Singapore’s founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew once said that: “I make no apologies for collecting the most talented team I could find.”
When the late leader said these words, he was arguing that his nation, Singapore, should and must be governed on a system of meritocracy – rising to the top by one’s own merit, hard-work and high performance.
That said, however, I promise I will not rush to blame you for assuming that in the world we live in a disadvantaged child will nearly always and in most cases everywhere become a disadvantaged adult.
I say this because evidence shows that in most cases, in order to rise to the highest office in land or lead a prestigious institution either private or public, one must also be a graduate of one of the leading and often expensive schools from around the world, such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard, which can only be made possible with the help of a very rich family.
Notably, this is just the short version of things; the detailed version refers to this process as being born with a silver spoon in the mouth – whereby if you dream of becoming an executive of a company or a leading public figure, your chances of success will depend largely on the financial muscle of your family and not necessarily on the talent you hold.
This is by no means an insinuation that children from rich families have no talent of their own, far from it. In fact, this is just an observation that for underprivileged children, the journey to succeed at the very top is often inhibited by several factors, including poor health, poor infrastructure, poor family setup, poor financial means, lack of role models, nepotism, corruption, to name but a few.
The rich and famous on the other side have the financial means to bypass most of these problems and thereby setting their children up for better odds in their careers.
Consider, for instance, Britain’s exclusive school, Eton College.
The independent thirteen-eighteen-all-boys school founded in 1440 by King Henry VI has of today had a staggering 19 UK prime ministers go through its doors, helped create thousands of politicians who have go on to occupy public offices around the world, and also influenced the creation of tens of thousands of global private sector executives.
But, this is not a school for anyone; a year’s education experience at the Berkshire school will set you back just under £40,000. Go figure if your child is scheduled for a five year stay!
But, of course, I must also acknowledge that indeed, there is no direct link between high levels of education and high-level jobs. In essence, a high level education does not magically lead to an allocation of a high level job; I only insist that it helps a great deal.
Nevertheless, let us put these foreign examples to one side and assess the situation close to home by asking; what are the chances that a son or daughter of a peasant from a remote village in Rwanda can acquire both domestic primary and secondary school education and go on to read a Bachelor of Medicine, Engineering or Law at one of the world’s leading universities in Europe or America on a fully-funded scholarship?
Today the answer is as straightforward as: those chances are high and they are improving by the day.
Remarkably, however, you will be wrong to assume that this was always the case.
In pre-1994 Rwanda, for instance, chances of a peasant’s son or daughter being awarded a fully-funded government scholarship to go and study abroad were as limited as the peasant’s ability to pay for that education experience.
In fact, for reasons known to all, including but not limited to nepotism, discrimination based on one’s tribe, region of origin, gender, social class, and the principles of previous governments, it was almost unheard of for a anyone outside the circle of influence to be awarded an opportunity to pursue education at some of the world’s leading institutions.
It is argued that back then, academic merit was at the bottom of the pecking order, what came first was who you are, who your father and mother is, and which political party you were associated with.
Therefore, chances of being awarded a scholarship on the basis of academic merit were very slim and had to be facilitated by other vices such as ‘connections’ with government officials and bribes.
Today, however, Rwanda has changed and is gradually progressing to become a nation built on meritocracy – where we allocate rewards on the basis of an individual’s merit or his/her abilities regardless of social class, religion, or who their father or mother is.
I am confident in saying this because, a few months back, I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with some of the beneficiaries of this new-era Rwanda. One of them, a young man, narrated to me his journey.
He said that unlike in the past, in Rwanda it does not matter who your father or mother is, better yet, it does not matter how much money you have in your bank account; what matters most are the talents, ambitions, and the determination to pursue your dreams.
The young man added that he bought into the concept when one day he received a phone call from an official at the Ministry of Education informing him that he had secured a fully-funded scholarship to go and study in the UK at the University of Birmingham.
He noted that he remembers realising that travelling to Kigali to formalise his award would indeed become his first time ever to set foot in the nation’s capital. His hometown is Musanze. Where else does this happen? Not in many developing nations.
By and large, development discourse indicates that nations that have developed rapidly such as Singapore have also embraced the ideology of meritocracy.
Their leaders have believed that this ideology or a set of principles offers social equality, opportunities for all, based on the principle of non-discrimination.
Today, in Rwanda, the leadership has demonstrated this principle is in play through the establishment of the Presidential Scholars Program, which has benefited hundreds of young Rwandans.
To advance this ideology, however, we are all required to widen its principle to influence how we lead our daily lives, because gone are the days where a young man or woman from a remote village in the Eastern province was unable to realise a dream of leading an institution.
Today, let us let that child’s dreams be solely determined by how hard they work and not who their father or mother is.