Hardwork does not guarantee success in Singapore’s meritocratic system

I get very troubled when someone from humble origins experiences social mobility and then suddenly becomes a diehard evangelist for ‘meritocracy’–without taking into account other contributory factors (other than pure ‘hard work’) that might have resulted in his or her ‘success’. This idea that ‘success is in everyone’s reach, provided they are not lazy and have the correct attitude’ is insidious because it ultimately suggests that one is poor not because of structural factors but solely because of one’s individual failings. I know that I myself came from a working class background, but I cannot overlook the following nudges up the meritocratic ladder:

1) While my parents both came from Malay-medium schools, I was forced to speak English from a very young age. My mother had internalised the Malay cultural deficit theory and insisted that I make friends only with non-Malay kids. What she had hoped for was some kind of cultural osmosis (I would copy the hardworking habits of the other Chinese kids supposedly), but a fortuitous effect was that I had to communicate regularly in English rather than Malay. And thus I overcame the ‘handicap’ of a Malay-speaking home background. As we all know, English proficiency is of course the social capital that gives one a head-start in an English-medium education system.

2) A complicated family history meant that my mother had half-siblings who were raised in a different environment than which she came from. The choices made for them were thus different–they were sent to English-medium schools, for example. Consequently, my relatives on my mother’s side became immediate and visible role models as they pursued higher education and entered university. I remember that one of my ambitions when I was very little was to actually become a postman, and later on a policeman (since my father was one). Having high-performing relatives allowed me to set my expectations higher.

3) I went for tuition during weekends. Tuition classes were held at a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school during weekends. Looking back, it must have been odd for me to don my RI uniform and go for those tuition classes–it would have appeared as either an indictment of the type of education I received in RI, or my kiasu parents!

I sometimes wonder how I would have performed in school if I did not have the particular sets of favourable circumstances I listed above, and just the thought of it makes me feel vulnerable. Meritocracy offers one opportunities, but often it feels like these are through a series of hoops–miss one and you’re out of the game. And the game is so much more precarious for us who were born with less–wealth, income, connections, social and cultural capital. No extra hoops for us. I worked hard in school, but to think that alone can guarantee social mobility is an arrogant delusion.

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