Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Elites aren't really nasty people; they're just clueless

I've been motivated to write this post after reading the comments on an article on The Online Citizen.

Broadly speaking, there's generally a great deal of negativity in the Singapore blogosphere surrounding the issue of 'elites' as produced by the system of meritocracy in Singapore. Elites are usually regarded as arrogant, lacking in empathy or common sense, with an inflated sense of entitlement. We saw this with the infamous Wee Shu Min incident. In addition, government sponsored scholars are also frequently derided as being scholar mandarins or scholar mafia, and gifted really is a dirty word in Singapore.

My answer to that is that the public is actually right, but things are not as simple as they are perceived to be.

What makes me qualified to talk about elites? In the interest of (my) privacy, I seldom talk about my personal life. But it happens to be relevant here for this post.

I was a student in the Gifted Education Program. I attended one of the premier secondary schools in Singapore, when there were only three secondary schools offering the program. I attended a top 5 junior college, and in my JC, I was in a 'stream' class, where all the best students were. My class had the highest number of student councillors in my year, and after 'A' levels, a considerable number of us got into NUS medicine, law, architecture or took up scholarships. I myself applied for and received an overseas government scholarship. I was funded to attend a US university, and majored in what is frequently called the most prestigious biomedical engineering program in the nation [it's a good program, but the prestigious part is a bit overrated].

Now, before you hurl accusations at me for being elitist, let me follow up with other details.

My family was and is solidly lower middle class: my mother was a homemaker who also worked part-time assembling electronic parts at a JVC factory, while my father was a technician who worked shifts at an offshore oil refinery.

I was a latchkey kid from the age of eight. I walked to school every morning, often past the huge Mercedes Benzes that ferried the other kids to school. I wore those ubiquitous white canvas shoes that you hardly see kids wear today, while most of my classmates wore Asics shoes. On rainy days, I would actually wear slippers and a dorky raincoat, and change out of the soaking wet slippers into shoes once I reached school, often eliciting weird looks from other students. During NS, I was a corporal in a combat role, and many of my platoon mates came from far less privileged backgrounds than I had previously encountered. Most of my friends from school were at OCS, and almost all of them were at a certain very special company. 

So yes, by the trappings of my education and my qualifications, you might imagine that I am one of the elite crowd. But if you saw only my socio-economic background, you wouldn't have guessed that.

The interesting thing about how I grew up was that I had a supremely good vantage point from which to observe how the elite live. And continue to live, because I still keep in touch with several friends.

And yet, my background is literally a world apart. That gives me a unique perspective on the more privileged segment of society.

[For brevity, I will refer to the more privileged segment of society as the 'elites'. Although, how I hate this word! I who have been labeled so many things before that I know labels are just a form of stereotyping. Take it from someone who belongs to a vanishingly small minority, people should NOT be put in boxes. It's just not a healthy way to start a discussion.]

Elites have been accused of being arrogant and out-of-touch. But the truth is that most elites are for the most part, genuinely nice people. As the title of this post states, elites aren't really nasty people; they're just clueless.

Do you know what is the hardest part about attending a school where the median income of your classmates' families is literally an order of magnitude higher than your own? It's not the snobs that need worrying about; you can always ignore the snobs.

It's having friends, good friends, who think nothing of going out after school and spending the equivalent of your week's allowance on movies, meals and stuff, and asking, would you like to come too? And you making up excuses to avoid saying no, I can't afford to.

I can come up with endless variations on this example. Four words. Story of my life. The important idea here is that the elite aren't bad or vindictive or arrogant; they're simply not clued in to a life that is different from their own.

For someone who belongs to the upper classes, worrying about how to fund their university education is not a problem. The problem is not getting into an Ivy, or NUS medicine, or landing that scholarship.

Worrying about getting a summer internship at a bank is also not a problem; the 'rents have already lined one up with their connections. Struggling to get a job is definitely a non-issue. Failing to get into McKinsey, or Goldman Sachs, however, would be utter disaster.

Rising prices? Inflation? Elites don't generally bat an eyelid. I recall one memorable dinner with a good friend whose father, a CEO of a listed firm, took us out to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Bayswater, London. Well, actually, it was the father's JP Morgan banker who took us out to dinner. She was the one with the expense account. And one interesting vignette that was dropped by the banker was how kids of a certain friend of hers had never eaten in a hawker center before. Never. Always restaurants. Imagine that.

If you've been following so far, you'll note that the elite really are out-of-touch. With the problems of regular people that is. It's a fair accusation. But the fault doesn't lie with them, it lies with the circumstances under which they have lived their lives. Their reference points, their standards are all different from regular people. I repeat, they simply aren't clued in to a life that is different from their own.

They can't comprehend the normal problems that regular people face simply because these have never been problems they've had to deal with before. It's like an Eskimo trying to explain the 17 words they have for snow to a non-Eskimo, or explaining the concept of color to someone who is blind. 

[As an aside, you might want to think about how you lack perspective on the different, less fortunate lives that other people live. Some Singaporeans don't actually have to look very far; they have maids in their own homes who work 7 days a week, for admittedly not very much pay, far away from their own families, and yet these same Singaporeans may talk endlessly about work-life balance and better baby benefits.]

The next time you have to deal with insensitivity from an elite, a sharp rebuke will do, but don't make it personal. There is no reason to criticize a person's character unless they really are in need of it. Sometimes, you only need to ask that the person consider a different perspective. That might make all the difference.


Yuan2 said...

In my opinion, clueless may have been too much of a moderated word used to describe the "elites". The choice to extend one's knowledge about the true reflection of Singapore's society is always available, and they are certainly well-empowered to.

I choose to place the majority of blame on the parties that had sway over the development of the young generation of "elites". They have been brought up this way because of the actions of their parents. It was by intention that they were brought up this way, segregated from the "ordinary".

Furthermore, the government would also have played an exacerbating role of widening the socio-economic gap by placing the responsibility of not being able to move up the ladder on one-self, causing the less advantaged to often dwell in meaningless self-reproach and eventually giving up hope. Often there may be publicized examples of some escaping from this vicious cycle, but more often that not it is the contrary. A meritocracy is obviously biased towards ones either born with better ability or blessed with more resources to acquire more ability.

This eventually leads to a continuous cycle, where society divides into one that is clearly defined by economic well-being and academic succes (sometimes).

Certainly, blame cannot be placed entirely on the young generation of elites, but i'm sure some can be attributed to certain parties.

mjuse said...

There may be something in what you say. The word "clueless" is arguably too mild.

But the prevailing mood at the time when I wrote this piece (in 2008!) was one of considerable vitriol against so-called elites. If you recall, it was around the time of the Wee Shu Min incident.

I had no desire to pen another polemic against the elite class then. Anyone can do that. And many people did. As a matter of policy on this blog, I consciously choose to present alternative perspectives. This blogpost was crafted to avoid deviating from that objective.

rrorty said...

I have a similar experience as you. I grew up in a lower-middle class family (monthly per capita income of about $500), but I went to top schools and eventually to NUS medicine.

Unlike you, though, I never had any qualms with telling my friends that no, I couldn't go watch a movie with them because I couldn't afford it and no, I'm not spending $10 on lunch outside when I could get a decent meal for $3 at the canteen.

I wore my (relative) poverty as a batch of honour - after all, I succeeded *despite* not hailing from a privileged background. I did not owe my academic grades to intensive tuition (never had a single day of tuition in my life), and I could keep up with my school work despite having to do a bunch of household chores (no maid).

Personally, I think being relatively poor has advantages of its own. You develop a stronger sense of hunger and drive compared to your rich peers. You know you won't be able to afford college without a scholarship, so you strive much, much harder to achieve academic and extra-curricular excellence. Had I been born in a rich family, knowing that my parents could afford to send me anywhere for college, I probably would have been more complacent and less hard-working.

And while we can bemoan the fact that rich kids are overrepresented at top schools and faculties, we should still be proud that Singapore's system allows for lower-income kids with aptitude and determination to rise to the top.

mjuse said...

To rrorty:

You should justly feel a sense of achievement at what you have accomplished. Surmounting the odds is something that is worth celebrating. And what you say about growing up in straitened circumstances does indeed build character.

However, I do not share the sentiment about wearing my relatively lower income background as a "badge", so to speak.

This is not because I am ashamed of my roots. It is because I find little utility in emphasizing my background.

Doing well despite coming from a lower income household is an integral part of who I am, but it does not define the whole of me. I am more than that.

I am also self-conscious of the fact that being too *self-aware* of my background can unconsciously manifest as a tendency to be tetchy about it, which is something I strive to avoid.

Lastly, while I may have "succeeded" despite the odds, not everyone in my shoes could have or would have done so. Luck, chance and opportunity too have a bearing on such outcomes. I think it's important that people in our situation continue to empathize with those less fortunate.

My intention here is not to be confrontational but to express a difference in opinion. If I have mis-interpreted your comment, then you have my apologies.