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The Great Education Arms Race

Essays | Trina Priscilla Ng (Commentary Editor)

Photo: Manny Francisco/Straits Times Illustration

Inequality in the Classroom - The Great Education Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years I had signed up as a volunteer to two separate projects which involved my functioning as a mentor to younger students. These were students who were similar in many ways: they were of the primary to secondary school demographic, and I would be there to guide them through their academic queries if necessary. There was just one stark difference, however: one group of students were mostly from low-income families, and the other group of students were largely from more well-to-do families, hailing mostly from what most would regard as “elite schools”.

Call it coincidence, but the two projects were scheduled just within a day of each other. At the first project I watched as students tried, grappled with their school content and gradually grew disinterested in their work. At the second, I saw young students, donning suits too big for their bodies and debating about pertinent geopolitical affairs.

They were the same age. It was a jarring juxtaposition and a realization I didn’t know I was ready to make.

Indeed - not everyone has had similar advantages and head start in life.

Expanding the Markers of Inequality

Beyond the reach of our collective memories inequality has existed. A superficial understanding of the concept of inequality might lead us to look only at tangible outcomes as a basis of comparison. In such an approach, one might look to an individual’s level of material wealth and economic affluence to gauge progress.

When a person’s level of material wealth is used as a barometer for well-being and success, raising the income of families becomes the goal for those aiming to reduce inequality.

As such, a minimal level of financial wealth and stability is essential to ensuring a person’s basic needs are met. However, focusing on reducing inequality in outcomes alone is merely a superficial solution to a much more deep-rooted and insidious problem.

Manifestations of Inequality

The other way inequality silently rears its ugly head is in the way students have differing access to opportunities.

An IPS study showed that people who live in public housing have, on average, about one friend or fewer who lives in private housing. Essentially, an invisible divide is drawn between social classes in Singapore.

It would not be atypical to see students from “elite schools” filling their holidays with internships, competitions or international conferences. However, these are not luxuries easily available to those from a less privileged background.

The problem to varying access to opportunities is much more multi-layered: not all students have equal access to the knowledge that these opportunities exist. Those who do battle against selection systems and interview criteria which disadvantage them unfairly. Other than selection criteria (i.e. academic achievements) which have been clearly stated, other biases like a student’s cultural capital, poise and mannerisms can come into play to influence an interviewer’s decisions.

Problems with Inequality

Everyone has dreams. For some, these dreams materialized into a tangible reality. For others, these dreams were left to dissolve into foam. The harsh reality is that it is much more difficult for a person to rise up the social ladder than to maintain one’s position on it.

This is not to say that meritocracy is a bad system for our society. Rather, this is merely an admission that a meritocratic system, like all other systems, are imperfect. Benchmarks set to determine value in an individual are flawed, and unfairly favour those who have been given a head start in a more fortunate life. For those from a less privileged background, fighting against such a system might feel like a losing battle, and the constant blows to a person’s confidence can shatter their will to chase their dreams.

A Solution

Is inequality a problem we can solve? No. But, is the gap between our most and least advantaged students a gap we can narrow? Yes.

A society has finite resources, and we can never (and should never) work towards equality in outcomes or an equality in resource distribution. Instead, we should work towards unequal but fair distribution of resources, as well as seriously considering a shift in where we set our goalposts of success. If the markers of success are decided upon by victors of a pre-existing system, how then could selection processes truly be objective?

On a personal level, it becomes all the more crucial to acknowledge one’s privilege. In acknowledging that we are all merely products of our circumstances, we realize that we sometimes give ourselves too much credit for our successes. As a by-product, we shape a narrative that unfairly punishes those who have not conventionally succeeded by pinning onto them labels and accusations of being “lazy” and “unmotivated”.

Those who have been privileged do not have to have been granted anything in excess. I know that I have been privileged because I have quietly benefitted from a system that rewards values that I have, as a product of factors that I had no say in controlling.

In all my idealism, I still believe in the power of change. Perhaps it is an advice, maybe it is a plea, but I urge those who can to make a conscious choice to work in their best capacities to expand access to opportunities, to nurture and mentor, and commit to viewing others without prejudice. It is still a long way to go – but it is my hope we will reach with outstretched arms into a brighter, more equitable world.


Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. (2017). A study of Social Capital in Singapore. Retrieved from: https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/study-of-social-capital-in-singapore.pdf

Trina Priscilla Ng is a Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She believes in the value of encouraging discourse about pertinent issues and feels most strongly about healthcare and about inequality. At other times, she is a medical student at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

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