Three phrases or words have been making the rounds in social media currently – elitism, snobbery and entitlement. They have been used to describe the whole PAP establishment especially the top echelons meaning the Cabinet and MPs and all the SAF generals and key civil servants. The sense of disgust on the ground will not go away until, I think, a satisfactory reaction or defence is put up by the PAP government.
These are serious allegations.
Let’s take the first one – elitism. This has always been a facet of the PAP DNA. Way back in the mid-1960s, students at the then University of Singapore (now NUS) were already slamming the PAP for practising or worshipping elitism which is basically that there are those who are just more capable than others and these people will be the natural top part of any society. At that time, Socialism, a milder form of Communism which advocated social equality, was a governing philosophy in a number of countries eg Britain and France. Educated young Singaporeans caught the wind. Hence, the protests in the campus against any form of policy which smacked of favouring the “elite”.
But the late PM Lee Kuan Yew would not bend. He had made at least one no-holds-barred speech referring to anthropological differences among countries in South-East Asia which I do not want to rehash lest the subject offends people in other parts of Asia, especially our neighbours, and make life difficult for Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. LKY spoke about intense and less societies, among other things. Suffice to say that LKY was abashedly – or, in his eyes, being pragmatically – elitist, even in his views of other countries!
LKY imported the Mandarinate system from the Middle Kingdom into Singapore. In China, scholars had to pass rigorous examinations to make it to Beijing to serve the Emperor. Hence, the education system here has been unabashedly elitist. Apart from allowing elite schools to flourish, young Singaporeans were sieved out through examinations and so-called scholars were picked through several categories – President’s Scholars, SAF Scholars and so on – who later went on to serve the armed forces, civil service, GLCs and statutory boards (the latter two also created their own scholars). The best went to the SAF because the imperative was that, without a strong army, we would be vulnerable and that was top priority. Hence, you can see why so many generals and rear admirals have been chosen for the Cabinet, as a second career. PM Lee Hsien Loong was in the first batch of SAF Scholars. He did his national service. I was in the same company in the SAF cadet officer school.
I can go on about elitism in the PAP system. A lot has been said already, I will not repeat. Has it produced the proper result – a system which has served the country well? Or has it widened the gap between the top and the lower middle class and the low income group so wide that it has immeasurably impaired our social mobility to such an extent that a class system has emerged and entrenched itself?
I am afraid it has. Apart from the question of unfairness to those who do not grow up in families with the right connections and have the back up to study in the best or better schools and universities, ugly symptoms are manifesting themselves quite rapidly.
One is snobbery.
This comes, for example, from the way people are particularly eager to move out of HDB flats into private property where they can enjoy a secluded life behind gated walls away from the hoi polloi. It’s not just about investment. It’s also a way of distancing yourself from the rest. All this despite the fact that the HDB has done quite a lot to upgrade the environment in the states.
Top schools, top clubs, top restaurants, deluxe vacations, Porsches, obscenely priced handbags al la Rosmah – they are part and parcel of a fine lifestyle. We should not necessarily begrudge the genuine achievers who have “arrived”. Many people probably aspire to have all this. But Singapore is not Monte Carlo, where the rich and famous congregate. We are still an immigrant society trying to be a nation, not a rich men’s enclave catering to an elite class.
The second by-product of elitism being hotly discussed in social media is the sense of entitlement. It is beginning to be clear that the system is so pervasive in the PAP and government that it risks being taken for granted.
The issue of ministerial salaries continues to reverberate. The thinking behind the PAP leaders in their induction of candidates for the elections and later into the Cabinet has a huge element of entitlement. Only high salaries will attract the best and nothing less will do. If that is incontestably true, other people earning below the PAP benchmark must be practically duds. If that is true, then why do we have a Cabinet which cannot match the quality and the ability of the first generation – and perhaps the second – to get out of the ivory tower and seriously and openly engage Singaporeans in debates on important issues – meaningful heated debate and not just have polite or choreographed conversations. Helicoptered, overly protected leaders do not deserve their millions if they cannot perform something as important and basic as debunk naysayers and persuade them to the government’s cause.
Elitism, snobbery, entitlement. I add one more long phrase to end this column – sheer arrogance, coupled with contempt for others.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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