Written by Uyen Le-Khuc

This is the case with Raffles Institution (RI), currently the centre of criticism during a recent debate about its elitism and elite culture. The school was frowned at for its latest agenda “Don’t call us an elite school”, and an outreach programme to heartland primary schools.

The programme was an attempt at tackling the lack of diversity and the issue of elitism at RI, especially after its previous principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, admitted that the school was becoming “insular”. Since then, the school has doubled its efforts to reach out to primary schools in the heartlands to encourage prospective students from diverse backgrounds to apply to study there.

The difficult task of balancing meritocracy and diversity

Most arguments disagree with the aforementioned disavowal of RI’s elitism. While aiming for a more diverse student population is laudable, whether an institution is elite does not solely depend on the socio-economic profile of its students. RI is an elite school, due to its top position in an education system stratified in terms of academic performance and resources. Its entrance selection is also a practice of discrimination – only the best is chosen, and the weaker is rejected. The claim of Mr Frederick Yeo, current principal of RI, hence risks sounding “hubristic and disingenuous”.

Yet, it is this discriminatory selection system to which RI belongs – testing, streaming and competition – that allows the institution to build its formidable educational repute. Practically, the competitive quality control of student intake is what contributes to RI’s academic excellence, while the meticulous streaming enables customising teaching methods and resources to different groups of students. The issue of elitism is hence not much a direct result of RI’s status as elite, but an outcome of the larger meritocratic culture and environment.

To find a solution that introduces more diversity into RI’s culture without downplaying its academic excellence is a tough game of balancing meritocracy and inclusivity. Still, the first step to this is instead of rejecting its position as an elite, RI needs to accept its place and role in our society, so as to facilitate more open conversation about inequality and social division.

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