I am a child of meritocracy (and why I still love Singapore)


I had meant to write about some fancy theory on delayed gratification and what it has got to do with managing your time what with this current reminder every day that there are only x number of days to your exams. But with National Day 1 day away, I thought I would post this youtube video that a friend forwarded to me a couple of days ago instead. It has supposedly gone viral and it’s easy to see why. The video is titled ‘I still love you’ and I think in many ways it reflects the authentic sentiment of many Singaporeans including myself.
I am a child of Singapore’s meritocracy. Money was not something we had in the house a lot and more than once the electricity was cut off because my parents didn’t have the money to pay. As a 7-year old then, I thought the government was being so uncompassionate and cold-hearted, that they didn’t empathize with the ordinary citizen’s difficulties. I was so worried at that time that the government will also stop me from going to school one day if my parents can’t pay the school fees so I spent a lot of time crying and worrying and wondering with each day that I go to school if it would be my last. Of course I didn’t know that the school fees then was only $3.50 a month and that Singapore’s education policies were such that no child would be denied an education regardless of financial background. I didn’t dare to break any school rules, joined 7 CCAs, volunteered in school tirelessly for any and every event and pushed myself to ‘over-perform’ thinking that the school will then have no choice but to keep me in school even if I don’t pay the fees.

School was a happy place for me. A place where I can feel like I’m no different from other children who have wealthier parents. In fact it was the only place where I could feel that I’m better than other children because I performed better academically. It was the only place where I could feel good about myself and not have to feel looked down upon by others because my family was poor. When I entered RGS, the disparity was felt more acutely because my classmates would be chauffeured to school in BMWs. I remembered that once my form teacher frowned and looked rather annoyed when I returned her my pledge card and told her I couldn’t raise the requisite amount for the school flag day. However, I know that at no point in my education did I feel that I was not given the same opportunities as the other students in my class. I learned that in Singapore, meritocracy means that it doesn’t matter what background you come from; you can progress in life based on merit (hard work and achievement) alone.

Today I no longer worry about not having enough money to pay the electricity bill. Today I know my employer doesn’t ask about what family background I’m from but look solely at my merits. Having lived in a few places overseas, I know that there are still so many places in the world where you’re not given the opportunities that are given to children from wealthy family background. Education in some of these places is a selective luxury only for the well-off. People who are poor remain poor and there is seemingly no way out of the poverty cycle. That’s why I value education, and why I feel so sad when a student chooses to drop out of school, and why I would give it all I have to bring a student back to school to continue their education. How about you? What is the value of education to you? I ask that questions sometimes when students come and talk to me. I find that when they are able to connect with and find the value of education to them, motivation comes naturally.
Tomorrow we’ll be celerating our country’s birthday. As cliche as it sounds, I know that my life might have turned out quite differently if I was not born in Singapore. So Happy Birthday Singapore!
Ps: I still love you, Singapore. J