Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ties that bind

I like this piece by Colin Goh.

DEC 7 2003
Look at the big picture
By Colin Goh

I attended a party in Manhattan some time back, and got to talking with an Iranian woman.

When I told her I was from Singapore, she said she'd studied in the United States as a teen, and that one of her schoolmates was a Singaporean girl, but they'd lost touch when she returned home.

The Iranian woman was roughly my age, so I asked her what the name of her Singapore schoolmate was.

She seemed puzzled as to why I would even bother asking. After all, the odds of us - strangers from halfway across the world - having a friend in common must have been astronomical.

Six degrees of separation? More like three hundred and sixty. But she humoured me and told me anyway.

Her puzzlement turned to shock when I told her that her Singapore schoolmate had been my junior at university in England.

For her, the coincidence was like some creepy Twilight Zone experience. As a Singaporean, however, the connection was far from weird.

If your parents get posted to the US in circumstances where you get to attend an international school, you probably come from a certain strata of society.

And if you go home to Singapore, there's an equal probability that your social status means you'll go to junior college (JC).

Since only a small proportion of Singaporeans go to the relatively small number of JCs, I felt that as a former JC attendee of roughly the same age, there was a decent chance I might know this person.

Bullseye! (Or as my BMT platoon mates would put it, 'Choon choon, char bee hoon!')

My Iranian friend shook her head and uttered the thoroughly justified cliche, 'Isn't this a small world!'

And my response was, 'Especially when you're dealing with a small country!'

I suppose this bit of chance should have made me feel all warm and fuzzy: Two people from different countries suddenly finding something real in common. Cue Heal The World by Michael Jackson, and come on, children, let's all hold hands.

Except I felt just as disturbed as if Jackson were holding my hand.

Singapore may be small, but not that small. That I could make such a swift personal connection only showed how small - and privileged - my educational cohort must have been.

My horror was compounded by a series of meetings with fellow expat Singaporeans thereafter, when the question consistently arose: 'Which JC did you come from?'

Worse, certain JCs were more represented than others. (Go on, guess which ones. It's not Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.)

Instead of being comforted by the proximity of the familiar, I felt claustrophobic; stifled by the predictability and homogeneity of encountering the same bunch of people over and over again, even several continents away.

There are some who'd say, get over it. It happens in every country, every society. There's always a group of fortunate swine, and thank your lucky stars you're in it and not out.

Maybe, but it would be a positivist error not to question why the status quo should not be challenged.

I think it's a cause for concern if a particular group - in this case, globalised, cosmopolitan professionals - is held out as a model, and their members seem to be drawn from the usual bunch of suspects.

And it's of even greater concern when forces seek to make this group even more exclusive.

I can't help but wonder what it'll be like in a few years, when JCs are differentiated even further by schemes like the Through Train Programme.

We'd like to believe that streaming benefits people by putting them in appropriate tracks, where they can be amongst others of similar ability. Yet, we're always striving to be in a lane superior to the one we're placed in.

Further, when did we stop valuing diversity and interacting with people of different talents, shortcomings and backgrounds?

It strikes me that in a world increasingly polarised by various fundamentalisms, to- lerance and open-mindedness are more important in our educational institutions than some mindless race to access some arbitrary elite.

It may be a small world and we may be a small country, but we need big ideas to stop the shrinkage.

Because, sometimes, the old school tie can also strangle us.

Related topics in this blog and elsewhere:

1. Pre-semester gathering
2. thank you mr. goh, for once again articulating things perfectly
3. Being an elite

Maybe that is how MOM sent out that email.

1 comment:

O2 said...

This is an issue that has been bugging me recently as well, and I am reminded every time we have a gathering in New York (which is every week), and I find the people I meet (both new and old) hail from the same colleges and backgrounds.

Colin Goh offers no solution to the problem however, and I suspect that an elitist core will exist in every society. Perhaps the answer then is not to eliminate elitism, which may or may not be possible, but to ensure that those who are in privileged circles do not forget the existence of those who are not.