As Singapore rises through the ranks, topping global indexes on economy, human capital and longevity, the division between the upper and lower income brackets is, more than ever, a point of concern. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing addressed this issue recently, urging people not to make all-encompassing generalizations about each other and to make a clear distinction between “elites” who use their success and wealth to give back to society and those with an “elitist attitude” who do not reach out to help their fellow man.
On Friday, October 26, at a public policy conference, Minister Chan spoke of the differences that accompany the word “elite”, which are often misunderstood and given negative connotations.
“To be successful and rise up is not elitism. To be successful and not reach out is elitism,” clarified Chan.
Minister Chan also analyzed the often-confused sentiments of “anti-elitism and anti-excellence”. “Anti-elitism” means being disenfranchised and oppressed by those who have attained wealth or success through less hard-working means like family background or personal connections and who distance themselves from society.
Minister Chan addressed the habit of generalizing people into categories based solely on their status in life.
“If I have succeeded and done well in this system, but contribute to society and touch lives of people, then is it fair to also similarly bunch everybody together, and say you are all elites?” he asked.
At the conference, Minister Chan asked whether he should now be classified as an elite because of his position in government.
Panelist Chua Mui Hoong, the opinion editor at The Straits Times, replied with a firm and unequivocal “yes” and said that Minister Chan is elite “by virtue of income and education”, is “a member of the political elite” and part of “academic aristocracy”.
Minister Chan’s responded good-naturedly to Chua, asking her if it matters that he was raised by a single parent and then worked hard, or is he generalized along with the rest of the “elites”?
“The fact that I have ‘arrived’ makes me an elite, and therefore I should be subject to all these perspective, accusations,” said Minister Chan.
He spoke of his childhood, saying that after his parents divorced, his mother singlehandedly raised him and his sister in their three-room flat. He said that as a child, other kids sometimes discriminated against him, because he did not “speak the way they speak”.
When it was said that Singapore is run by elites, Minister Chan answered, saying that while it may “sometimes (be) comforting to pigeonhole people into certain groups” because of their upbringing and financial status, a person’s talent and contribution should not be overlooked.
“I agree if the group is monolithic and uncaring, by all means call them elites and bash them up. But if the group succeeded and come from diverse background? Don’t pigeonhole people into groups that we find comfortable to do so,” he said.
Minister Chan urged all Singaporeans, but especially the wealthy, to give assistance to society and be more conscious of their fellow countrymen who are in need.
“Those who have succeeded must know they have the responsibility to help [other] Singaporeans.
If we abide by that spirit, I am confident Singapore will grow from strength to strength,” he said.