An uphill task
A small start to check this entrenched force, beginning with top
students and state scholars before they become leaders. By Seah Chiang
Sep 21, 2013
Will it stop there and can we rely on elite implementers to be work
hard if they see it as against their own interests.)
AS Lee Kuan Yew celebrated his 90th birthday last week, one of his
legacies – an elitist leadership – was given a few hard jolts.
Whether the founding leader had intentionally devised it or simply
encouraged it through his scholars-as-leaders policy or eugenics
theory, a form of elitist environment has taken a grip on Singapore.
It created a new breed of highly-paid civil servants, some of whom
became dominating and arrogant, who helped to govern a questioning
middle-class population – not the best of combinations.
A number of them are accused of having lost touch with the common folk because of their high salaries and lavish living.
As a result, the class rift has worsened, aggravated by a widening gap
between the rich and poor. It has also reduced support for the People’s
Action Party (PAP).
The government is not aiming to eliminate, only to remake, elitism, which exists everywhere.
The change began with education, where top students from elite schools
are earmarked for leadership, then moved to the civil service and the
Injecting a bit more heartland elements into elite schools and the
selection for government scholarships to level opportunities has begun.
On Monday – coincidentally Lee’s birthday – Public Service Commission
(PSC) chairman Eddie Teo pledged to guard against elitism by ensuring
diversity in selecting scholars for leadership training.
In a speech in 1966, Lee indirectly encouraged a sense of an elite
self-consciousness among his brightest students, like Britain’s public
schools and imperial China.
“It is essential to rear a generation at the very top of society that
has all the qualities needed to lead and give the people the
inspiration and the drive to make it succeed,” he said.
In an open letter, Teo said the PSC would reach out to students from
different schools and backgrounds, not only the premium schools.
“A public service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will
add to the impression that meritocracy leads to a lack of social
mobility in Singapore,” he said.
(He gave some figures: In 2007, 82% of PSC scholarship holders came
from two top schools – Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong. Now it’s
around 60%, the rest coming from less prominent institutions.)
Lee’s successors are evidently taking it a few steps away.
First was the education system. It is de-emphasising the difference
between top-ranking and neighbourhood schools that heartland parents
"Elitism has crept into just about every aspect of our education
system. Our primary and secondary school suffers from class
discrimination,” said a commentator.
Poor children make do with tuition offered by self-help organisations
while the wealthy send their children to expensive tuition centres or
engage experienced tutors for one-to-one coaching, he added.
The PSC chairman said: “(We are) acutely conscious of the need to have
public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, lest we end up
breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathy.”
To some extent, it has already happened.
Singapore’s civil servants, elite or otherwise, have generally run the city well and contributed to its progress.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced recently that its ranks
would be widened to comprise people of different backgrounds,
skill-sets and experiences.
The new effort may soothe some feelings in the heartland among parents
who are hopeful their children from non-elite schools now have a better
chance of getting a government scholarship.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong fired the first shot when he
recently warned of the threat of elitism, saying it can divide society.
“What we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a
responsibility to help the less fortunate ... with compassion, to give
back to society ... and serve the country,” he told students of
top-ranked Raffles Institution.
The public’s anti-elitism feelings were evident during the Punggol East by-election in January.
The PAP candidate, a prominent medical specialist with sterling
achievements, was surprisingly defeated by an opposition lady of
Dr Koh Poh Koon, who had been expected to win, lost to the Workers
Party’s Lee Li Lian, who had campaigned with peasant simplicity.
He lost because he was viewed as part of the elite, a likely recurrence in future elections.
This apparently confirmed to the PAP leadership that many Singaporeans
are unhappy with policies that favour the rich and powerful.
Lim Boon Heng said before he quit as labour chief and Cabinet member:
“The stability of a society depends on how people feel. If there is a
group which is unhappy such that they rebel against the system, it can
lead to all kinds of trouble.”
The next possible step is a change of criteria and selection of PAP
Members of Parliament, from whom the Cabinet is selected.
So far, most of them are – like Dr Koh at Punggol East – selected from
scholars or successful businessmen or professionals, described by Lee
Senior once as “the best in Singapore”. (Only a few are social workers
or people with good community links.)
In a different era, this type of leaders had worked well in winning
elections. But in the new Singapore, elitism breeds resentment.
Senior minister of state (finance and transport) Josephine Teo once described the issue as a serious one.
“The ‘elite’ is portrayed as a class of people who do not understand
the problems faced by ordinary Singaporeans, and are only interested to
pursue their ‘elite’ interests,” she said.
(An earlier version was first published in The Star, Malaysia)