Not so long ago, Singaporeans firmly believed in a principle called meritocracy, an equal-opportunities playing field where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, who endeavour to excel themselves are rewarded based on their capabilities, performance and achievements.
It suited our collective competitive streak (or kiasu-ism) well and, for a time, we understood – and more or less accepted – that those who eventually came out on top, whether by studying hard to enter the best schools, mastering a sport to represent their country, or sharpening their political acumen to join the ranks as a minister, are our elite.
However, meritocracy has started to come under fire in recent years for having contributed to a growing class divide between the privileged and the less privileged, and “elite” has become a dirty word.
And whenever incidents of high-flyers behaving badly erupt in the public eye, such as the recent news about The Hour Glass founders’ daughter Audrey Tay whose drug abuse led to a traffic accident, the majority of the online comments seem to be about elite-bashing.
Some mockingly referred to her as a crazy rich Asian/Singaporean, while others estimated ironically that she’d get at most “1 week jail only… (because) rich people. Confirm.” One person also offered a begrudging opinion of the motivation behind her behaviour: “Poor peasants get depression because money not enough. Rich people get depression because too much money and have nothing to do (every day).”
While there’s no excusing Tay’s misdemeanour, these throwaway comments do indicate a deeper, more insidious social issue: that the average Singaporean is chafing at the system’s inequalities and need someone to blame.
And we’ve picked the elite because their privilege makes them an easy, convenient target – even when some of them don’t quite deserve the hectoring.
Case in point: Captain Teng Ling Ying, the RSAF pilot who’s suing a cab driver for $4 million in damages after a car accident in 2014 left her unable to pursue a career in flying.
Here, the online comments smacked more distinctly of anti-elite sentiments, with most shaming her for trying to “rob” the cabbie by asking him to pay the impossible, accusing her of having no compassion, telling her to “get a life because it’s not like she’s unemployable”, or simply advising her to just be satisfied with escaping relatively unscathed.
One person assessed the situation with this sweeping statement: “SAF regulars are mostly dumb or plain ignorant or out of touch with the world, they thought the whole world is like them, can promote, can get pension, can get high bonus. I hope uncle taxi declare bankrupt, and she won’t get a single cent. There’s no bound for stupidity.”
But another commenter rightly pointed out: “Wonder why all keep thinking payout $4m is paid by cabby. There is a thing called insurance.”
In our haste to sensationalise the situation or pass judgment, it seems we’ve forgotten that Captain Teng is the victim, regardless of her background.
Instead of viewing her as the big, bad bully, shouldn’t we remember that she’s suffering the consequences of the accident, too? She’s lost the life she wanted, one she probably worked very hard for.
Why have we become so quick to demonise our elite?
Being elite is not the same thing as being elitist
Perhaps it’s because we’ve started conflating the term elite with elitist, the latter generally defined as a belief that certain segments of society deserve preferential treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority in terms of wealth, education, family background, or social standing.
But elite and elitism are two very different concepts – one being a position you’re born into or have arrived at, while the other is an attitude or a mindset.
If you were fortunate enough to come from privilege and were better able to score places in elite schools and, later, jobs at a prestigious company, good for you. Providence might have given you a head start but, presumably, you’ve also had to work hard for your grades (just like the rest of us) and to prove yourself in your career (ditto).
We always seem less inclined to celebrate the admirable traits or achievements of others, especially if we feel that it isn’t something they’ve earned entirely on their own. We downplay their successes and put it down to things like having more money or connections, and better opportunities to begin with.
Yet, we’re quick to laud the hard-luck or rags-to-riches stories – the top scoring PSLE student who survived childhood cancer, the cab driver’s son who made valedictorian, the CEO who put herself through school after her father passed away and juggled two jobs until she found her big break.
Those are indeed inspiring.
But the Raffles Institution boy who went to Oxford University to study law, and now works long hours at his dad’s best friend’s law firm to rise up the ladder?
Not so much.
Why are we happy to applaud some people for their achievements, but then take exception when those same accomplishments are attained by those whom we see as having it better than us?
For some among the elite, Lady Luck might have played a small role by providing them with a privileged upbringing or education, and an established network to draw upon for career opportunities. But in a meritocratic society like Singapore, we are still expected to pull our own weight and work hard for our successes.
Being elite doesn’t mean they’re spared from prejudice or pitchforks. And while their privileged backgrounds may have provided certain advantages, it’s up to them to push themselves to their peak, or crash and burn – both scenarios that are just as likely to apply to anyone over the course of their lives.
It’s possible to be elite without being elitist
Only a handful of us will demonstrate the capabilities or qualities crucial to governing nations and running corporations, while the rest of us will have to trust those elite to lead us well.
But what makes the term elite so contentious is the notion of entitlement – an unfortunate by-product of elitism – that has come into play.
Some classic signs of entitlement include these: When society’s brightest start believing that they’re inherently superior to those who aren’t doing as well as they are, when they forget to credit some of their successes to the privileges they were born with, when they seek to distance themselves from the masses and interact only within their social class.
While the social divide in Singapore is a real problem, it doesn’t help when our elite start becoming elitist.
I daresay one of the reasons for people hating the elite is that it’s difficult to like or admire someone if their success comes with a superior attitude. We think they’re arrogant, snobbish and condescending, and that makes us resent them for doing better than us.
Elitism is an issue, but being elite isn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the wealth and privileges you were born with, even as you work to become the best version of yourself.
I believe it’s possible to be unapologetically elite without being elitist, and the obvious first step is to recognise and be appreciative of having had an advantageous start in life.
As you work towards your well-deserved achievements, be mindful that others are also striving in their own ways, just like you. The road to success can be paved with kindness and compassion, too.
The beauty about aspiring to become elite is that it’s an all-inclusive dream, allowing even non-elite folks, like myself, to believe that we can rise above our circumstances or environments, on account of merit.
I don’t come from a crazy rich family, and I didn’t manage to enter any of the top schools in Singapore. I did go to decent ones, though those never opened any doors to a high-prestige occupation where I could earn half a million dollars a year.
In fact, I’m “very, very mediocre”.
But as I figure out my way in life, it helps to know that I won’t always languish in what others might consider as mediocrity.
So, I’m all for being elite because that means I can channel my very occasional resentment (yes, I’m human, too) towards working harder to be among our elite as well.