• Irie Aman

Smack in the Middle (Class)

This presentation was first prepared for NUS Malay Studies Society's Undergraduate Forum 2017.

Who invests in the mats and minahs?

My topic is the rise of middle-class families, and their challenges in education: I'll be coming from a very sociological and personal perspective.

To avoid confusion, I’m going to dissect the term “class” a bit, and explain some terms that I’ll be using in my presentation. In Sociology, we see class not as a pyramid, but as something more leaf-shaped, or teardrop-shaped, where there is a very bloated bottom and middle, and the top is narrow. The first group is called the underclass, which in some societies may overlap with the lower class, but in others are disparate; then there is the lower-middle class, the middle class, the upper-middle class, and then the upper class. Of course, most people when talking about the middle class don’t realize that there’s three levels of “middle class”. For the sake of my presentation, I’ll be referring to the lower-middle class whenever I use the term “middle class” unless otherwise stated, but I’ll talk about this more later on.

We all know that because of colonial history and the continuing institutionalized racism, your socio-economic background is racialized. This means that your financial situation is often tied to your race, and vice versa. This happens in many societies across the globe- you cannot analyse class without analysing other social variables, which often includes race. This is called intersectionality. Basically, it refers to how we aren’t one-dimensional people, and so our lives and struggles won’t be one-dimensional. Our identities may include various social variables, like race, gender, and class, that overlap; this creates interconnected systems of oppression. It’s not necessarily about how many of your identities are oppressed, but it’s about how not only being a racial minority, but a middle-class racial minority, that changes how you experience discrimination within the system.

To prove my point- up till NUS, I’ve never been in a school that was Chinese-dominated. This isn’t a very scientific method, of course, but we’ll explore that later. My family is lower-middle class, and it’s almost prophetic that I grew up entirely in neighbourhood schools. And these schools weren’t dominated by Malays, but the Malay population was just as big, if not slightly bigger than the Chinese population. The only exception was in the Express stream, where there were more Chinese students.

See, class predicts opportunities, resources, etc. And so while I did kind of okay in primary school, and was kept in what was technically the best class, I wasn’t receiving the help that nearly all my classmates had. They were from middle-middle income backgrounds, and could afford tuition for every subject. I personally knew someone who had been doing assessment books since he was in kindergarten. They were going for “extra” things too- piano classes, ballet, and so on.

I wasn’t.

I wouldn’t go for tuition until I was in Secondary 3, and even then that had been on a discount, because the tutor was a family friend. The tuition I did get was for only one subject- and at such a late stage in the education system, as compared to others. So my national exam results for both PSLE and O Level were very mediocre. I was fine, but I wasn’t great, so that put me squarely in a neighbourhood school. And I’m not talking about the people who think neighbourhood schools have cut-off aggregates of 240. I was from Yishun Secondary, and the environment at that time was gangsterism, or people who would be called at-risk, and there was someone getting caned onstage every month. I thought this was normal. I thought all teenagers were being disciplined like that. Why would I think otherwise? This was all I had known.

There are other things that happened in my school that I assumed happened everywhere else. This includes having a Literature teacher who was literally not qualified to teach, because his highest Literature attainment stopped at the A Levels. In fact, our entire humanities department was lacking, because when you barely have the funding or the manpower, and operate on the assumption that neighbourhood kids aren’t and will never be interested, or aren’t and will never be capable, you get a lack of subjects. I was never offered O Level Literature, or even O Level Pure Biology, despite qualifying for and wanting those subjects, because we were understaffed.

At this point in time, how many of you think it’s still not such a big deal?

It wasn’t until I graduated secondary school that I realized that this was in fact, a big deal. Because when you don’t even have choices for your subjects, and are forced to do others, two things happen. Not only are you cut off from the opportunities those subjects could have offered you, but you tend to do less well for those subjects that you’re made to do. Things like this accumulate over time, at every level: tertiary education, higher education, career prospects, financial status, etc.

It also affects how rich someone may be, in terms of social and cultural capital. I didn’t do O Level Literature, but I did do A Level Literature. And I was at a deficit, coming in- I had never been exposed to local literature, to basic techniques, to plays or musicals. Our library had had only one floor, which I thought was normal, and the variety of books there were limited- mostly cheap teen fiction. There wasn’t even a Debate Club or Model UN in my secondary school, for me to be exposed to that sort of world. High culture was inaccessible to me. And it put me at a major disadvantage, doing an arts combination in JC. In fact, my JC Literature teacher said this to our class- that we were competing with people in better schools, who were cultured, who were worldly, who could do A-grade essays precisely because of all they knew.

This wasn’t a solely Yishun Sec problem, but a neighbourhood school problem. Who invests in neighbourhood kids, who you know better and write off as mats and minahs, even if you’ve never spoken a word to them before? If “every school is a good school”, show, don’t tell. I would very much like to see a Singapore where we don’t label students according to the schools they’re in, but we are nowhere near there yet.

There’s a case study we learn in Sociology, about the Saints and the Roughnecks. So, for example, on one side, you have RI, or Hwa Chong, or something similar, and on the other side, you have Yishun Sec. The case study follows these two groups throughout their high school years and there’s a follow-up every year after for a few years. The two groups are from highly different backgrounds.The Saints are from upper-middle class families, and were well-dressed, well-mannered; while the Roughnecks were not so rich, and less well-dressed, less well-mannered. Both were delinquents. They both played truant, drank, did petty theft, and vandalized. What is interesting is how they’re treated- because only the Roughnecks, or neighbourhood kids in this case, are regarded as juveniles.

In fact, the Saints commit more crimes, and get away with nearly everything; whereas the Roughnecks are punished every single time, and regarded with suspicion even if they’re doing something innocent. This actually carries on to other aspects of their lives- especially the academic. Interestingly, teachers admitted to treating the Saints better because they “knew that he was capable of doing better” even if they were disappointed with the actual performance. This meant the Saints got higher grades than they deserved. On the other hand, the Roughnecks were seen as incapable of meeting the school’s academic standards, or uninterested in making something of themselves. And so they were graded as such. And people wonder why they don’t want to go to school.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Of course, there were a few other factors for them being so highly-regarded. This included their different responses to authority, which led to different outcomes. Because your class leads to your upbringing leads to how people perceive you. Being middle-class promises better conformity to social norms than if you were lower-middle or lower-class, which the Roughnecks, and many neighbourhood kids are. So we have to keep in mind that the topic at hand- the rise of middle class families and their challenges in education- actually has different levels of analysis that we need to be aware of.

Because it’s true- the less educated your family is, or the poorer they are, the less they might push their kids to study the way richer families would pressure. There’s a strain theory by Merton, where both families would care about educating their kids, yes, but to different degrees, and with different means available. They have different priorities. The poorer family would care about the child having an education, whatever it is they can attain, so long as you can get a job, maybe; whereas the richer family is more likely to care about the child having an education, and having that be of a certain quality, or attending certain schools, etc.

The challenges don’t end there, either. Lower middle class kids tend to view education as a means to an end, whereas middle middle class kids might see education as an end in itself. That’s why the former tend to prefer a job over continuing studies, because they either have to support the family or don’t have the finances to continue said education. Financially able households also mean the children don’t have to worry about money: about things like missing lunch to save, about working enough shifts by the end of month, and so on. This takes up their mental capacities, and can be a source of anxiety- how do you receive a good education with such a burden on your mental health?

Then there are racial aspects we need to discuss- because on top of those problems, lower-middle class Malays have Malay-specific issues to deal with. How do the stereotypes of Malays with regard to education, especially how they fare for Math for example, affect us? What about the concept of “rezeki” that downsizes our expectations? We’re more likely to accept burdens as our fate, rather than seek out knowledge, as Islam would tell us. Of course, I can’t speak for non-Muslim, Malay families. Yet even if religious undercurrents don’t affect them the same, they’re still treated as Malays by the rest of society, which means they’re still stereotyped.

And of course, I’m not saying that all children from middle-class families go on to study in neighbourhood schools, and become delinquents. But we cannot ignore the fact that, by and large, middle-class families, especially lower-middle class, go on to study in neighbourhood schools, or have their life trajectory-slash-society’s perception of them impact them from as young a stage as PSLE, if not younger. This was a direct quote from an NUS senior of mine: “people who score 210 can make it to NUS meh? Wah, not bad.” That was my PSLE score, by the way. We were talking about our secondary schools, and that was his first, unedited response, as someone who had been socialized to think that neighbourhood school kids really could not make it anywhere. Which implies that lower-middle class kids can’t make it anywhere either.

And that’s the problem.

These stereotypes, while not always explicit, can come to haunt us. Not only do they affect us in terms of how people, especially teachers, perceive us and treat us accordingly, but it leads us to internalize the stigma of not being capable enough, or not being smart enough, etc. For so long, I believed I wasn’t meant to go anywhere because of how everyone around me treated me when they learnt what secondary school I was in. This insecurity did affect me academically- and I was already in the Express stream. What more students from the NA or NT stream?

It’s this elitist, and indeed, classist mindset, that plagues the Singaporean community. We stifle growth, or alternative education routes. Look at how we treat ITE students. We call ITE It’s The End. Yet, in Germany, there are three pathways for tertiary education: they too have an equivalent of a polytechnic, a JC, and an ITE. But the intake for German ITE is higher than German JCs, because- amazingly enough- people value the skills that ITE provides you with.

Can we say the same for Singaporeans?


When you’re middle-class, you might not want for food, or clothes, but you also might not have many books at home. Little things like that actually have a great impact. I was extremely privileged to have both parents be educated, and fluent in English, and interested in books. This was important for multiple reasons. Parents model for kids: while mine weren’t university-educated, they were poly-educated, which was a good enough model for me and my siblings. We took it for granted that we would at least make it to poly- though we never dreamed about university, simply because there was no one who could model that for us. I had never ever imagined making it to a university, even. So for the middle-class kids whose parents don’t make it to higher institutions- what beliefs do they internalise? What impressions do they form about the desirability, or more importantly, feasibility of higher education?

Even then, I didn’t realize how much luckier I was until someone pointed out to me how this wasn’t the case for everyone, because most lower-middle class families may have parents who aren’t educated, and who work odd or menial jobs. They don’t see their parents often. Which is a tragedy in itself, but this also begs the question- who supervises the children? What do these kids do, without a parental figure? Who do they look up to? Where do these kids go?

Middle-class families don’t always play respectability politics- which refers to how well-dressed, well-mannered, well-spoken you are. I remember being in primary school and recognizing that how well-spoken I was, or more importantly, how my normal accent didn’t sound very Malay, made the teachers respond positively. And of course I liked that, I liked having teachers like me, so I made myself sound as un-Malay as possible. That’s a process of socialization. Being rewarded, or punished, for a specific behaviour, which encourages the development of certain behaviours. In this case, internalizing racism.

Although I could never put it into words then, I was aware that the less Malay I seemed- by not sounding so Malay, or not behaving like the other Malay students who were seen as rowdy, or lazy, even if students of all races misbehaved- the better treated I was. There was a pressure to outperform, to compensate for my Malayness. My foundation being covered also meant I could understand other subjects easily, since English is the medium. This wasn’t the case for all my classmates, since some of them grew up primarily on Malay.

I was fortunate, in many, many ways. For most other middle-class kids, it isn’t necessarily the same. Setbacks like not being too fluent in English, and teachers not being as invested in you because you’re not so well-mannered, or not receiving tuition, can accumulate- by the time you reach PSLE, you have a middle-class child who’s not congruent with the educational system. So what does the system do with you? They put you into neighbourhood schools.

Of course, you may argue that it’s only fitting that kids who do poorly deserve the poorer quality of neighbourhood schools. But shouldn’t students who need more help deserve more funding, not the other way round? The myth of meritocracy is that those who do poorly are where they are because of individual capabilities, and thus at fault, but meritocracy doesn’t account for generational wealth, which is what allows you to get your tuition, to actually have time to study, to learn how to blend into certain segments of society.

Academic results aren’t a measure of your intelligence, but your intelligence is developed by nature and nurture. That involves opportunities to develop your skills- like taking enrichment classes, whether its tuition or piano or leadership seminars. That involves study-friendly home environments- like having a house with your own space to study, or not needing to work part-time to support your family. I have had too many people I know suffer, because of this factor. Not having your own space to study, let alone to recharge, is bad for your mental health. And for many of us, our houses were crowded and cramped, whether by virtue of big families or small houses. How do you max your potential like that?

Because of how we regard elite schools, it affects where we decide to send our children- which means elite schools benefit from the best of the population. Which seems natural, but consider what it means when elite schools are largely homogenous, and offer prime networking opportunities. And where does that leave the neighbourhood schools? We benefit from it being a multicultural, multiracial place. That’s it.

And yes, some would argue that neighbourhood schools are still adequately funded, or that there are improvements being made to the system. Until I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ll remain cautious. I’m too aware still, of the stigma, of the unfairness.

Meritocracy is a myth; Singapore is a class-stratified society. And until we acknowledge that, we won’t be able to address the problems that the middle-class faces.

Photo credit goes to Jonathan Tan, who thankfully still had all our cohort's secondary school pictures up on Facebook.

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