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Caste System


The Caste System

by Kenneth Lyen

India has an caste system of over 1,500 years old. Despite being officially outlawed by the government, it nevertheless still persists. The caste is ranked as follows:

1. Brahmans: the priests and teachers

2. Kshatriyas: the rulers and soldiers

3. Vaisyas: merchants and traders

4. Sudras: laborers

5. Harijans: untouchables. The Untouchables are outcasts, and considered too impure or polluted to rank as worthy humans.

I guess I must be very naive in thinking that the caste system does not exist in Singapore. To my horror, I discovered that there is a sort of unofficial caste system here, albeit modified. And it is found in non-Indian racial-ethnic groups. Its existence usually surfaces when a boy or girl asks their parents for permission to get married.

Here is an actual incident told to me by a colleague. A Chinese boy from a wealthy family wanted to marry his sweetheart. She was introduced to the boy's parents, who immediately launched into an SS-style interrogation of the girl's background. On discovering that her parents are hawkers, they made every attempt to dissuade their son from marrying the "unsuitable" girl. Soon afterwards they even introduced him to an alternative, from quite a high class family. But all these attempts failed, and the boy defied his parents and married this "unsuitable" girl.

It may be a bit unfair to refer to this class stratification in Singapore as a caste system, but I will be a bit controversial here. The caste system applies mainly to occupations, and hence there is some flexibility for promotion and upgrading. Low-paying labouring jobs, servants, and rubbish collectors are probably at the bottom of the heap. Prostitutes, nightclub singers, actors, dancers are all lumped together and are probably the next layer up. I won't belabour the point, but you can see what I'm driving at.

To a lesser extent earning potential correlates with tertiary education. Hence the caste system extends to include these institutions. The top ranked students are those who gain a scholarship to a prestigious overseas university like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, etc. Ranked below that, are students who gain access to local universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore Insitute of Management) and less prestigious overseas universities. Below that are polytechnics, and probably at the bottom are Institutes of Technical Education and Secretarial Colleges.

Once the dye is cast, it is not easy to jump from one caste to another, although it is not impossible. Unfortunately the Government seems to help perpetuate the caste system by giving their top scholarships and civil service jobs to highest ranking schools, and universities, and by denying or deterring the transfer of students from, say, a polytechnic into the university.

We are therefore relegating a large number of talented and creative lower caste subjects into underachieving careers. Until we are willing to make a radical change in mindset, Singapore will not be maximising the potential talent of all its citizens.