How far is elitism inevitable in your society?

The issue of elitism is one that is prevalent in all societies, and has plagued many governments, with Singapore not being an exception. Elitism, or having a non-inclusive mind-set, with groups of exclusive individuals viewing themselves as superior to the masses, has always been present, and continues to prevail today. It can be observed since medieval times, where royal blood or relation to the royal family would immediate place one in a class above the rest, and even in modern times, when financial status immediately classifies people and society into groups. This is especially prevalent in Singapore, especially in financial terms, given the context of meritocracy, our financial gap, and the cyclical nature of an elite class. However, elitism, while pervasive, is not inevitable, and on higher and structural levels, it can be alleviated or avoided, and the government has made attempts to do.

The concept of elitism pervades all levels of Singaporean society, is present in the mindsets of the people, and is reflected clearly in the way they lead their lives. This takes place mostly in economic aspects, given the strong presence Singapore has in the corporate, business world, but also takes place in other aspects of life, such as race. However, as these other aspects are not as common as the divide based on one’s economic background, for the purposes of this essay, I will only tackle the economic reasons for elitism.

Firstly, elitism in Singapore is extremely prevalent, and serves to be almost unavoidable, due to the concept of meritocracy. Since the country’s independence in 1965, the Singapore government has recognised the need for a small country like Singapore, with little to no natural resources, to work hard. As many politicians have pointed out, one of Singapore’s strongest assets is its people; the educated population, who can work to put Singapore on the global map. Hence, the Singaporean government, under the guidance of the late Mr. Lee Kwan Yew, introduced this national economic ideology of meritocracy – where everyone has an equal opportunity, and hard work is rewarded. However, this concept has ironically led to a divide in Singaporean society, where people become defined by their “reward” or financial situation since it directly links to the hard work that was put in. Because of the fairness of this system, in which financial status seems to only be directly impacted by the amount of hard work invested, elitism thus emerges and becomes unavoidable – the richer upper class can now have a reason to frown upon the lower classes – because they have been “lazy”, or not “hardworking” enough. While these might not be the actual reasons why the lower class is in their specific financial situation, the concept of meritocracy still gives the rich a reason for pride, where they can take pride in the fruits of their labour. This human pride then widens the already present financial gap into a mental, social one; the mindset of the rich is thus set directly against the poor, and worse yet, the rich, due to pride, feel justified to do so. Elitism hence emerges, and pervades all levels of society, since financial status applies to all.

Secondly, while this elitism is omnipresent, it is also unavoidable, simply because meritocracy is unavoidable, and pervades all aspects of life, especially of an institutional level. Meritocracy is not only mentioned by the government at National Day speeches or election rallies, but is also implemented in every level of society, in schools and in the workplace, and in the mind-sets of people where it is seen as a way to move up in life. In schools, good results and hard work are rewarded by better opportunities, like leadership positions, or a better class. In the Primary School Leaving Examinations, 12 year-olds sit for a national exam, which streams them by score into the school of their choice. Of course, better students get into more elite schools, and so on. In the workplace, this is likewise observed: better, more hardworking employees have more opportunities to move up the corporate ladder, earning more and eventually gaining higher positions. This then creates a functional elitism for the country, where an elite group is created solely for functional reasons: to encourage people to do better, and gain a better nationwide performance. Since this happens at every level of society, from schools to the workplace, to mindsets, it is currently inescapable and inevitable.

Thirdly, elitism is inevitable in Singapore, because the gap between different groups already exists, and will only continue to widen exponentially, drawing the divide larger and larger as time goes by. Currently, the Singapore government groups its citizens by financial status, for its functional benefits. The government then uses this to identify which groups in society require the most help, and offer this assistance to them. For example, in schools, students are split by financial background, so that the Ministry of Education can identify how much aid to offer them under the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS), and the percentage of subsidies they should receive. For example, students whose parents earn less than $2400 a month are eligible for a 100% school fee subsidy, including the provision of free school uniforms and textbooks. Students in the window above that may receive 80%, and so on. While this seems fair and beneficial, the definition of people in economic terms creates a mental divide among citizens, as they develop an acute understanding of their standing in the economic world. This is worsened by the already present rich-poor divide, which is only set to worsen. In 2013, the GINI coefficient of Singapore, which is a way of measuring the rich-poor divide in a country, was the highest in the world, with Singapore even beating countries like Hong Kong and India. With this huge rift between the rich and the poor, it is no wonder that people have begun to divide themselves along those lines, and no wonder that those in the upper class feel a sense of entitlement.

Fourthly, this is made worse by the cyclical nature of elitism, where elitism and social divisions are difficult to break out of. As previously established, meritocracy, and as a result, elitism, is present in all levels of society. However, because this is so closely tied to the idea of family, one finds that they cannot simply escape from this. For example, a child born into a well-to-do family already has an elevated financial status, and an inheritance. This child then also has greater opportunities in school: more tuition, and more chances to go on overseas trips. Parents with connections in the corporate world would also guarantee their children jobs in top law firms or hospitals, and teach their children what they know. On the other hand, poorer parents might only be able to encourage their children to study harder, and might not be able to enrol their children in extra classes either. Hence, we can see that elitism and social divides are, by nature, unavoidable in society, and this is especially so in a Singaporean context.

However, these above observations have also been made by the government. The news about the GINI coefficient had caused a huge uproar in 2015, and the government has since attempted to close the gap. Announcing that “all schools are good schools”, the Ministry of Education tried to remove the elitism mind-set that students and parents have about “better” schools, and is attempting to close the gap. Several junior colleges around the island, like Pioneer Junior College and Jurong Junior College, have also merged, giving more students the opportunity to enter top junior colleges, since the aggregate required for entry is higher and more attainable. Of course, there is only so much the government can do, since much of it stems from mindsets that have been ingrained by years of an elitist system. However, since many systemic faults are to be blamed for these mindsets, I feel that the government is making slow, but good progress. While this takes time, and will not be solved in a year or two, we can have hope for the future, and for future generations to come.

In conclusion, while elitism is, in the current context of Singapore, unavoidable, due to systemic faults and the mind-sets of people, and due to the omnipresence of these flaws, it is not completely inevitable, especially in the future. If Singapore continues to slowly remove divisive factors at the institutional level, we can hope that in the future, our children might not have to face the same circumstances we do now. However, what is then left for us to do is to attempt to purposefully adjust any elitist mindsets we ourselves might have, and each plays a part in creating a more inclusive society and nation, keeping in mind our ideal of a nation with fewer divisions.

Lew Kylin (18-U1)

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