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.