With elitism and inequality being hot topics these days, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing cautioned that a distinction must be made between “elites who give back to society” and those with “elitist attitudes” who have closed themselves off from the rest of society.
During a dialogue at a public policy conference on Oct 26 2018, Mr Chan said that there is currently a “narrow definition” of the term “elite”, which holds many negative connotations.
He added: “To be successful and rise up is not elitism. To be successful and not reach out is elitism.”
Yao mo gao chor ah? Which dictionary was Mr Chan using? No reasonable person is complaining about people who achieve success under their own steam – especially people like Mr Low Thia Khiang who had to battle against all odds and sabotage to keep his Hougang Town Council going in the early days. I’ve always thought that by virtue of what he had gone though, Mr Low would be an excellent candidate to lead a country with limited resources.
And I don’t think too many reasonable people would fault the lucky ones who have inherited their millions from their parents either. Regardless of whether they achieved success or are born-rich, people who don’t reach out are just being selfish and lacking in social consceince. Elitism on the other hand, refers to a sense of superiority and greater entitlement over ordinary folks. Insisting that you belong to some “natural aristocracy”, merging neighbourhood schools, declaring that your astronomical salary, already many times that of your intellectual equals, is still not enough, implying that people who earn less than you are mediocre, are clear signs of elitism understood by most people.
To make matters even more mind-boggling, Mr Chan alleges that there is also a difference between being “anti-elitism and anti-excellence”. You can scratch your head after his explanation and definition.
“Anti-elitism” means being disenfranchised by those who have done well in life, not through effort but their connections or family background, and who do not reach out to the rest of society, said Mr Chan.
Obviously, Mr Chan would like us to believe that he too is “anti-elitist”. Let’s look at it this way. Taken out of any context, being elite is not distasteful at all. When we talk about an elite force in the army, elite footballers like David Beckham, elite sportsmen like Joseph Schooling and Nobel laureates, we seldom attach any negative connotations to them. Why? Because we can see their impressive performance in their respective fields. So when does being elite carry negative connotations? Well, that can happen when people fail to see any impressive performance on the part of the highly privileged, incredibly well-paid and powerful individuals. That can happen when someone secures a top job by virtue of political or other affiliations rather than relevant credentials. That can happen when talented individuals get fired from their jobs when they make mistakes while a certain elite group seems immune and not accountable. That can happen when one group of presumably superior individuals get the lion’s share of the country’s resources while those who need more are left in the lurch. That can happen when ordinary folks get sued until their pants drop or even face criminal prosecution when they bring out issues of nepotism and cronyism or wrongdoing. One-dimensional? Hardly.
Mr Chan went further: “If I have succeeded and done well in this system, but contribute to society and touch lives of people, then is it fair to also similarly bunch everybody together, and say you are all elites?”
Mr Chan’s most embarrassing moment (during this dialogue session) came when he asked (rhetorically), pointing to himself, whether he should be categorised as an elite now that he is a Minister.
“Yes”, replied Ms Chua Mui Hoong, opinion editor at The Straits Times. The audience laughed (naturally) giving a stark testimony to how detached Mr Chan is from the ground.
Ms Chua pointed out that Mr Chan is “a member of the political elite” and “academic aristocracy”, and that he is elite “by virtue of income and education”. And that’s how neutral and harmless being elite can be.
To make matters even more embarrassing, Mr Chan said: “So, the fact that I’ve worked hard and grew up in a single-parent family, that no longer matters. The fact that I have ‘arrived’ makes me an elite, and therefore I should be subject to all these perspective, accusations.”
Look. Benito Mussolini was a blacksmith’s son. Joseph Stalin was a shoemaker’s son. Mao Zedong was an impoverished farmer’s son. How did all that help mitigate the damage they caused to the country as dictators? Have they empathized with blacksmiths, shoemakers and farmers after coming to power with their disastrous policies? Did Mr Chan challenge the other ministers when they announced water price hikes, gas price hikes, car park rates increases, transport cost increases, “disincentives” for single mothers, GST hikes so that someone who is in those shoes he was in 40 years ago might somehow benefit? Or is his just comfortably doing an Aung San Suu Kyi now that his struggles are over?
Monolithic or otherwise, the way in which the whole Elected Presidency developed, from changes in requirements for candidates to the final disqualification of competing candidates satisfied almost no thinking person in Singapore or the world over. But it got pushed through anyway. Does it even look as if this ruling elite has any respect for our intelligence, their different backgrounds notwithstanding? Does it even look as if this debate is one-dimensional when the issues that are faced by the powerless people are so many and varied?
Yes, there is some measure of meritocracy for the bright students in Singapore regardless of their family background. But when they become scholars and join the civil service (especially the SAF), meritocracy seems to fade into the background as these men who are above rank and file in the military are suddenly deemed qualified for top positions in stat boards or even government. There is no escape from the label of “elite” once you’re there, regardless of where you came from. No matter how poor you were, your struggles are effectively over. Why the negative connotations? It all comes from the inability of that elite to empathize with the struggles of the common folks.
Mr Chan urged the rich to lend a helping hand and be more conscious of the needy. But the rich may need a good example to follow. If an organisation is hoarding billions in surpluses but continues to squeeze the people, how do we expect the rich to be generous? Why wouldn’t they follow suit and squeeze more while sitting on abundance? Frankly, I’m not so worried about elites who have closed themselves off from the rest of society. It’s those who guard the interests of other elites and pretend to help the common folks who do the most damage.
© Chan Joon Yee