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Top: The old SJI campus at Bras Basah Rd.
Image credit: TheLongnWindingRoad

I began thinking a lot about my days at SJI when I passed the newly renovated campus just a few weeks ago. In doing so, I came to realise that independent school identities were never just about who we were. They were also about who we were not supposed to be; an identity always in relation to the others we were meant to be differentiated from.

For the 4 years I attended Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI), I was informed that SJI boys only dated IJ girls. Specifically, CHIJ Toa Payoh girls. The St. Nick’s girls were for the Catholic High boys, and even though MGS wasn’t too far from our Malcolm Road campus, they were off-limits because the ACS boys had first dibs.

If you wanted to live dangerously, you dated a girl from Nanyang Girls High.

A lot of these school culture stereotypes sound arbitrary now, as though it was just good fun at the time to joke about how all SCGS girls grow up to become tai tais. But it was enough to land me in a relationship with an IJ girl that lasted way longer than it should have.

And I wasn’t the only one. From who we dated to how we carried ourselves, this was how seriously we took the template of the “model” SJI boy.

Here’s the thing about independent schools. When you get into one, you’re buying into a unique cultural consciousness—one built on tradition, values, and a specific concept of the person you’re supposed to become. It sounds fairly non-toxic, but this sort of school branding was the first step towards us independent school students seeing ourselves as different (better) than others.

In other words, school culture played a big part in nurturing our elitism.

School culture, from who you're supposed to date to the sports you play, makes students keenly aware that they are not like everyone else. This is where elitism begins. (Image credit: Jade Seah)

Before independent schools became synonymous with “elite” schools, they were mostly mission schools—authoritarian institutions run by religious missionaries who believed that a rigourous education was a crucial part of every child’s development. These schools already had a reputation for producing better students because of how strict their teachers were, and beyond this, there was also an emphasis on values and character building.

In 1988, the Ministry of Education introduced the independent schools programme, allowing certain established schools to expand their curriculum, hire their own teachers, and determine their own (higher) school fees.

This, I suppose, would go on to legitimise their “elite” status.

Yet no student starts school in ACS (I) knowing he’s one day going to be seen as an affluent, smooth-talking douchebag, even though we look at students who embody these independent school stereotypes and think they must have been born this way.

I, for one, ended up in SJI only because I was Catholic and my mother, having attended a Convent school, wanted me to have a mission school education. I knew that SJI was a good school (whatever this meant), but I don’t remember thinking at the time that this was my first step towards an eventual career in politics.

This, however, didn’t stop a former schoolmate from being publicly shamed when a rant about NSKs (neighbourhood school kids) was ripped from his personal blog and distributed. That schoolmate was one of the nicest people I knew, but at the time, his opinions were very much a product of our school environment. He just didn’t know it.

This is what I’ve come to see as the independent school conundrum: many of us don’t start out as elitists or even bad people, but how we’re taught—from values to school culture to things like dining etiquette lessons—hammers a sense of privileged difference into us. Inevitably, we become “elitist” over the course of our education.

Here in Singapore, we like to talk about how every school is a good school. It’s a piece of fiction we keep peddling to remain convinced that social mobility is an equal access opportunity. In reality, independent schools, if you can afford to attend them, are better. Period. (This is a story for another time.)

Money will always get you a better version of what’s out there. It’s not right, but it is how the world works.

For a lot of us, it’s a “better” we all took for granted until much later when we entered the real world and began to question our carefully nurtured idealism.

Or at least some of us did. Whenever I run into old classmates, I’m still amused by the ones who unironically quote our school motto in casual conversation, and still talk about being ‘men for others’ as though they’re still school prefects in their green ties.

I’m amused because while there are these guys, there’s also a whole bunch of us who’ve done everything we can to shed our independent school identities. We’ve pursued offbeat career paths, started speaking more Singlish, and even overhauled our social circles to make them more diverse and inclusive, as though this will prove that we have—I don’t know—climbed down the ivory tower?

In a speech from 1998, then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan said that the independent school system was never about creating a few good schools, and that it was an experiment from which the entire country’s education system has benefited.

Despite this, we all know that the elitist bubble exists. Yes, there are these guys who seem really sold on making the world a better place by never leaving the office to talk to real people. But the fact that I’m aware that social inequalities exist doesn’t make me a better person either.

Whether I like it or not, I’ve benefited immensely from an independent school education. As much as I now squirm at my naivety from those days, bashing the existence of elitism is also completely pointless.

Everywhere you go, money will always get you a better version of what’s out there. I’m not saying that it’s right, but it is how the world works. It’s also why financial aid programmes exist, so the most under-privileged get a shot at an “elite” education as well.

In Singapore, people get their panties in a twist when it comes to independent school elitism because we still cling to the belief that grades are everything. It doesn’t help either when some MP’s daughter comes along to tell you to get out of her “elite, uncaring face.”

But in all honesty, an “elite” education is only one way forward. A career in business or politics is only one way to be happy. If you can afford it, by all means send your kids to a “elite” school because chances are, it is better.

If you can’t, it’s not the end of the world because real education only starts when school ends. It’s far more important to make sure your kids play hard, get a part-time job as soon as they’re old enough, cultivate their interests, and they’ll be just fine.

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