How can we climb up the ladder of success when we are at the losing end of privilege?

[A student’s perspective on Elitism, Meritocracy, Wealth, Hardwork, and Success]

Socio-economic background, Smartness and Success

Is there a link between success and social class? Yes, but personally, I do not think your socio-economic background fully determines your success in life.

You can come from a poor background, but that does not mean your intelligence and potential to excel will decrease? You can have rich parents, but that does not necessarily makes you smarter or more capable than the former.

The reality of life is that some of us are smarter, or more academically inclined. Excelling in your studies may not equate to being smart, but I won’t deny those who are smarter tend to also fare better academically. Nonetheless, all of us have our diverse talents – some of us may be more street-smart, while others excel in niche areas of interest e.g. sports, arts, and leadership. Some have the best of both worlds.

What equates to success? Getting a place in University? Attaining a job with a high salary or reputation? Starting your own business?

The factors which I feel will significantly determine your success in life in decreasing order – talent, plan, motivation, determination and hard work. You may not be able to change your background, but you can always choose helpful actions to change your circumstances.

Meritocracy and Academic Success

Broaching on the topic of success and education, some may wonder how Singapore’s principle of meritocracy works? To give a simple explanation – Equal opportunities are given to all regardless of our race, religion and background. Hard work and talent e.g. performing exceptionally well in your studies or co-curricular activities leads to rewards e.g. scholarships and bursaries given to us.

But one con of this I feel is that – not everyone is academically-inclined. When the results of our academic studies significantly dictates whether we can further to higher education, those who are not book-material may fall under the cracks even though they may be skilled in many other areas. What more not to say for the not-as-rich students that may feel further discouraged, adding on to their pre-existing family circumstances and issues.

To tackle this, the government have been helping the less privileged to compete on a more equal level playing field from an earlier stage e.g. make pre-school more affordable, accessible and raising it’s quality. Upgrade ITE and polytechnics, increasing university places and providing increased subsidies.

Meritocracy breeds Elitism?

Still, there is this common perception that meritocracy is a system that breeds elitism, and creates elite schools. On class-consciousness and social divide, insensitive comments or stereotypes made by, and towards – the privilege and not so privilege have blasted our media news feed for the past few years.

More than 50% of parents of at least half of students from top secondary schools of the Integrated Programme are university graduates. The same statistic is 1 out of 10 for neighborhood schools. At 6 top primary schools, only 40% live in HDB flats, when the national average for all primary schools is eight in 10.

Back then, I belonged to the lower-middle economic class, and as of now, I belong to the lower economic class.

I came from a secondary school which was not a neighborhood one, but I wouldn’t think it belonged to the very elite kind either. It was somewhere above middle ground? When people knew my school name, they would give the ”wow” look but to me, a school name is just a branding. It does not fully define what the students are or will turn out to be, though it inevitably does play a significant influence. 

Elitism and Class Consciousness

There will be good and not-so-good students in any schools – be it in character, academic or talent wise, and Singaporeans teachers are randomly place in schools. It is not like they can choose “Oh. I do not want to teach in a neighborhood school, I want to teach in an elite school”. In that sense, the standard of teachers in any schools are diverse, and made fair, if not equal.

Did I ever feel out of place? There are parents with slick cars – driving and fetching their children to school, students with more allowance but no, I never felt a sense of segregation though because of the difference in socio-economic level. This was most likely because of the fact that there was a mix of students from diverse background.

The school that I was in also inculcated positive moral values and a spirit of helping the needy. We had community projects and excursions, and it reminded me to always not forget the forgotten in society. This is why I feel it is important for our educational institutions to focus not only on academics, but also building up the character, special interests, leadership potential and a community spirit in students.

The government has taken out the old streaming system, which is good, but more can be done e.g. alternative pathways and measurements to test and explore the diverse talents of our youths today, instead of textbook memorization and national exams.


Would I say students from elite schools are more “privileged”compared to students who are poorer or from neighborhood schools because their wealth entitles them to more connections, resources, learning materials and exclusive pathways? Yes, I do. Inequality is always present anywhere, but bringing up my old point, a student from any kind of school and background can choose to conscientiously strive for the best.

Many examples can be seen in bursary winners, top PSLE or O’level students who may come from common backgrounds, or face major life difficulties but still, they excelled likewise. Regardless of your beginnings, as long as you’re willing to put in the effort to work hard and build up on your strengths, you can definitely make it far in life.

Like many common Singaporeans, my parents grew up poor. They were neither academically-inclined nor had connections. What they did was work hard in their jobs, save up, and spend wisely. My family is definitely not well-to-do, but neither are we struggling in financial debts. Financial woes are a root of many issues. When you take that out, it creates fewer problems which prevents the deadly domino effect of – financial woes leading to domestic conflicts.

Lifestyle Choices and Long-term Outcomes

What kind of lifestyle do you want? Cafes or coffee shops? Air-conditoners or fans? Public transport or taxis? When you engage less in regular habits that may be costly e.g. smoking, drinking, clubbing, imagine the amount you can save up for your own use to buy your own house, or start your own family. If you’re from the upper middle class and can afford all these, it’s not an issue.

But if you’re from a lower socio-economic class like mine, it’s no harm to remind yourself to spend within your own means. Save up not just for yourself, but for your future, and your future generations. It can act as a safety net during times of emergencies. I think it is a good personal responsibility to practice self-reliance. Parents can inculcate that mindset into their children from a young age.

You can splurge once in a while during celebrations, or on your favorite interests e.g. travelling with family, but if you want long-term financial stability, always spend within your own means. Do you want to be driven by your materialistic needs in the short-term and drive away you stability in the long-term?

Playing our respective Roles

We all play different roles. If you are rich and belong to the privileged community, you can give back to society through your own capabilities – provide external fundings to non-governmental funded social work organizations that may struggle to run operations. Much as they need manpower e.g. volunteers, what they need even more is long-term resources and donations to continue upgrading their facilities, and  continuing to carry out implement their activities and programmes.

If you’re not-so-rich, you can choose to volunteer your time instead, when you’re free.

Cultivating change for a Better Future starts from us

In life, we may not be able to change our initial background, or the schooling system. But changes in attitudes, thoughts, and actions can start from us. We can provide to the government on suggestions on how to improve the education system to make it more fair for people of all background and talents. We can look ahead and plan for our future. We can teach our children to start to save, and spend wisely from a young age according to the means of lifestyle they can afford. We can find our strengths and build up on them. We can choose a practical lifestyle.

Create my own definition of Success

To me, wealth, popularity, job, reputation are not determinants of your success in life. If you want to let all these superficial outlooks measure success, then that is just an exterior and narrow-minded thinking. Social norms in regards the concept of success, and your very own definition of what you think makes you successful are very much, two different things.

Create your own definition, and how I would define mine in the future? Having a work – life balance, eating my parents home-cooked meal, spending quality time with my children after work, not having to worry about financial woes because I hope to cultivate a habit of saving and spending within my means. Pursuing my dreams, building on my strengths and improving on my flaws. And seeing each day as a learning opportunity to grow and learn from others.

The straight route may more often than not – represent the success of a system’s principle, but the crooked route is the one that represents the success of your own principle. Artist, waitress, construction worker, tattoo artist, band member, bartender, cosplayers etc. Your perseverance to excel in your respective interest or skilled areas you are in is what counts as true success.

We may not be there yet, but we can eventually get there. If we make good choices and actions to light our path to our ideal future.

  • Needless to say, I’m aware that there is still much for me to learn about our educational system and structure, and how it perpetuates the issue of poverty and income equality, since opportunities and chances are not evenly spread amongst the class divide, socio-economic group, and racial groups e.g. SAP schools usually teaching only Chinese language as a mother tongue. Some students have an easier route through connections, others face it tougher. There are pros to cons to the system of meritocracy, and I will slowly grow in knowledge on this matter.

Interview with a related theme on – mainstream success and social inequality:

Unique Passions: Budding Street photographer Paris Chia Part II (Indie Boy vs Mainstream Ideals)

Article with a related theme on – relentless comparison and attaining mainstream success:

Grades, status, material wealth: The “relentless” comparison race to achieve “legit” success


Written by: Cass


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Featured images credits:  Paris Chia Photography (website), @Instagram@Facebook

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