Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Prestigious school not always the wisest choice

Prestigious school not always the wisest choice
Dr Lee Wei Ling
Dec 5, 2005

I REFER to the article 'Help our less privileged kids to dream big, aim high' (ST, Dec 2).

Ms Laurel Teo worries that an academically outstanding student like Hamizah Nordin may limit her potential by not aiming for an elite school like Raffles Girls' School (RGS).

She speculates whether students from a less privileged background may not be aware of better opportunities in elite schools.

I beg to differ. I am glad Hamizah chose her friendly neighbourhood school. If her PSLE result is not a fluke, she will do well whatever school she chooses.

More important, she will have her feet kept firmly on the ground by mixing and studying with students who are not all academic high-flyers.

Our meritocratic system, and the fact that academic intelligence (some would call it IQ) is to a large extent genetically determined, has already allowed the cream to float to the top.

The vast majority of children from elite schools have parents who are professionals or wealthy businessmen. They mix among themselves without knowing there is a large section of society leading a different way of life, and often there is an element of snobbishness in making it to an elite school.

In the 1960s, the Nanyang primary and secondary schools I attended had a totally different student population from today. Many of my classmates came from the surrounding kampungs. Nanyang was anything but an elite school. Those of us who were stronger academically were tasked to tutor the weaker students. An experience that was valuable to both groups.

Today, Nanyang Primary is a highly desirable school to get into. Parents who can afford it, buy houses within the 1km radius to get priority for admission to Nanyang Primary. After entering, they mix with other children from upper middle class families who usually also do well academically.

Those who find difficulty coping academically are advised to get tuition, and when despite tuition, they cannot do as well as their peers, they develop psychological problems, especially low self-esteem and thinking themselves stupid when they are of average intelligence.

I benefited from the old Nanyang of the 1960s from mixing with children from all walks of life and all degrees of academic ability. I learnt there is more to a person than his academic performance.

After O levels, I moved to Raffles Institution not because it was an elite school. On the contrary, I chose Raffles because National Junior College (NJC) was at that time not only the elite school but also the favourite school of the Ministry of Education. I did not want the unfair advantage accorded to NJC in terms of facilities and teachers.

I left Nanyang not because its pre-university was not among the elite but because I wanted to do medicine and needed to study science subjects from textbooks written in English.

Again in the Raffles Institution of my day, students came from all walks of life. Many of my friends lived in HDB flats and took the bus to school. Again, I learnt about the real world in the Singapore of the early 1970s through my friends.

I did the medicine combination: biology, chemistry, physics and economics. Except for physics where I had an exceptionally enthusiastic teacher, I tackled the other subjects by self-study.

Often, right in front of the biology, chemistry or economics teacher's nose, I would be reading something else. Yet I topped Singapore in my A-level results for science students.

I say this not to boast but to prove the point that an academically capable student who knows the importance of self-study will do well academically in any school, elite or otherwise.

I did not aim for Cambridge, Oxford or Harvard. I am proud to say I graduated from the then University of Singapore. That I do not have a degree from a prestigious foreign university is not why I have not been as successful in conventional terms as my two brothers who both went to Cambridge.

I write this rambling account of my student life to show that going to a prestigious educational institution just because it is prestigious is not always the wisest choice.

I learnt more valuable lessons such as empathy for the less academically inclined, that there were other aspects of the human mind such as integrity, honesty, courage, generosity and compassion that are just as if not more important than academic ability.

At each stage where a decision about which educational institution to choose had to be made, I knew and had all my options. But I did not dream bigger or aim higher (or more accurately, I did not follow what the elite students of my cohort did), not because I was not aware of the other options but because being considered 'elite' was not important to me.

I wish Hamizah the best. Ten years from now, I am sure, barring any change in her character, she will do well even though she did not choose RGS.

I wonder if Dr Lee is aware that elitism has been created not only in Singapore education arena but also in the civil service and politic scene.

Singapore government officials and ministers are now mainly academic aces who are unable to understand the real world the majority of Singaporeans live in. They didn't understand why Singaporeans complained so much over what they considered as negligible increases in GST and transport fares. They also didn't understand that $600,000 is not an ordinary peanut to most Singaporeans who are earning less than $24,000 p.a.