Ex-schoolteacher & RI alumna's post illuminates the consequences of S'porean "meritocracy"

For this former teacher, studying at an elite school and teaching at a neighbourhood school made her realise just how problematic the message of meritocracy was.

Matthias Ang | October 04, 2018, 04:45 PM

Earlier this week, a video from CNA Insider on class differences, partly from the angle of education in Singapore, has garnered strong reactions and discussions about the issue among Singaporeans.

In particular, an emotional moment from the clip, extracted from a longer documentary, featured a boy studying in the Normal (Technical) stream who said he was afraid teachers in a mixed-stream class "would not teach" him because he is "very slow":

Ex-teacher speaks up

Subsequently on Wednesday, Oct. 3, a former secondary school teacher by the name of Chew Wei Shan (who also happens to be a local musician going by the name weish) took to Facebook to share her take on the issue.

In her post, Chew pointed out that the video "only scratches the surface" and shared the severe dissonance she experienced from being a student at Raffles Institution to teaching at a neighbourhood secondary school.

These years spent at the two different educational environments, she writes, allowed Chew to see the effects of propagating meritocracy throughout schools "as gospel truth".

It is a message that, from where she is standing, has resulted in serious consequences that, she says, have affected children's lives.


Here are three key points she makes about the damage she perceives the narrative of Singapore's "meritocracy" has caused:

1. The breeding of intolerance and inferiority

Chew argues that one of the most immediate effects of the meritocracy message is that privileged children look at themselves and believe their successes are due to their own intellect and talent, while underprivileged children look at themselves and believe that their failures are a result of an innate lack.

Accordingly, she adds, this leads to children forming the perspective that "academic streams are their identity".

It also means that children can look at each other and form, in her words, "misguided impressions... dangerous, intolerant impressions that could stay with them forever".

Recalling her time as a student in Raffles, Chew recounts the various supremacist viewpoints that she heard thrown around by the more academically-inclined among her schoolmates.

These include:

  • "The hard truth is some races are just dumber."

  • "You can see it with your own eyes, when we compete against the shitty schools."

  • "People are poor because they don’t work hard enough."

  • "Or they’re just not very smart. Hierarchy is necessary; not everybody can be at the top."
  • "Didn’t Singapore have some policy where only smart people can have babies? Hard to swallow, but you gotta admit it’s for a greater good."

This would come into sharper focus for Chew once she became a teacher, where she writes that she witnessed:

"... the Express kids who mock their NA/NT peers’ poor English… the eye-rolls, the cold shoulders, the loud comparing of grades, of JC plans… the Starbucks after school, the rushing home for violin lessons."

Meanwhile, Chew says she saw the "self-loathing and an internalised inferiority" that she feels developed among underprivileged students as a result of them also believing in the meritocracy message.

Such an effect for Chew was encapsulated by the moments where:

"a kid...bought and read all my literature texts even though the subject wouldn’t be offered to her stream in the next year. A kid...writes the most moving poetry in horribly broken grammar. A kid...calls me at 2am, standing on the precipice, ready to jump because he is useless and stupid."

As Chew sees it, these effects of intolerance and inferiority were essentially, the message of meritocracy taken to its logical conclusions by privileged and underprivileged students respectively.

2. The erasure of empathy

Chew further notes that exacerbating these effects was the concurrent erasure of empathy among privileged students.

She highlighted that the "elitist attitudes" of Raffles Institution "were never addressed, unpacked, torn down", delving into Singapore's colonial history, attributing "the myth of the lazy native" to Stamford Raffles, in response to the Malayans' refusal to be enslaved.

Yet, she argues, the resulting long-standing stereotypes produced by this toxic narrative never got addressed.

"Nobody debunked or addressed hurtful stereotypes that echoed in our school courtyards and corridors. Nobody taught us how our wealth gap is widened by our policies. Nobody taught us about systemic discrimination. Nobody told us that there were kids our age working odd jobs after school to help their parents make ends meet."

As such, Chew wrote that even projects aimed at cultivating a sense of duty and empathy to help the less fortunate became navel-gazing moments instead.

"They brought us to Cambodia, Laos, Burma… to interact with village children whose lives were bereft of comfort and opportunity...On our return we’d sit in circles at Changi Airport and reflect on how lucky we were, that we had clean carpets and air-conditioning, that Singaporean children had fair opportunity, social mobility… meritocracy." 

3. The glossing over of the role that privilege plays

Which brings us to the singular most decisive factor, to Chew, that affects the message of meritocracy -- privilege -- which she feels was glossed over.

"We were never taught the concept of privilege. Sure, we knew we were more fortunate than others, but we didn’t really, truly, know."

Because, as Chew states, to first speak about privilege is to acknowledge that a division exists.

This, she argues, made the topic off-limits in the classroom.

Chew elaborates on this by asserting that teachers in Singapore are "strictly instructed to avoid discussing race, religion, class and sexuality in the classroom. Any potentially divisive topic is taboo".

This, she adds, has also resulted in the missing of much-needed opportunities where students could acknowledge the issue in the open.


Towards the end of her post, Chew points out the irony in having to teach "respect and harmony" and to "deplore discrimination" when the ignoring of privilege reinforces a divide.

Such gaps and dissonant messages, Chew concludes, will only result in:

"Children connect[ing] these imperfect dots and conclud[ing] that their fate is written in their DNA. That these academic streams are their identity. That if they succeed, it is their doing alone. That if they fail, it is all their fault."

There is definitely much to think about here.

You can read Chew's post in full here:

Top image from David King's Facebook page


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