Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Being elite

The Youthink section in the Straits Times on 20th June presented an article on the theme of "being elite". This is a very hot topic now, and I want to blog about it not because I like fashionable things (e.g. I don't read certain high-profile blogs), but because having read the ST article once, twice, and thrice, I was left with a nagging feeling of uneasiness.....

The disturbing thing is not that what the contributors wrote was total rubbish. If that was the case, then it would have been easy for me to dismiss it completely. The problem is that what they wrote consisted of many familiar arguments on this issue, but with a few slightly inappropriate sentences inserted here and there....(by three of the five contributors). Here they are:

(1) "To the non-elites, accept yourself for who you are and don't wallow in self-pity. Rise above your personal limitations and prove those who look down on you wrong."

After I read this, I did not become unhappy with the writer mainly because I know that she meant well. And that's actually part of the problem! She actually meant well! Yet it came across badly in the end. The writer was arguing that we should "celebrate those who work hard too" and I certainly agree with this and with most of the things she said. But the way the section ended was not as graceful as it could have been, for three reasons:

Firstly, the term "non-elites" inherently defines the majority of the people against the minority (elite) group. Tell me, do you prefer to be known as a Singaporean, or a "non-Westerner"? Why should anyone define himself in relation to another group of people?

Secondly, the sentence "accept yourself for who you are, and don't wallow in self-pity" is patronising. Just as we should never walk up to a stranger and say, "Hey pal, don't be sad lah, accept yourself for who you are", we should also never declare that people are in fact wallowing in self-pity for certain assumed reasons.

Thirdly, the last sentence "Rise above your personal limitations and prove those who look down on you wrong" presupposes that (a) if one cannot be part of the elite, it must certainly be due to personal limitations rather than external, societal, or systemic factors, and (b) there are indeed some people out there looking down on non-elites. But if there are indeed many such people who are narrow-minded enough to do so, shouldn't the writer be urging these people to change their views instead, rather than telling the non-elites to fight for the self-respect that they deserve all along?

(2) "Going to a JC is regarded as the main route to university, and people who don't make the cut either go to a polytechnic or the ITE....I'm not trying to promote polytechnic studies....My point is that young people should not blindly follow the 'elite' route".

This section (written by a different contributor) also gave me the perplexing feeling that I can agree with the general thrust of his/her argument and yet find certain aspects of the article problematic. The striking thing is how the writer states the observations as though they are undisputable matters of fact without pointing out that those views are in fact wrong even though they are widespread (for example, wouldn't it be good if s/he indicated his/her normative stance by saying that "going to a JC is often wrongly regarded as the main route to university"). The part that says so unambiguously that "people who don't make the cut...go to polytechnics" is also problematic, for it simply reinforces the misleading beliefs held by some that (a) only people who cannot make it to JCs go to the polytechnics, (b) there is one and only one 'elite route' rather than multiple pathways, and (c) that people opting for the polytechnic route are in fact permanently cutting themselves off from the opportunity of being an elite. Are they?

(3) "I was part of the elite again".

The third article by another commentator is the most problematic of all. I believe that this writer is a nice, normal guy with good grades who just wants to get a scholarship to enter a good university. I think his two main arguments are firstly, that "you can be an elite in any field", and secondly, "there's nothing wrong with (the presence of) a governing elite" - both of which I do agree. But the style of the article can be improved.

Essentially the article follows a structure of (a) "at first I can't join the prestigious elite club so I was very upset" line of argument, (b) "later I could join the club and became delighted again", and (c) only "complainers" "curse" elitism (note the use of the unflattering term, "complainers", to refer to people who do not embrace elitism) (my own interpretation and paraphrasing for (a) to (c)).

There is no indication in the article of how (a) and (b) are in fact very wrong attitudes to hold, when the writer (being a scholar himself) could have taken this opportunity to criticize such attitudes - and he would then have gained my respect. The silence on this could leave readers (especially aspiring scholarship applicants reading the article) thinking that it is 'not wrong' for people to feel this way. But I argue that it is wrong for aspiring scholarship applicants to feel this way, because the scholarship system that I hold in high esteem is about public service and nothing else. One should never yearn to be part of something which draws its legitimacy from public ethos mainly, or even partly, because of practical reasons such as "prestige", or for fulfilling personal 'dreams of overseas study', just as one should never indicate to a potential father-in-law that he wants to marry the daughter by saying "I sincerely hope to be part of your upper-class family", or to a lady he loves by saying "I'll be very upset if you don't accept me, as you're widely regarded as the most desirable girl on campus." (Where is the pristine love, may I ask?)

The way his emotions swing like a pendulum from extreme sadness to a blissful state of happiness also disturbs me, and results in the writer coming across as being (a) overly concerned with status differentials or (b) slightly myopic for being unable to see how one can still serve society by studying in one of our three reputable local universities using his own finances. And he mentioned that the years coinciding with his National Service "was an awkward and uncomfortable time" for him, leaving me to wonder why he has to feel this way. The use of the word "club" should also be avoided, for "clubs" are exclusive groups in which "membership has its privileges"; I feel that any suggestions of exclusivity should be avoided. And lastly, I do not think that it is modest to declare publicly that one is 'part of the elite'. Respect needs to be earned slowly over time, not conferred overnight by virtue of membership; and modesty is a virtue, even among the elites.

These, then, are my reasons for feeling slightly disturbed after reading the ST article.

34 Comments:

Anonymous ah huat said...

Bravo! That was an outstanding post.

I must first confess that I have not read the ST article referenced in your post. Ever since ST started charging online readers for access to their website, I have been locked out of the "elite" ST readers' club.

I agree with you totally regarding the lack of modesty in calling oneself elite. I cringe when I try to imagine this shameless self-promoter declaring himself an elite, with a smug look on his face...

Thu Jun 23, 05:47:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

You can find the third article mentioned in my post at Commentary Singapore...

I believe the writer doesn't have any intention to boast; he just wants to get a scholarship, go overseas, come back and serve as a scholar. I just didn't feel comfortable about the way the letter was written: the emphasis seems wrong.

Thu Jun 23, 01:49:00 PM 2005  
Blogger jeffyen said...

I thought that was a wonderful commentary on the article. Maybe you can submit it to ST Forum!

Thu Jun 23, 02:27:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This elite stuff is doctrinal rubbish, imho

Thu Jun 23, 09:01:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

hi jeffrey: Thanks for the compliment! I don't think ST will accept my article though... :)

hi anonymous: Actually, I do think it's better (and pretty natural) for a society to have an elite but I would have been happier if I see aspiring young elites/elites-to-be talking about their passions, their ideals, and how they would like to improve Singapore, rather than constantly stressing the divisions (poly/JC, elite/non-elite, mainstream/non-mainstream professions, smart/not-smart, and so on). The article "Let's Talk about Being Elite" just didn't start off the discussions very well, in my opinion.

Fri Jun 24, 12:52:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

"Actually, I do think it's better (and pretty natural) for a society to have an elite but I would have been happier if I see aspiring young elites/elites-to-be talking about their passions, their ideals, and how they would like to improve Singapore, rather than constantly stressing the divisions (poly/JC, elite/non-elite, mainstream/non-mainstream professions, smart/not-smart, and so on)."

Well put... and I would add, "and instead of talking about wanting to join the elite, or being in the elite, etc."--as if it's a ticket to get ahead in the ratrace and nothing more. I'm sure Mr. Chan meant well, but the article as printed (edited? who knows) reads rather strangely, at least, to my ears.

Fri Jun 24, 04:55:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous ah huat said...

Hi wielder-of-heavenly-sword-cousin,

Thanks for the link. Now I have a more complete picture. Let me try to summarize the writer's thought process:

"Boo hoo, woe is me; I did not get coveted scholarship. I am a victim of this elitist system. Bad system, bad bad system!

Woo hoo, I got the overseas scholarship! I am an elite! I am the cream of the crop! I am the king of the world! Hey come on, no system is perfect; we should embrace this elitist system of ours. You too can contribute to society even if you're not an elite..."

Makes me even more sick!

Fri Jun 24, 05:06:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

hi huichieh: Well said..The ticket and ratrace metaphors are apt indeed.

hi ah huat: haha...I dunno what to say...

Fri Jun 24, 08:13:00 PM 2005  
Blogger tyme said...

touche! :)

Fri Jun 24, 10:23:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

hi tyme: wow, French word!

Sat Jun 25, 12:10:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Injenue said...

wow! as usual a great post on a topic like this =)

i think it is natural that there is a pecking order in life but maybe there isn't a need to rub it in =p

Mon Jun 27, 06:34:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your incisive and hugely thought-provoking analysis of my short column on elitism in Singapore. I am writing because I found your comments to be constructive, eloquent and fair. I would be lying if I said your comments did not strike me hard. Writing is perhaps an art I have not mastered, and as I am having difficulty now, I was similarly unable to fully express myself in the short space of the column, which was, for better or worse, cut and edited. But if you would ignore the style and language, here goes:

Singapore has been built on the back of capitalism. Results, no doubt, do rule the day. That is our education system - the system I was raised in - and that was the system I was willing to follow in order to achieve my personal goals. I will not lie to you – studying in the US was my dream. A local education is just as good, if not better, than an overseas one. But what I wanted was to get the chance, when I had one, to simply experience an American education in the US. I yearned for that opportunity and I knew that the best way for me to achieve that was through a scholarship.

Now, if you happen to have the skills to achieve in this system, (note that I am not saying the system is good or bad) would you use it for your personal gain?

I admit I was definitely affected when I did not get selected for the PSC scholarship. But it was more because I had come close to it, and then had it slip away. I was more bitter, however, that I did not work harder to give myself a better chance. It felt like I had run a marathon and then stumbled at the last 10m.

You critically pointed out that: “One should never yearn to be part of something which draws its legitimacy from public ethos mainly, or even partly, because of practical reasons such as "prestige", or for fulfilling personal 'dreams of overseas study', just as one should never indicate to a potential father-in-law that he wants to marry the daughter by saying "I sincerely hope to be part of your upper-class family", or to a lady he loves by saying "I'll be very upset if you don't accept me, as you're widely regarded as the most desirable girl on campus." (Where is the pristine love, may I ask?)” Although I agree, unfortunately in the real world, you and I know full well that that is idealistic. It is only a matter of admitting it or staying silent about it. However, I fully agree that a Public service scholarship should be for those who have public service at heart. Perhaps I just didn’t.

But a scholarship is like a job. To say that when I applied for a scholarship I was sure that I was fully dedicated and suitable for that job for the next 10 years of my life would certainly be naïve. But attitudes, thankfully, can and do change. It is after all not how you start, but how you finish. I will now dedicate my few years to reciprocating what the organization has given me.

Most importantly, I did not mean to be disrespectful to anyone by “boasting” about my entry into the elite. There is a thin line between being proud of an achievement and being arrogant and condescending. I am very much the former and I fully encourage everyone else to be proud of what they achieve. However, I still stand by my notion that I am part of an elite. Who’s elite are we really talking about anyway? For me, it is what you think of yourself that really matters. For me, I am part of an elite because I have achieved my personal goal. And that was the heart of my column - to emphasise that in spite of our education system, (perhaps using myself was a bad example) there are people who have the talent to be successful in their own way, and to be, therefore, part of their own elite. As long as they want to be.

What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, the saying goes. Therefore your sobering commentary is much appreciated. I was actually delighted to read that my column provoked such seething, intellectual and most importantly, heartfelt responses. Indeed I strongly believe that these are the pieces that need to be making their way on to the pages of YouthInk and the Forum. I always believed that open, honest debate is the way to better understand and improve ourselves. Thank you for this one.

Regards,
Robin Chan

Thu Jun 30, 03:09:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

I am very impressed! And touched too...

Thu Jun 30, 11:52:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Trackback: From a Singapore Angle, "Robin Chan responds". "He has taken the trouble of leaving a long comment at Heavenly Sword to whom he was responding in particular--If you ask me, the blogosphere is doing its job as an engine of civic discussion."

Thu Jun 30, 12:26:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear Mr Chan,

Thank you for your reply which I am pleasantly surprised to receive. It has given me a deeper understanding of what you went through and your thoughts at the past few critical junctures of your life.

I had wanted to type a long reply to this, but I felt subsequently that 'less would be more'. I think you can sense that you have earned my respect now - for politely and modestly speaking your truth so as to give me and my blog readers a better understanding of your stance. Not only did you not take offence, you took this well, were courteous and wanted to draw useful lessons from it; for this, I am truly impressed.

I have the confidence that you will become an outstanding professional in time to come, with leadership and intellectual contributions to make to your organization. On the day when you succeed, this blog may no longer be around, for I am not even sure if I will be around (since life is so unpredictable). But if my letter that is typed with mildly trembling hands as I wonder whether I will get 'invited for coffee', has struck a chord in you, then I am sure that you are a person whom I can respect.

Good luck in your studies and I look forward to hearing about your professional achievements in the near future. Thank you and signing off with kindest regards.

Yours sincerely,

Heavenly Sword

Thu Jun 30, 03:51:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear readers, I guess we will leave it at that....

With very best wishes,
Heavenly Sword

Fri Jul 01, 10:03:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin is a great friend I love and adore so much.

Love,
Anny

Fri Jul 08, 02:04:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Anyone who can take criticisms so well deserves respect. And I can tell he is really a nice guy.

Fri Jul 08, 06:01:00 PM 2005  
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