By Shabana Begum
My secondary school classmates had received their booklists for the following academic year when my teacher beckoned me over. She handed me a coloured sheet: an alternative booklist for me to receive free textbooks from bookstore vendors.
You see, I was on financial aid.
As I returned to my desk, a neighbour asked me why I was given a “special” list. I slipped the green paper into my bag and looked ahead, avoiding her gaze.
Fast forward to two years later. I was in a tutorial room in junior college (JC), sheepishly explaining to my form tutor that I would not be able to contribute to my class fundraiser as my parents couldn’t afford the donation.
When a classmate asked me if I had pitched in, I lied and said yes.
As the only student in a class of 40 who needed financial assistance, I felt ashamed to discuss my family’s reliance on government aid. I was also slightly envious of my schoolmates who received more allowance and could pay for their school materials.
In both secondary school and JC, I felt like a strip of copper lost in a sea of gold because of the clear class divide.
Class divide in Singapore
Due to elitism and the location of “top” schools in wealthier districts, class divide among students has been an issue in pre-tertiary institutions.
A 2016 study by the Singapore Children’s Society revealed that students with higher socio-economic statuses were more likely to attend schools that offered the Gifted Education Programme and the Integrated Programme.
More recently, a study conducted last December by The Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) concluded that people from wealthier backgrounds tended to interact more with people like themselves and less with people of lower social standing, and vice versa.
The study used income levels and types of housing and schools as indicators of social class. For instance, a person from a non-elite school has fewer than one friend who attended an elite school.
IPS researchers warned that the social class divide may culminate in tension among social classes, leading to a “winners versus losers” attitude in Singapore society.
To avoid this scenario, the researchers encouraged Singaporeans to engage in social mixing and understand the narratives of individuals who are different from them.
All is not lost. When I enrolled in university, I found myself surrounded by a diverse student body, comprised of young people from all financial backgrounds.
In 2017, about 2,240 more university places were made available in NTU, NUS and SMU combined, under the Discretionary Admissions Scheme.
Under this scheme, applicants who did not meet the entry score of their preferred courses but show proficiency and interest in their chosen disciplines, would be admitted into university.
By 2020, the Ministry Of Education also plans to raise the Cohort Participation Rate (CPR) in universities to 40 per cent, from 33 per cent in 2016. The CPR refers to the percentage of students from each Primary One cohort that have secured an undergraduate position in Singapore’s publicly funded universities.
With an increasing student population that consists of both academic and non-academic talents, the chances of having more students from different financial backgrounds will be higher.
The recent announcements suggest that universities can serve a function beyond academia. Campuses can provide opportunities for students to bridge the divide and build genuine relationships with others from different social backgrounds.
This will not be easy for both sides.
On one end, students from low-income backgrounds have to recognise their own deep-seated emotions, such as shame and envy, which may lead to prejudice against individuals of higher social standing.
It is a natural tendency for individuals to feel indignant about inequality. Aristotle observed that anger and envy stem from finding oneself being unable to obtain the good things that others can achieve.
These emotions may lead to apprehension when opportunities to interact with someone from a different social class arise.
This is something that I am gradually coming to terms with. Sharing personal experiences with friends I met in university have allowed me to gain more perspectives. I am slowly gaining the ability to confront the shame, low self-esteem and envy within me that prevented me from reaching out to students from affluent backgrounds during my pre-university days.
On the other hand, students who come from privileged socio-economic backgrounds may find it difficult to relate to peers who live with limited opportunities.
A friend of mine comes from a low-income family. She lives with her mother and sister in a small, two-room flat. Since the bedroom is not spacious enough to fit a bed and a closet, the family sleeps in the living room.
“When I share my woes with people who have never experienced living in such cramped conditions, they ignore my troubles and instead gripe about their bedrooms being too small,” she said.
“They take for granted what people like me yearn for — some privacy and a personal bedroom.”
Bridging the divide
It will take time and effort to fully understand and empathise with people from different backgrounds, but we can start here, on our campus.
NTU has 24 Halls of Residence with an average of 600 students in each hall. When roommates live under the same roof, share amenities and spend almost the same amount of money on meals, shared experiences become a huge influence.
Journalist Bharati Jagdish, who wrote a commentary for Channel NewsAsia’s online publication in response to the IPS study, suggested the need for interaction. “It would certainly make us more empathetic human beings,” she said.
Interacting with and helping people who are different from us could even help us discover strengths we didn’t know we had, and even strengths we didn’t think they had, Ms Jagdish added.
Understandably, the demands of the working world may prevent us from socialising beyond our immediate contacts. Coupled with the pressure to network and excel in our own fields, we may find it difficult to interact with people from different backgrounds.
As university students, rather than standing by and watching the class divide grow, we should take action now. Recognising the impacts of class divide and striving to narrow the gap will take time and dedication. Let’s start by bringing unity and diversity back into universities.