By Mabel Yet (19S03Q) and Mahima Sowrirajan (19S07A)
“Our system of meritocracy is working less well than it used to, two generations in.”
Even more than two years on, these words spoken by former Principal Mr. Chan Poh Meng still hit hard. Rafflesians take pride in their glorious, sparkling achievements, from clinching gold after gold in sports to sweeping the boards in Science Olympiads. Without thought, we applaud these outstanding individuals for their relentless strive for excellence. Yet, we often fail to consider what much of our achievements are enabled by – privilege.
Too often, we cocoon ourselves in a web of enrichment programmes, impeccable curriculums, endless examinations and competitions, neglecting the wider society beyond this bubble. Even in our midst, some of our peers hail from underprivileged backgrounds, many of whom we do not recognize, let alone empathise with.
In the hopes of getting the school population to better understand poverty and recognise our privileges, Empty Pocket, one of the four student interest groups (SIGs) in Raffles Community Advocates, organised Spectrum 2018. From the 3rd to 6th of April, the team rolled out several initiatives in the canteen, all with the common message that poverty is not a choice, but a circumstance perpetuated by disparities in society. Through Spectrum, CA aimed to elicit a sense of responsibility in students to be more sensitive to others’ financial backgrounds and to speak out for the less fortunate.
Snakes and Ladders
We’ve all played snakes and ladders as a kid, but the version of this childhood game CA brings to us is much more than mere winning.
Walking into the canteen, one would notice two grids constructed on the floor. A closer look would highlight that the game is rigged and clearly unfair: one boasts more ladders while the other is riddled with snakes. If you tried your hand at the game, being on the ‘disadvantaged’ board would definitely leave you frustrated as you continuously tumble down the snakes while your ‘advantaged’ counterpart scales the ladders effortlessly.
This uncannily parallels the unfair playing field in society, presenting a bleak picture of inequality and opportunity. While the privileged have greater opportunities to ‘level up’, the disadvantaged struggle against the odds to reach the same amount of progress, set back by circumstances not within their control. No matter how we attempt to hide it, social immobility is a very real issue in society. People are quick to blame this problem on the poor ‘not working hard enough’, choosing to undermine or even overlook the fact that poverty is a vicious cycle.
To illustrate how we could use our privilege to help the less-fortunate, “special actions” were also given to the advantaged team to level the playing field. For instance, they can “give the opposing team one of [their] ladders” or “move back the number of steps [they] wish to give to the opposing team”. A Year 5 student who played the game shared that this particular aspect of the game was “very sweet to observe, as most people on the advantaged side wanted to use their actions to help the other side”. A couple of Year 5s also commented that it was a “very good symbol that allowed people to understand [the different levels of privilege in society]” and that it was an “interesting way to demonstrate the message that not everyone starts off on an equal playing field”. This creative game design hence managed to get students to reflect upon the unlevel playing field in society, and hopefully encouraged them to do more for the less privileged.
The Step Step Social Experiment: If you were on these stairs, where would you stand?
Do you have a conducive study environment at home? Did you ever have trouble paying school fees? These were some of the questions asked during the next initiative conducted by Empty Pocket, the Step Step social experiment.
During the experiment, participants at the same starting point were asked specific questions on economic privilege, and moved up or down the staircase depending on their ‘privilege points’. With widely varying degrees of privilege, the experiment aimed to reiterate the lack of a fair and equal playing field. The questions dwelled on many typical and mundane aspects of student life to show the diverse manifestations of privilege, in turn conveying that privilege does not only encompass material preserves, but also the absence of certain stressors. One of the questions: “Have you ever had to turn down your friends’ offer to go out because you were short of money?” was particularly thought-provoking. The oft-hear, casual expressions, “I’m broke” or “I have no money”, perhaps deserves some serious reconsideration given that in our midst, the idea of enjoying a Starbucks beverage is simply too luxurious for the less well off.
Undeniably, the position we have in society is determined by our desire and effort to succeed, yet few recognise the ‘unearned’ privileges that gave us a boost up the ‘staircase’ in the first place. It is easy and convenient to attribute our success to hard work, but far more challenging to dedicate them to the privileges bestowed upon us. In fact, such monorail logic reinforces the stereotype that the poor have only themselves to blame.
The (POV)erty Interview
Through filming interviews of students, CA sought to spark a school wide conversation in questioning the assumptions individuals may hold about the poverty-stricken, along with uncovering more insights on the seldom-discussed topic of inequality. The video conveys important messages about the complexity of poverty and instigates us to reflect on the privileges we never really pondered over.
Take a moment to consider this statement: “The poor are poor because they don’t try hard enough”. Unsurprisingly, the controversial prompt caught the students off guard, seeming to suggest that the poor themselves were at fault for the circumstances they were in. It forced the students in the video to think and probe deeper into the issue, allowing them to deliver more nuanced and well thought-out opinions. As students, we are frequently reminded that hard work breeds success, but in our daily grind we unconsciously veil the inequalities deep-rooted in our social structure and undermine the fact that the poor start off on unequal footing. In contrast, most of us “have the privilege of being financially stable”, which easily eliminates many of the worries the less-fortunate have.
Keziah Lam (19A01B) pointed out that one of the reasons people may simply pass judgements about the poor is that “it’s easy to blame problems within society on other groups of people when you can’t find anything else to say about them”. It is true that many are ignorant about the problems the poor have to grapple with, hence trivialising the complex issue of poverty without realising it. When society holds such an opinion about the poor, “it impedes the process of improving welfare [for them]”, Yeo Kee Hwan (18S03Q) explained. Chen Jin Yang (19A01A) also raised the point that when many people hold onto this opinion, “it builds into a sort of self-complacency” and that the view is therefore “perhaps overly myopic”.
When faced with such a controversial statement, it was indeed heartening that Rafflesians recognised that poverty is crafted by circumstance rather than failings. However, such views remain rampant in a society governed by meritocracy, with some unaware about how potentially damaging such views can be.
Ultimately, the aim of the event was not to make us feel ashamed, apologetic or undeserving of the ‘unearned benefits’ we enjoy. We cannot deny our privilege, but privilege does not necessarily have to translate to ignorance. Even within our own school community, we all come from different backgrounds and are not of equal financial statuses. The first step forward in helping the underprivileged would be to be aware of our own privileges in our day to day life and in the way we interact with others. RI has often been stereotyped as an “elitist” school, and with it comes the assumption that all its students are smart and well-off. Through this event, if we are able to realise that the underprivileged aren’t just people who exist in communities we hardly interact with, but could even be our own peers – it would mean that the event was able to make an impact.
Having recognised your privilege, what are you going to do with it?