by Yeo Jia Qi (15S03H)
On May 28, RI alumnus Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan, speaking about the issue of meritocracy and inequality in Parliament, ignited controversy when he called his alma mater “less of a beacon of hope”. This brought to my mind Senior Deputy Principal Mr Magendiran brandishing a copy of Christopher Hayes’ “Twilight of the Elites” in the Multi-Purpose Hall during the January Induction Programme, and discussing whether the book’s argument, of America having been consumed by a “cult of smartness” that created ever greater inequality, was applicable to our esteemed Institution.
Beyond the common debate about the enormous gulf separating Rafflesians from the rest of Singaporeans, few of us have paused to consider the question of inequality within our own school and the broad divides that exist among Rafflesian students. In particular, I believe that equality within our institution has been undermined with the Raffles Academy (RA) programme, creating a curriculum within a curriculum, and a widening academic gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
It happens that I have the privilege of being friends with many highly intelligent, bright and deserving students who have joined the Raffles Academy, whether in Y3 or Y5. I am aware that my friends have benefited greatly from a more advanced curriculum, enrichment programmes, and studying with similarly interested and highly capable peers. Several I spoke to expressed their unwavering support for the RA and agreement with its precepts.
With the utmost respect for their opinion and the decision they have made, I wish to offer my personal, alternative perspective on why I chose not to join their ranks. These reasons motivated me to firmly reject three RA offers in Y2 and decline the chance to apply for the RA in Y5. Till this day I can say with all my heart that I do not regret my decision. It has given me the opportunity to view the RA through a different lens; an alternative perspective which I believe deserves more consideration.
To begin with, what I find most astonishing of all is that instead of being scrutinised, the RA status quo of privileging a select, highly capable few has been silently accepted with a mix of detachment and acquiescence. But I believe this is precisely why the RA merits even more concern. Collective apathy at large by those excluded, and enthusiastic participation by the few included, leads to a lack of diversity of viewpoints. It is precisely because these RA students are so greatly privileged that the programme as a whole – and its possible demerits – needs to be examined.
Certain persons … fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanicks upon a new foot. To this end, they procured an academy … In these colleges, the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures … with innumerable other happy proposals … the only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection.
–Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
What is undeniable is that in separating a few supposedly better, more deserving students from the rest of the cohort and providing tailored, customised opportunities for them to excel, the school is making them literally a class apart and figuratively a class above. They study a separate syllabus, grounded in but extending beyond the A-Level H2 syllabus: more advanced tutorials and separate lectures specially prepared for RA Chem students, RA Physics students having notes divided into sections marked “H2 content” and “RA content”. Beyond this, however, RA students also have access to a host of privileges, such as extra activities, competitions, and special programmes, that deserve to be scrutinized. This includes extra enrichment programmes (distinct from the programmes during Monday Protected Time) which are available only to RA students such as the compulsory Research Immersion Programme open to RA Bio students, involving numerous afternoon sessions in the OpenLab, and the fact that only RA Physics students are eligible for training and selection for the Singapore Physics Olympiad (unlike the Biology and Chemistry Olympiads, where any sufficiently competent student has a chance at a place on the team).
RA classes also have the advantage of being significantly smaller than the maximum class size of 27 students in mainstream classes. Though it is often claimed that timetabling constraints necessitate placing RA students together, this demands scrutiny, since much effort is made to accommodate contrasting subjects. This is not helped by the surprising variety of combinations. As such, RA classes’ timetables are a fragmented mess, with KI, H1 MT, Geography, History, ELL and Economics all showing up. There are advantages to a smaller class size, one of which is to enable a faster pace of learning. As one RA student put it, smaller classes mean RA students “are better able to concentrate”.
But beyond differences in curriculum and class sizes, RA students seem to be given privileges that extend beyond the arena of academic instruction. For instance, why do RA classes get to go for their class camps together on the same date, and before everyone else? Furthermore, why are all RA students, Math RA or not, in a separate lecture group for Math (MA4), while their “lectures” are not conducted in LTs, but in classrooms (the Mini-LT, B51 and B52), making them effectively bigger tutorials? Why are even non-Math-RA students deliberately separated out from “the rest”? When asked about the special Math lecture group arrangement, a non-Math-RA student unflinchingly told me, “It’s much better. Or else we wouldn’t be able to pay attention.” I couldn’t help but flinch.
All these privileges might seem justifiable. After all, in Singapore’s race-to-the-top meritocratic education system, it is quite natural that those at the top are the most privileged. It has been a long accepted premise that it is necessary, indeed laudable to devote more resources to developing and nurturing talent and to encourage the pursuit of excellence. As such, when one has been deemed capable and “exceptionally gifted” enough for the school to go the extra mile to “meet [your] learning needs”, it seems justifiable to be proud that you are receiving a better curriculum.
However, far from enhancing the cherished ideal that is the Singaporean (and Rafflesian) pursuit of excellence, what follows from this institutionalisation of superiority is a school-policy-sanctioned sense of exclusivity and entitlement that actually fundamentally serves to undermine it. The Rafflesian pursuit of excellence is a cherished ideal where everyone, not just a select few, has opportunities to “strive to give nothing less than they possibly can” as Mr Eugene Wijeysingha, our former headmaster, put it so eloquently. This means opportunities made equally available for everyone to excel.
Furthermore, it is undeniable that however exclusive RA classes are, there remains perhaps one unavoidable similarity between any average class and a RA class: differences in relative ability exist. There are the talented, the average, and the less able. With a smaller class, and higher standards, competition is fiercer; pressure mounts, and confidence suffers. Contrary to traditional belief, studying with the brightest may not be the best; coming up against higher-achieving peers could have a damaging impact on the confidence of those pupils who believe they are in the bottom half of their class. For the RA, with smaller, more competitive classes and higher expectations, this is especially astute an observation.
Reactions of previous (Y3-4) RA students currently in non-RA classes, when asked how they felt about being in a non-RA class now:
“Liberating.” (formerly in Phys RA)
“A relief … [there’s] less pressure.” (formerly in Phys RA)
“Easier to keep up … [but] less opportunities.” (formerly in Bio RA)
“Easier to cope.” (formerly in Math RA)
“Don’t need to spend so much extra time [on lesson content].” (formerly in Chem RA)
And finally, I argue that when all RA students are in the same class, there is excessive intellectual homogeneity. The classroom becomes a cocoon, its residents with similar academic mindsets, interests and talents. The PW aim of working with people of “different backgrounds” no longer seems to matter much when the class is small and everyone is academically more alike than different. This is exacerbated by the skewed gender ratios in certain RA classes leading to all-male PW groups, which, in theory, are supposed to be specifically prevented during the grouping process. With a class of individuals more similar than different in backgrounds and interests, I question if the RA curriculum has sacrificed developing soft interpersonal skills in favour of hard academic aptitude. After all, these skills, developed through working with people from diverse backgrounds and characteristics, will be far more important in the near and far future than, possibly, getting a headstart in the university curriculum. Does the RA curriculum’s intellectual homogeneity and fiercer competition entrench a skewed definition of success, with what may be viewed as more than acceptable by the average achiever considered far from acceptable by the RA student? These are questions worth trying to answer, or at least reflecting upon.
Till this day, I firmly believe the Institution, in privileging certain more capable students with RA status, forsakes equality to enshrine the maximal pursuit of excellence. I can only suggest that at the very least, it should try to ensure that the RA, and its exclusive privileges, do not inadvertently result in a false sense of insulated superiority. Inculcating an awareness of the very act of this privileging, and the detriments that certain unavoidable features of the RA programme also bring, would go a long way in bridging the gap between the haves, and the have-nots.
The author would like to acknowledge the RA and non-RA students who have assisted him by providing information for this article.
You may want to take a look at another point of view offered by another of our authors.