Growing Up “Special” In School

By Kwan Jin Yao

Last month, exactly a week after Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced the replacement of streaming into Normal and Express streams in secondary schools by full subject-based banding, the Department of Justice in the United States (US) – in the country’s largest college admissions scam – arrested 50 people allegedly involved in helping students gain admission into elite colleges regardless of academic or athletic ability. These seemingly unrelated developments, however, speak collectively to socio-economic disparities and the social experience of inequality as well as the role of the education system: On the perceived deservedness of students, that they earned their way up the academic ladder; on the eagerness of parents to ensure the best for their children; and ultimately the labels of being “Special”, “Express”, or “Normal” in Singapore, and of receiving an education from an elite US college.

And yet, while the potential erasing of the label-based stereotypes of being in the Express or Normal stream has been praised by my friends – for dismantling stigma and for removing harm associated with being “normal” – absent from this discourse are the unquestioned presumptions and veneration associated with being “special” in elite Singaporean schools. That in the tradition of meritocracy, as aforementioned, these scholastically gifted students have worked hard and therefore deserve the persistent benefits conferred upon them in more-resourced schools: Being exposed to more enrichment opportunities, interacting with peers from similar demographic backgrounds and accruing social capital, and receiving more information and guidance on scholarships and (overseas) university applications.

Even well-intentioned narratives about confronting “our own prejudice and grade shaming” are directed at us in the Special stream, questioning our biases of those in the Normal stream, rather than addressing the biases attached to us. Consequently – and oftentimes characterised by the metaphor of not capping the top but lifting the bottom – many civic undertakings revolve around those at the top interacting with those at the bottom to correct misperceptions (framed conveniently in policy-speak as “walking the ground”), followed by the top empowering the bottom with a suite of programmes and services. Put otherwise: Little is said about our biases attached to being at the top or being “special”, and the extent to which we are comfortable with confronting and questioning our privileges.

The Ministry of Education merged the Special stream – initially meant for the 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort – with the Express one in 2008, though yesterday’s Special-stream students are today’s Integrated Programme (IP) or International Baccalaureate students.

Being even more “special” in the Special stream

Reflecting on the experience of being in the Special stream in The Chinese High School (now Hwa Chong Institution) is uncomfortable, given the realisation that: First, academic performance was and has been a disproportionate determinant of success; second, integration activities within and beyond the school – which I wrote about recently, following the school’s celebration of its 100th anniversary and the claim that it has exposed its students to different cultures – are and were no guarantee of integration, and in actuality what is pitched as community service or civic engagement is more likely to benefit the students than the beneficiaries, and is likely to feed pragmatic motivations of improving one’s CVs or résumés; and third, these labels of being “special” will persist and has persisted in universities, at the workplace (especially in the civil service, it might be argued), and within personal or social circles.

First, the heavy emphasis on grades is marked by the importance of year-end and national examinations – the A levels, in particular – even if the IP configuration of my time allowed for a mix of throughout-the-year assessments such as self-initiated projects, class participation and project work, and even exemptions from end-of-year examinations of these assessments were done well. And likewise, it was one good performance at the PSLE which granted admission to Chinese High, where access to opportunities was guaranteed: Model United Nations conferences, community service projects and competitions, and organising events as a student leader. With these opportunities within the school, it must be added, students had to maintain their grades before we were even shortlisted or selected.

The single-minded obsession with academic performance brings to mind The Straits Times (ST) Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong’s analogy – drawing from her experience with learning how to drive – about the yardsticks used to measure success in Singapore. “I realised how lucky I was that Singapore society values paper qualifications, as I was good at passing exams”, she wrote. “If driving skills were the arbiter of pay and status, I would be among the low-income for sure – and a very stressed low-wage worker at that”.

Furthermore, I wore the badge of being a “special” student proudly. Self-assuredly. Arrogantly. And it only got worse when I was accepted into the humanities programme (HP) in junior college, with a scholarship deliberately designed for outstanding students who “may subsequently apply for the undergraduate awards from the Public Service Commission to continue their study of the humanities“. The combination of self-aggrandisement – wilfully ignoring my middle-class background and casting myself as being superior even to those in the same school – and competitive reminders within HP of our performance and that of preceding generations of seniors only reinforced my self-centredness and disregard for anything which would not advance my ambitions to gain admission to a top overseas university with a scholarship (imagine my disappointment when those plans went awry and as I mounted a self-defence to justify my new trajectory).

Beyond both rhetoric and action

As uncomfortable as these reflections may be – and it bears emphasis that even such introspection pales in comparison to the struggles of most in Singapore – perhaps the realisation that the label of being “special” persists is the most cognitively dissonant, because one not only has to confront the need for rhetoric (to be cognisant of our social divide and to articulate perspectives) and action (to volunteer or to be civically engaged), but also has to examine how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others.

A few days after the education minister made the announcement, Singaporeans were up in arms when a 48-year-old housewife was cited in ST as saying that “she would prefer if her children did not mix with those in the Normal stream“. They jumped on her observation that “it’s because of their upbringing – their mindset and values may not be in tandem with what I agree with”, forgetting a 2017 study by the Institute of Policy Studies highlighting a class divide in the country, and that the housewife’s experiences and perspectives may not be that uncommon. And that we too, being “special”, are likely to be guilty now and in the future, if we examined our own social networks and the communities we occupy. The study worryingly found that Singaporeans living in public housing have fewer than one friend living in private housing and that those from elite and non-elite schools are not likely to have close ties with one another.

This social experience of inequality through neighbourhoods and homes, schools, and workplaces – which recursively and structurally perpetuates social stratification. The fixes will not emerge from the government mandating integration or interactions or from the individual reading about, writing on, and volunteering around these issues. And it definitely goes beyond a reading of “This is what Inequality Looks Like” to clamour from the social-media armchair for policy fixes. As I wrote last year about our class divide: “The elite school student’s burden starts with an acknowledgement of disproportionate privilege, but it is not alleviated through volunteerism or social mixing through sports, arts, or heritage activities. What is instead necessary is the recognition that meritocracy in Singapore … is no longer as tenable, and thus broader work is needed to reduce unequal starting points, to continue empowering students from low-income families through the education system, and to maintain fairness and porosity through these endeavours”.

In the US, the college admissions scandal struck a raw nerve with many because there seemed to be a separate college admissions system for wealthy parents and their children. Long-time observers noted, nonetheless, that the rich – principally through college consultants, a practice which is increasingly ubiquitous in Singapore and which the top schools in Singapore are trying to master – has always gamed the admissions process, further reflecting the disadvantage faced by the poor and the low-income and an ever-growing socio-economic divide within societies. Unless we, those who have been unquestioningly anointed as “special”, confront the reality that we have enjoyed good fortune and have been, at times, unfairly advantaged, we will never recognise our obligation to the wider society.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 1 April 2019. It is reproduced with permission.


Singapore’s Social Divide Problem Extends Beyond The School

Focus on meritocracy leads to poor social outcomes

Abolishing Streaming In Secondary Schools: Netizens React