Trawling through their Instagram feed, you see many pictures of mouth-watering food, OOTDs and photos at Zouk every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday - you really cannot help but feel envious.
This was also the time I also got to know people that come from not so well-to-do families.
For example, I have a friend who is studying part-time now as she runs from IT fairs to IT fairs while working full-time as an insurance agent. This is because at the age of 23, she has to bear the responsibility of paying for her own school fees as well as her brother's who is now in polytechnic.
Any surpluses of hers go into paying utility as well as phone bills. All the while volunteering at the same organisation as me as an officer (that is how we met).
Not a life that really inspires envy, right?
Meritocracy is overrated.
However, this dichotomy did not use to affect me because I believed that all will be set right by meritocracy once we enter the workforce like how we were indoctrinated since young: all we have to do is to study hard, right?
I have a friend who has a GPA of 3.3 who is now taking a gap year because she could not qualify for any of the local universities. So she is taking the time now to work and save up for her school fees while she applies again this year. If she fails again, she is going to start working as she cannot afford to go to any of the private universities.
On the other hand, I know of many people with much lower GPA who are studying overseas now at renowned universities. A few of these friends actually shared with me that prior to poly, they paid their way into their secondary schools by making generous donations.
So I guess unlike what we were told since young, results aren't really everything, not when you have money.
It's hard to keep up in this rat race.
It was during my poly days that I started volunteering at a daycare centre for latchkey children.
One of the kids I got the privilege of tutoring was J. On the surface, he looked like any eight-year-old boy: active, mischievous and with a grin that has not been marred by the cruel realities of the world. That is why I was surprised when he couldn't even spell simple words like "telephone" or "oranges".
Talking to one of the full-timers there, I learnt that he has both dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and coming from a family where his mother is the sole breadwinner as the father is in prison, the boy cannot afford the treatment. Getting tested for dyslexia itself will set the family back $700.
I also learnt that his story, alas a sad one, is not special. Most of the children in the daycare come from similar circumstances.
However, most daycares, especially the public ones, are under-staffed. The one I volunteered in only had three full-timers. Although they are the most motherly and the kindest people I know, there is a limit to how thin they can spread themselves between taking care of 30 children – keeping in mind that many of them require special attention – and settling the administrative matters of the school.
And this is the best the family can afford because private daycares are ridiculously expensive - costing about $1,500 per term - and there are no subsidies available for them.
I worry for these children because how can an eight-year-old child that cannot even spell "oranges" thrive in our hypercompetitive society? What saddens me is that they are too young to even realise how hard they have to work to catch up to their rich counterparts who can afford to go to well-staffed daycares, top-notch tutors and paying their way into renowned schools.
A silver spoon allows a head start.
Even before having an income, the inequality is already so strikingly obvious to someone as young as me. Sure, we do not have people in Singapore who are suffering from extreme poverty but inequality is still inequality.
It is true we need inequality to spur us youths to aspire and study hard. However, who's to say all degree holders were studious enough to deserve their placing? Yet, it will always be easier for them to find a job compared to someone that did no go to a university. And who's to say these people did not study hard? Maybe, they were just not lucky enough to be born into a rich family.
The rich can afford their Gucci, their restaurant reservations and their annual Europe trip because they worked hard to earn that money so they can spend it however they like.
What I cannot swallow is that the rich and connected always gets to "start over". You didn't do well in school? Here's a place overseas so you can start over. You didn't do well in university? Here's a job at my firm for you to start over.
Yes, our meritocratic society gives everyone an equal chance to achieve the same opportunity. But, being born with a silver spoon always allows you to start at the halfway line.
What do I mean? Well, just imagine this: you are an employer and J comes in for an interview with someone from a rich family and they present you with their CVs: Both of them went to the same primary and secondary school as well as the same course in poly. They could not qualify for any local universities so J went to a private one here while his counterpart studied in the UK. Under work experience, J wrote down run-of-the-mill part-time jobs ranging from retail to F&B whereas his counterpart shared about his exciting internships at his father's banking firm as well as their family friend's law firm.
Who would you hire?
Top photo from here.