The minion rants: Dear Russell, you are no elite

I have some choice words for a young man, Russell Tan, whose letter to the ST today enraged me with his presumptuousness. However, I pride myself for being a mature adult and shall refrain from a full tirade against a 19 year old, who in a decade will rue the fact that this letter is available on the internet for his future employers to locate. 

Still… 

Dear Russell,

You need to learn a few facts of life. You are not part of the “elite” because you are necessarily more intelligent and more deserving to be there. You are there because you have had more opportunities to learn and more room to grow than others who may not be as fortunate. You are not there just on your own merit much as you would like to think so; you are there because your parents have had the resources to put you in good stead. Try surviving on your own merit if you have to help your parents put food on the table, or if you can’t afford to have books let alone Internet access at home.

Your principal was warning against the problems with income inequality becoming more entrenched – where the not-so-rich or the poor loses even the chance of upward mobility. There was a point in Raffles history, when if you were poor but smart and willing to work hard, you could still make it there and make it everywhere. One key reason for that is that the opportunities the richer parents could provide your peers were not so insurmountably high that you could not overcome them. Now however, the difference in opportunities is much wider and the richer have such a head start that sheer effort and brilliance alone may (read: are) no longer be enough. 

This is not the dark side of meritocracy as you speak of it – this is income inequality subverting the system of meritocracy. 

You are right that the solution is not a knee jerk affirmative action policy, such that poorer students with less stellar grades are given a handicap and admitted into the school on that basis alone; that’s only addressing a symptom. The solution is sharper public policy led by a more humane and insightful leadership, and kept honest by an active, engaged and educated civil society, that can understand and address issues of income inequality and social stratification. This is the elite you mention, leaders capable of building Singapore to greater heights. 

You don’t seem to be one of them. At least not yet, but there is hope that you will be more mature with years. 

I was from Raffles too, and today, with your letter, I felt only embarrassed being associated with the school.

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This brings me to my pet topic. I have two major causes in life: LGBT equality and  access to early childhood education. I firmly believe that the difference that income levels make in education attainment starts before formal schooling and if you don’t catch the children early, the ability to bolster upward mobility later becomes even harder. 

Take my family for instance. I am well aware that we are among the privileged and we have been exploiting that privilege to give the lil boss the best possible environment without being opulent. Not that I negate the fact that quite a fair bit of educating a child has less to do with what money can buy than what the parents spend time doing with the child, but honestly, money helps. 

At the very basic level, we do not have to worry about necessities, so we are spared from having to choose between spending a few more hours at work to earn enough to feed and clothe the lil boss and spending that time bonding and just plain playing with them, because that is the fastest young children learn. 

We have also been able to afford a wide variety of experiential learning. The lil boss has attended art groups, and theatrical and orchestral performances. We visit the zoo and aquarium regularly, and we have brought him to places of interest depending on the flavour of the month. We also do a lot of parks, pools and fields – free spaces – but we broaden what horizons we can. 

We provide him with luxuries at home. The luxury of bookshelves with a constantly growing collection. The benefit owning a book has over borrowing from the library? He has manhandled books from a very young age without fear of damage; he wakes up everyday to a wall of books, so it has become a way of life; he can draw similarities immediately between books and ideas because they are physically in front of him. The luxury of an art station filled with art materials that this minion is obsessed with and the luxury of musical instruments. 

From an intellectual stimulation angle, the lil boss is privileged. Even then, he does not necessarily have a head-start in academic terms. We do not send him for the enrichment classes that so many parents have already started their children on – brain training, memory training, infant instrument classes. We have also tried to be very practical about choices of preschool ($2,000/month for a branded preschool with fabulous facilities? Absolutely not.) Heaven forbid, preschool tuition!  

What does the difference in early childhood mean? It means that the experience and exposure children have prior to entering primary school would already be highly differentiated. Those who have learnt concepts either from parents who have more time at home or at classes are better able to catch on during the formal classes, and are more likely to be confident in their abilities. Those who have not, will then have to play catch-up, even as their peers push on ahead. 

Then there are the more subtle differences. I am a firm subscriber to the notion that early childhood education shapes the way an individual can process information and learn dramatically. It’s when the brain is at its most elastic and “spongiest” – a young child learns new tricks, new ideas, new ways of thinking far faster. The more you teach a young child, the more they can be geared to learn later on. 

What then for children living in less privileged households? Children whose parents have to struggle to ensure that their basic living needs are met? Children who do not have extensive tuition and extra-curricular classes, who may not be able to understand the concepts that their school teacher has glossed over because the rest of the class has already learnt them outside of the classroom? Children who do not have access to a computer much less the Internet? How much harder do they and their parents have to work to bridge the gap and ‘catch up’? 

Now how do we help change that, such that every child has a good chance? Not necessarily equal, because leveling the playing field requires a bloody miracle and a global reset button, but at least a good chance. I donate resources where I can, but I long for a systemic solution. At minimum, I reckon, make early childhood classes with its pooled resources free. Those who can afford it will pay the premium still to go to better preschools, but at the very least, those who can’t have an option. If necessary, reduce the subsidies for university education to help foot the bill, or shift to a needs-based subsidy system. Shift the funds we are investing year after year in bigger, brighter state of the art facilities in government schools – invest in the people first, the infrastructure is the icing. The school does not need a pool, an air conditioned sports hall, its own performing arts facility. Those are luxuries- access to early childhood is not. 

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