Monday, 11 February 2013

Where university is a different universe

Another letter to Straits Times that did not make the cut pre-Punggol East election, but had been too busy/ill to post:


At Tiong Bahru Primary my Brownie Owls organized a Christian group and we once met at a flat where I saw framed photographs of young people in funny gowns and hats. Someone explained to me they were graduating university.

University? It was a different planet.

Years later I told my mother I worried about not being able to afford to attend university. She said, “Don’t worry. You could get a scholarship.”

You see, every year at Raffles Girls we were encouraged by reading of sons and daughters of taxi-drivers and housewives winning prestigious scholarships.

I did not get a scholarship. Like most of my mates I was supported by generous family and friends, and worked as a private tutor.

As a research student I became a participant observer in a garment factory. The women on the shopfloor wondered why a ‘da-shuei’ (university) student was working for $9 a day.

One day the best machinist in the factory asked, “Is ‘da-shuei’ the same as ‘zhong-si’”? (Is ‘university’ the same as ‘secondary four’?)

In her world, school did not extend to secondary four and so university, much like secondary four, is a totally different universe.

Clearly, my university world and the world of the factory workers were light years apart. Had no one explained those graduation gowns to me, how different might my life have been?

Some people say that naming top scorers in public examinations would only cause people to think that only the academically inclined are honoured. They have conflated two issues here.

Young people need role models, particularly those from disadvantaged or ‘humble’ backgrounds, to spur them on, as it did me.

Conversely had mum only seen scholarships being awarded to sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, she would not have given me hope.

The other issue is that news blackouts on academic successes are merely treating the symptoms.

If you have (say) cancer, do you want the doctors to only stop the pain, or would you rather they killed the cancer?

So, what has changed in the meritocratic system that has helped people like Chan Chun Seng, Koh Poh Koon and me to get to university?


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