Only three courses have ever rejected me in my life.
The first institution which I applied to which dinged me was Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But who am I kidding to think that I even stood a chance. I thought a rejection letter from MIT was actually quite cool. At least they bothered to send me one.
The second program to reject me was NUS' Diploma Program in Arbitration by their faculty of Law when I attempted to sneak myself into its first intake because I thought that an IT guy who can arbitrate outsourcing disputes might put me in blue ocean territory. Turns out that the first intake for arbitrators is actually red ocean territory. After the rejection letter came, I figured out that getting into a second or subsequent intake would not be worth my time. Pioneer or bust.
The most painful rejection I ever experienced, which many Singaporeans can relate to, was a rejection by RI. I was aged 12. I got 255 for my PSLE and my neighbour who got 259 claimed that a donation allowed them to get in (this was 1986). I cried for days because my parents, who hardly understood the education system, knew only RI as one good school - every other school is a shit school.
So you can imagine that I may have a chip on my shoulder with regards to elite education in Singapore.
But as it turns out I don't.
My friends from RI has never made me feel excluded and are hardly elitist. I've always been assessed by the strength and quality of my ideas. And they make great intellectual conversation which I struggle to find anywhere else. So as I get to know more people, I actually want my RI friends to stay the same.
So the latest flavour of the day is Russell Tan Wah Jian who wrote a hilarious essay to defend the status quo of elite education. It was so entertaining that the New Nation, a troll website, was able to reproduce it without modification.
While I think that crowds are rightfully mad as Russell seems to think that Raffles has a monopoly over the future leadership in Singapore. But when I think about TT Durai, Kong Hee and Rev Ming Yi and I understand why Russell Tan deserves a cock punch from the rest of the Internet.
But the idea of keeping an institution an elite one based on academic intelligence is something which would be good for Singapore in the future. Having many smart people at one location would be a great place for educators to experiment with new and potentially game-changing ideas and benefit government schools later. The downside of risk taking in teaching is that smart folks can recover from bad initiatives. RI kids don't stay in RI forever, eventually, some come to NUS and face us Goblins champions in the battle of ideas and they don't necessary win all the time.
So I would actually want to reinforce Russell's main argument but in a much more palatable way.
I think that the root cause of the issue concerns the, Chan Poh Meng, the current principal who labelled his institution a 'middle class' institution. Mr Chan has promoted the idea that the rich can afford tuition and give their children a huge advantage during the PSLEs. As a consequence of that RI has become the stomping ground of the well heeled.
That is an unfair characterisation of students in elite institutions.
Rich kids may actually be smart kids.
Social scientists are studying a social phenomenon called assortative mating has occured in most advanced societies. When scholars marry other scholars, their children would generally have higher intelligence than average kids like me. Do this over a generation, and it is actually possible to show in studies that many smart kids may actually come from rich families. This is a common social phenomenon faced by all advanced societies. Take tuition out of the equation, and these kids would still excel, poorer kids may flounder.
The question then remains is what to do with rich but smart kids.
If we emphasise equality in our society, then there is the fear that affirmative action would take place to allow kids from poorer backgrounds to get into an elite school with lower grades.
This is a horrible idea. You are in effect, handicapping kids for being rich.
I don't think that is the way to go.
Raffles will become similar to Bumiputra institutions in Malaysia. Similar to graduates of Malaysian Universities, employers will know that some students are of the affirmative action variety and would moderate their decision making on hiring accordingly. The Raffles brand identity would be irrevocably destroyed.
( And the boys at Barker road will be laughing all the way to Goldman Sachs from their Maseratis. )
Russell Tan is, therefore, not completely wrong.
We should never sacrifice equity on the altar of equality. That is a foundation of the meritocracy that we are in.
Chan Poh Meng's concern should be reframed as follows :
a) A good school like RI should not accept a student who can, simply by being rich, hire scores of tutors to help them get into the school of their choice.
b) A student should be accepted for being smart, regardless of how rich he can be.
c) However, a smart student should not be denied a seat by virtue of being rich.
So I offer one possible solution :
PSLE is like hacked software. Tutors have found all sorts of ways to game it and can teach it for a fee. It is high time that all the top secondary schools create their own entrance examinations.
These examinations should be administered after the PSLE and be drawn from some PSLE material and some material from current affairs.
Students who score a high but reasonable PSLE score like 260 can attend a bootcamp and then take the entrance exam to determine whether he can get a seat in a top secondary school. He has one try for one school of his choice.
Different top schools administer different entrance exams with a different emphasis. Students cannot prepare for these exams.
Hwa Chong can administer a Chinese Physics paper. An RI entrance exam may expect the kids to take a bootcamp in basic chemistry in one year, and have them create a fantasy language from scratch in another year, extract logical fallacies from a blog article in a third year or write an app in a fourth year.
Exams are designed such that they are one-shot and cannot be replicated or taught by the tuition industry.
All exams test the student in applying knowledge to practical issues.
At the end of the day, there are conservatives like myself who are concerned about recent left-winged initiatives by the government.
Chan Poh Meng is just a phenomenon of the emerging political left from the PAP which has, of late, trying to enact policies which tinker with our concept of meritocracy in a way which may risk Singapore's competitiveness.