When Elitism Becomes a Convenient Pejorative

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By Lee Chin Wee (14A01B)

Cover Photo by Teo Siyan of the Photographic Society

One thing that all politicians eventually learn to do, with varying degrees of success, is to become conversant with modern political lingo.  The precise words that are used during a political rally, the manner in which government manifestos are phrased, and the specific slogans that are trotted out come Election Day have all been thoroughly scrutinized by a group of fastidious speechwriters and advisors, fine-tuned to ensure maximum demographic impact. In the context of this complex political game, the meaning of certain phrases and terms become dangerously slippery.

All of a sudden, a ‘Compassionate Meritocracy’ supposedly refers to a national policy to select the most deserving applicants based not just on quantitative academic achievement, but also qualitative traits, like his/her ability to empathize with others. An ‘Inclusive Society’ no longer means a society that simply allows for the inclusion of all, but rather one that provides “more help for children from poorer homes to overcome early disadvantages, find their strengths and develop to their fullest potential, so that we keep social mobility up.” (I’m serious, you can even find the quote here) Ordinarily, I couldn’t care less about this constant political re-packaging. The past few months, however, have seen much more discourse regarding the notion of ‘elitism’, with ESM Goh’s speech at RI’s annual Homecoming and online responses to a particular Rafflesian’s blogpost on neighbourhood schools indicative of this broader societal trend.

What becomes immediately apparent is that there is a glaring disjunct between the original concept of elitism, and the pejorative undertones that have slowly become intertwined with it. Taken at face value, elitism is the belief that various classes will inevitably exist within society, and that the group of individuals with the most amounts of specialized training and knowledge should be granted the legitimacy to govern their society. In the detached world of politics, unfortunately, the term has been co-opted to refer to an arrogant, entitled elite that is self-serving and blind to the needs of the people. One need only listen to the core message of ESM Goh’s speech to discern this underlying narrative:

“When society’s brightest and most able think that they made good because they are inherently superior and entitled to their success; when they do not credit their good fortune also to birth and circumstance; when economic inequality gives rise to social immobility and a growing social distance between the winners of meritocracy and the masses; and when the winners seek to cement their membership of a social class that is distinct from, exclusive, and not representative of Singapore society – that is elitism.”

ESM Goh, at the RI Founders’ Day Homecoming 2013

It is important to delineate the two, because while the former is an idealized notion of how the government should be, the latter is an indictment of society as it is. Frankly, one would be hard-pressed to find a reasonable defence of the ‘political’ conception of elitism. It is just wrong and incredibly naïve to believe that your achievements, no matter how spectacular, have come about purely as a result of your own hard work, and thus entitle you to have a comfortable job in the public sector, or a cushy position somewhere in a management firm. The idea that society owes its most talented some sort of tithe purely on the basis of merit (which very often stems from entirely arbitrary circumstances), is archaic and should not be entertained.

The more nuanced, unadulterated version of elitism, however, is the one that should merit more discussion. After all, it seems alluringly intuitive – shouldn’t someone who graduated top of his/her Economics class in Cambridge also be the person entrusted with managing Singapore’s macroeconomic policy? Shouldn’t Singapore’s top barrister also be granted the authority to mould our nation’s legislation? Assuming that these individuals do not possess some perverse moral or psychological failing, an elitist would argue that they are best placed to discharge such duties because they can generate the most optimal outcomes. Stripping away the impassioned political rhetoric or the negative connotations that have become attached to the term, elitism is merely another way of saying that “the most important jobs should be given to the individuals best able to discharge their duties.” This isn’t to say that someone with stellar academic qualifications should immediately be co-opted into the government, but rather that in the absence of a ‘Universal Metric for Job Suitability’ that we can grade everyone on, one’s qualifications and past track record serve as a decent gauge of one’s competence. A natural extension of this logic would be to channel more resources to institutions meant to enrich the very best and brightest in our society at every level, so people can make their way into the ‘elite’ as easily as someone might slide out of it. This isn’t the ossified, self-perpetuating elite that we should rightfully demonize, but rather a fluid group of individuals who we think may bring the most benefit to our society.

Of course, I’ll readily admit that the level to which we prioritize such objective standards for competence changes depends on the particular job that we wish to examine. For the very highest positions in government that call for an adept grasp of socio-political issues coupled with a genuine commitment to public service, a meritocratic selection based solely on quantifiable standards for competence is clearly insufficient. Life unfortunately, is not like FIFA 14 – we can’t objectively rank people based on character traits like intellect and compassion, then calibrate to the average and finally pick the Messi of public service to lead the nation. Public institutions and private firms all over the world formulate extensive checklists for laudable character traits not to undermine a fundamentally elitist selection criteria, but rather to help it become more robust as an indicator of holistic competence.

Here’s the thing: any fair, meritocratic system essentially uses some elitist means to achieve greater social ends. From the tender age of 7, we have been both formally and informally sorted into ‘bands’ of ability, and have received education tailored to our specific needs. The supposed winners of this relentless rat race are rewarded with scholarships and the opportunity to study at prestigious universities. Those who unfortunately fall behind, we are told, are given a leg-up by targeted government subsidies and school funding. Unfortunately, inherent to this process is the inevitable inequity that arises from the differentiation of individuals. That, however, isn’t the point of this opinion piece. People far smarter and far more experienced than me have debated endlessly about the latent inequalities within our social structure, and have yet to come up with any conclusive answers. Instead, what’s truly important is for us not to fall prey to the prevailing political jargon and call someone ‘elitist’ when what we actually mean is that they are arrogant.

Elitists can be humble too.

45750cookie-checkWhen Elitism Becomes a Convenient Pejorative


19 thoughts on “When Elitism Becomes a Convenient Pejorative”

  1. Chin Wee should write more! <3 the piece, but I think "elitism" should refer to the 'arrogant' interpretation. Your choice of interpretation for "elitist" seems more like "meritocratic".

    1. That’s exactly what the author is trying to distinguish! It seems that the author has clearly wasted his time if you still haven’t gotten what he is trying to communicate.

      An uneducated person who has an inferiority complex clearly isn’t “arrogant”. But as long as he harbours the notion that “the best must lead” and votes for the highest-qualified candidate in an election, he is an “elitist”.

      Only those who assume, “I am the best, therefore I must lead” are both “arrogant” and “elitists”. But these two concepts are completely different!

    2. “Elitism” refers to the concept that “the best should lead/rule”. This has got absolutely nothing to do with “arrogance”.

      It’s only “arrogant” if one calls himself “the best”, whether or not he is really “the best”.

      I agree with the author. And I think that we need more people with integrity in politics instead of idiots who just know how to stir people’s feelings through warped definitions instead of discussing issues based on logic.

      Yes, I’m an “elitist”. I support “the best should lead”. Not “those who are most popular” or “those who know how to slam the government”. Sure, Tin Pei Ling acts cute and Nicole Seah is good at stirring the crowd’s emotions. But who has better qualifications? And how can that ITE guy in the NSP team ever debate politics and economics in Parliament when he doesn’t even comprehend them in all likelihood?

  2. Here’s the thing. People have called others an ‘elitist’ because the person being addressed is indeed an elitist – someone who thinks society should be ruled by an elite group of people. They have not used the word ‘elitist’ in replace of ‘arrogant’.

    There are many people who reject the notion that society must be ruled by the best qualified people. To these people, the elitist idea is inherently problematic and it has got nothing to do with arrogance.

  3. Rubbish. Your writing style is elitist or trying to show the quality of your education which adds no value to change except , more hot air.

    1. Eh eh you jealous that his command of the language is way above yours? Sorry hor, ppl write essay is chim chim one, if you don’t understand, then dont complain say his writing style is elitist

      1. Is not chim…it is over dress …like an inferior person who needs to wear money to be accepted by society.

        You form the 60% who would invest in a set of elegantly looking encyclopedia just to impress your relatives but would hardly read it instead flip comic pages in the toilet while awaiting some big business to drop like ice cubes… and then go to work…hor here hor there…lor here lor there…and get patted by your supervisor …Mr Lee Chim Chim…for your excellent communication skill

      2. The target audience of this article was clearly intended for Rafflesians, a majority of whom should have no difficulty understanding.

        However, it seems that those who are not the target audience have also attempted to read this article. And because this article isn’t catered to them in simple English, they criticise the writer for a lack of good communication. They don’t look inward and see that 1) they aren’t the target audience and 2) they are simply incapable.

        Some people need to learn that they are not the target audience before they try to shoot the writer for trying to be smart. Ignore them, all it shows is their latent incapability.

      3. “adept grasp”, “delineate the two”

        I only skimmed the article but these two errors jump out at me and suggest that the author is trying very hard to use fancy language that he is not necessarily familiar with. I also see a few places where words can be eliminated and the same sentiment expressed more concisely.

        at best, this is good writing; it is certainly not Great.

      4. @choofrfreoer

        This, ladies and gentlemen, is prime specimen of an elite elitist. The cause of the writer’s problems, the reason people have come to associate ‘elitism’ with ‘arrogance’. Relating the use of ‘simple English’ because someone else is presumably too stupid to comprehend the use of peripheral lexis is a clear instance where the elitist elite start to assume that whatever privileges they have have come about purely because of their own capabilities.

        You are not SMART simply because you had access to a higher level of education in the language, you are PRIVILEGED. Someone else is not ‘latently incapable’ because they have not had access to your level of education. Furthermore, associating the target audience as people who have had your level of education is clearly elitist. Look it up. You believe that only people who are as privileged as you are should have access to some things (case in point – this article) and that anyone else who has not the same amount of access to your resources (i.e. grasp of the English language) is inherently stupid and unworthy of whatever you are ‘entitled’ to. Thank you for being an example. The writer might now see that he has missed a portion of the demographic in his article.

    2. Your comment is based by -10 evidence. How can you call a writing style “elitist”. Your concept of elitism is clearly warped.

  4. An interesting piece. First, however, by your definition, don’t you think you’re merging the two terms “elitism” and “meritocracy” together? Second, if you agree that success often the result of “entirely arbitrary circumstances”, then don’t you think that “elitists” by your definition are quite unfair, giving out the fruits of success based on “entirely arbitrary circumstances”?

    1. Alas, I think that what you raise is but an inextricable fact of life. Life (reality) is not fair or perfect. Indeterminacy is an intrinsic element too. To achieve fairness in this aspect, what will be the corresponding compromise that must be made?

  5. I like the last sentence :) Essence of your article. Elitism doesn’t necessarily mean arrogant, but do consider the views of those who are henceforth using the term ‘elitist’ referring to those most capable of the job but possessing a sense of self-entitlement and arrogance.

  6. I agree with the content and spirit of your argument but I think what you are perhaps confusing the two terms ‘elites’ and ‘elitist’. I do not know the original meaning of the term ‘elitist’ but one cannot deny that it has evolved to refer to people with a type of mindset which includes a certain degree of arrogance towards others of lower ability (in terms of academic ability, athletic ability etc.) Such a connotation is carried by the term ‘elitist’ purely because it is used as such. To redefine the term is merely a semantic issue and perhaps not fruitful. On the other hand, ‘elites’ refer to a group of people of high ability. Perhaps then, what you are trying to conclude in your article is that elites can be humble too (i.e. elites do not necessarily have the elitist mindset). You might also be equivocating ‘elitism’ because it can be used to mean a societal belief that the best (i,e, elites) should govern or lead in any industry while it can also be used as a type of mindset which holds that a “social class” should be “exclusive” and is superior to other “social classes” not merely in terms of ability but in terms of dignity, worth and value (i.e. a type of arrogant mindset). The former definition is what you seem to be talking about while the latter is what Mr Goh was referring to and what society disdains. By equivocating the two, you are seeking to forcefully redefine ‘elitism’ in your article and thus change the basis of your argument. It can be said that what you are arguing about is not the arrogant ‘elitism’ but rather the value of having ‘elites’ to lead and path the way and the fact that ‘elites’ need not be ‘elitist’ or arrogant. Your use of terms may be problematic and it would be great if you could clarify! :D

    1. Hi Jum,

      Thanks for your response(: Well to some extent, I was indeed trying to engage in a definition-based argument – that the term ‘elitism’ is for all intents and purposes a corollary of the most “pure” conception of meritocracy. If we accept that society should be structured based on what we deem to be meritorious (no matter what kind of merit we are talking about, be it intellect or a mixture of intellect and good moral values), then we also concede that the most important positions in our nations should also be granted to individuals who are most ‘meritorious’ by the yardsticks we set out. You’re absolutely right in pointing out that part of the article is a semantic discussion, but I wanted to highlight the fact that terms such as “elitism” and “inclusiveness” can be appropriated by various groups (especially politicians) to mean something which we do not associate the word with. If I were to use the term “Communist sympathiser” as a way to refer to government dissidents for instance, it’s an entirely legitimate evolution of language, but it could cause confusion for people who do not draw the same associations as I do. So on that count, I felt it would be enriching to engage in the semantic discussion!

      You also mentioned that “It can be said that what [I am] arguing about is not the arrogant ‘elitism’ but rather the value of having ‘elites’ to lead and path the way and the fact that ‘elites’ need not be ‘elitist’ or arrogant.” Well, yes and no. I wanted to put forth the idea that one can subscribe to the mentality that the very brightest and the most morally upstanding of individuals should be granted the authority to lead the nation, but at the same time be the most humble and authentic person you know. The idea here is that an ‘elitist mindset’ of believing that an ‘elite group’ consisting of our best people has the most legitimacy to rule the nation has absolutely no correlation to the arrogant, self-entitled stereotype that the word “elitist” sometimes conjures. To draw an analogy – if we do not consider socialists to all be humble and unpretentious, then why do we consider ‘elitists’ or individuals with an ‘elitist mindset’ to tend toward arrogance? I didn’t intend to “redefine” elitism, but just clarify an interesting distinction between its academic connotations and its political connoations.

      Thanks so much for reading Raffles Press, and we appreciate your support!

    2. No, the writer isn’t confusing anything. There is nothing problematic if the article is interpreted logically.

      “Elites” refer to “the best”, or, “those who are superior”.

      “Elitists” refer to “those who think the best should lead”, or, “there is and will always be a superior class”.

      “Arrogance” refers to “those who think they are the best”, or “I am part of the superior class”.

      Maybe the writer should have a glossary of terms next time to help others understand, since such a long article may leave people confused.

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