Singapore Media Watch

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Editorial Review: The class divide behind the Wee Shu Min saga (Part 2)

The "Elite" in Singapore schools and government: a syndrome or system?

In her blog, Miss Wee referred to herself as belonging to the "elite" and was slammed in return for her "elitist" remark. Is there a priviledged class in Singapore and who qualifies to be an "elite"?

Singapore has always pride itself to be a meritocracy where fair and equal opportunities are given to all its citizens to climb up the economic and social ladder regardless of race, religion or family background.

This is largely true in the education system where students are admitted to universities based solely on academic criteria and government agencies where stringent guidelines are in place to appraise and evaluate a civil servant's performance.

The "elite" is an anomaly borned out of the very success of Singapore's meritocracy which is based on the Darwinian principles of "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest".

Singapore students are assessed and categorized as young as 10 into different streams based on academic performance (this system was abandoned recently by the Ministry of Education and a different form of streaming based on aptitude instead will take its place in 2007).

At the end of 6 years of primary school education, students take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) which will determine the "class" they belong to in the education system for the rest of their lives.

The top of the cohort will be selected to study in the best secondary schools in the country such as Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls School, The Chinese High, Victoria High, Anglo-Chinese School and Dunman High which are usually staffed with highly qualified and motivated teachers.

These students usually proceed to do well at the GCSE "O" levels to continue their pre-tertiary education at prestigious colleges such as Raffles Junior College where Miss Wee is currently pursuing her studies.

Upon graduation from junior college, many of these academic high-flyers will be cherry-picked and awarded scholarships by major government bodies such as PSC (Public Service Commission), EDB (Economic Development Board), SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) and ASTAR (Agency for Science, Technology And Research) where they are groomed and nurtured meticulosly to become future leaders of their respective organizations.

Unless they make a major blunder, scholars are usually guaranteed a rewarding career commanding pay packages littered with attractive perks and incentives comparable to the private sector.

The performance of these scholars in public service will be subjected to strict scrutiny and some are eventually invited to join politics by contesting in the election on the ticket of the ruling PAP (People's Action Party).

Of the 18 members of Singapore's current cabinet, all of them have university degree holders and 11 of them are past President, SAF or Colombo Plan scholars. (source:

In a most ironic fashion, this unique Singapore "brand" of meritocracy so espoused and applauded by its leaders is in fact the creator and perpetuator of a class of "elite" privy to certain economic and political rights not enjoyed by the rest of the population.

A class divide between the rulers and the ruled

Though the ruling PAP, which had enjoyed absolute monopoly of power in government since 1959, has overseen the transformation of Singapore from Third to First World nation in 4 decades, there is growing vocal opposition against its style of governance especially among young Singaporeans.

One common grouse is that the ruling PAP elite, having been living in an ivory tower throughout their lives where their paths are well mapped out by the system, are unable to understand and empathize with the difficulties encountered by the "man in the street".

The critics are quick to jump onto Mr Wee Siew Kim's remarks that he agreed "with her daughter's basic points" as being arrogant, insensitive and derogatory and on the whole reflects the government's dismissive and unsympathetic stance towards those asking for more assistance from them.

The backlash was particularly evident and disturbing on the internet, where, free from any government meddling or moderation, there were loud calls for Mr Wee to step down from his MP's position as he has lost all "morality" and "credibility". The unwillingness of the mainstream media to publish these articles further add fuel to the dissent and fury of netizens.

Besides Mr Wee, other PAP leaders and MPs have chosen to stay clear from the saga, preferring to regard this as a personal affair of Mr Wee completely unrelated to the government. By pulling a wool over their ears and eyes, they hope this unfortunate isolated episode will soon fade away in Singaporeans' memory.

There is no doubt that Singaporeans will soon forget and even forgive Miss Wee's words and the controversy from which it ensures. However, the real underlying issues that prompt Singaporeans to react en masse in unison remains unanswered.

As the flames sparked off by Mr Wee and her daughter eventually die off, smothering quietly beneath the ash is an increasingly palpable anger towards the government for all woes right or wrong, fair or unfair.

Instead of dismissing them as simply trouble-makers, it is time for the government to start acknowledging and engaging its critics in order to assauge this lingering malaise before further damage is done.


  • Oh yes... Everyone is indeed equal or given equal opportunity here in Singapore, just that some are "more equal" than others. Have our leaders place themselves on those tall pedestals for so long that they have forgotten what the earth and the dust on the ground feel like?

    By Anonymous K`, at 12:59 PM  

  • presently, we still have the 'Old' Leaders to guide, to oversee the young Leaders. Those Old leader are not all growth from 'young elite' and soon they will retire and hand over... I think the government need some voice from the "poor, looking for basic need" family backgroup, they are the one who's really understand what is "poor" to them?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:07 PM  

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