According to a CNA survey, Singapore is in danger of being divided along socio-economic lines. Likewise, the Institute of Policy Studies found that Singaporeans are less likely to have friends across socio-economic class.

How does this divide show up in school? To find out, we speak with Gwyneth Tan and Kenyesse Phia, two 19-year-old A-level graduates who describe themselves as belonging to the lower-middle and upper-middle class respectively.

Gwyneth Tan, 19, was in Secondary One when her father lost his job and became a taxi driver. Shortly later, her mother suffered a 50% pay cut.

Things changed overnight. Gwyneth’s family sold their car and cut down on all unnecessary expenses. One casualty was Gwyneth’s tuition classes.

“If I had the ability to, I would want to continue with my tuition,” Gwyneth reflects. “Once I dropped it, I started failing terribly … my other friend who stayed on got an A.”

In terms of socio-economic divides, the ability to pay for tuition is almost negligible relative to issues like housing. Yet it is this experience that opened Gwyneth’s eyes to the effects of inequalities in Singapore society.

“I think nothing’s an even playing field. Everyone starts from different points and comes from different backgrounds, even at primary school.”

The change in her family’s circumstances also affected Gwyneth’s friendships. “I can relate to my ‘less wealthy’ friends more now,” she says.

“I talk to them about things that I wouldn’t share with my richer friends. Like how the Financial Assistance Scheme gives coupons to buy food in school, but it’s too embarrassing to use it in front of other people.”

Most worryingly to Gwyneth is how her “richer friends” do not seem to understand the experiences of those from different backgrounds. “When I went to my JC, I realised that some people in school don’t even know that the Normal streams exist”, Gwyneth exclaims.

“Is it a wealthy people thing? When you are smart you only know one path? They don’t understand the circumstances of these people. But this group of people is going to be our ministers one day.”

I think nothing’s an even playing field. Everyone starts from different points and comes from different backgrounds, even at primary school.

19-year-old Kenyesse Phia agrees, pointing out that her life looks very different from that of the wealthy students in her school. “My rich friends can afford to study the arts: drawing, philosophy, those kinds of fields, because their parents own business empires”, Kenyesse says.

“But I don’t have a business to inherit, so I chose to study engineering even though I am interested in art.”

Furthermore, Kenyesse has also noticed that A-level results tend to matter less to these students because they can afford to pursue tertiary education in overseas universities.

“My friends from higher income backgrounds have said, ‘If I can’t get into NUS law, I’ll just go to the UK to study!’”

It is true that not everyone starts from the same point, as Gwyneth pointed out. Even in the comparatively privileged experiences of these self-described “middle-class” junior college students, it is evident that the class divide exists. For those who struggle with material hardship, the divide must look more like a chasm.

Yet, as much it has very real effects on students, the divide does not necessarily preclude them from academic achievements that allow them to change their circumstances. Both admit that they have done well so far, regardless of their class background. After all, they studied in “good” schools and have gained admission into local universities.

In school, both have also developed close friendships with people who are more well off. The uniformity of the school experience paves over differences, making it easy to have meaningful interactions with each other regardless of class background.

“There’s nowhere to show off your wealth in school”, Kenyesse observes. “At most, there are rumours like how someone’s bedroom has a different Wi-Fi network from the living room because the house is too big.”

Gwyneth agrees, saying, “I don’t feel like there’s a barrier in making friends from different socio-economic classes in school. In school nobody really cares or talks about how much money they have. The common topic we have is: ‘Oh my God, A-LEVELS!’”

As both Gwyneth and Kenyesse conclude, in school, no student sees each other primarily as a product of their socio-economic background. During this journey — even if it’s only temporary — they are all equals in their goal of conquering their exams and reaching towards a brighter future.

Sources: CNA, Institute of Policy Studies, The Straits Times