Elitism in Singapore

Speaking recently at the Raffles Institution’s (RI) Homecoming dinner for alumni where he was the second recipient of the prestigious Gryphon Award, ESM Goh Chok Tong described the need to guard against elitism in Singapore.

Because elitism “threatens to divide the inclusive society that we seek to build”, he urged top schools to play a key role in ensuring students do not develop an elitist mind-set or a sense of entitlement.

He also defined elitism: “”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 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.”

However, instead of trying to replace meritocracy as we know it, ESM Goh spoke about the fair and inclusive “compassionate meritocracy” he would like to grow in Singapore.

“What we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate and less able with compassion, to give back to society through financial donations, sharing of their skills and knowledge and spending time to help others do better, and to serve the country.”

He added that the government will continue to create equal opportunities for the financially disadvantaged—to “level the playing field” by upgrading schools, ITEs, and Polytechnics, increasing university places and developing the pre-school education system for those who cannot afford an expensive education.

This concept of a “compassionate meritocracy” sounds both useful and necessary in these times of prosperity. After all, if our leaders worked hard to bring us all to the highest levels of education and material comfort, shouldn’t the next logical step for us to be thankful for what we have and make sure others get the same opportunities?

Especially when many real life tales of elitist snobbery enrage netizens!

Remember the Wee Shu-min affair in 2006, where the then-eighteen year-old Raffles Junior College (RJC) scholar and daughter of a PM made insensitive remarks in her blog about “the sadder class” and called them “wretched, under-motivated, over-assuming leeches in our country, and in this world”?

Or how about the story of the Raffles Girls School student (RGS) who dated someone from an under-privileged neighbourhood school in 2004 and who sparked disturbing discussions about “lower-ranking students trying to climb the social ladder”?

More recently, an NTU valedictorian sparked outrage and disappointment after he made highly insensitive comments about his Chinese-majoring counterparts:

In fact, things seem to be getting so out of hand that a research paper has even been written on the subject!

Titled “Examining Meritocracy & Elitism in Singapore” and written by Soh Yi Da, the paper discusses meritocracy and its dangers, the Singapore elite, their powers and interests, social mobility (or immobility), and the country’s increasing social inequality.

The essay concludes with a message that we should all take to heart if we don’t want to become the selfish, individualistic, and entitled society we’ve all been warned about: “against the backdrop of widening social divide, if this tension between the elite and non-elite, rich and poor, English-educated and Chinese-educated becomes mismanaged, we edge closer towards (…) social unrest (…).”

Indeed, if we don’t turn things around soon, we could soon become the world’s most snobbish country. And no one wants to be famous for that, right??

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Lavinia Lim

Yoga, writing, dancing, reading….

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