Singapore elites: “..class of people who do not understand the problems faced by ordinary Singaporeans, and are only interested to pursue their ‘elite’ interests”

Updated: Saturday September 21, 2013 MYT 8:28:50 AM

Singapore relooks elitist policy

BY SEAH CHIANG NEE

Recent measures show that the government is not aiming to eliminate, only to remake, elitism, which exists everywhere.

AS Lee Kuan Yew celebrated his 90th birthday last week, one of his legacies – an elitist leadership – was given a few hard jolts. Whether the founding leader had intentionally devised it or simply encouraged it through his scholars-as-leaders policy or eugenics theory, a form of elitist environment has taken a grip on Singapore. It created a new breed of highly-paid civil servants, some of whom became dominating and arrogant, who helped to govern a questioning middle-class population – not the best of combinations. A number of them are accused of having lost touch with the common folk because of their high salaries and lavish living. As a result, the class rift has worsened, aggravated by a widening gap between the rich and poor. It has also reduced support for the People’s Action Party (PAP).The government is not aiming to eliminate, only to remake, elitism, which exists everywhere.

The change began with education, where top students from elite schools are earmarked for leadership, then moved to the civil service and the scholarship system.

Injecting a bit more heartland elements into elite schools and the selection for government scholarships have begun.

On Monday – coincidentally Lee’s birthday – Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Eddie Teo pledged to guard against elitism by ensuring diversity in selecting scholars for leadership training.

In a speech in 1966, Lee indirectly encouraged a sense of an elite self-consciousness among his brightest students, like Britain’s public schools and imperial China.

“It is essential to rear a generation at the very top of society that has all the qualities needed to lead and give the people the inspiration and the drive to make it succeed,” he said.

In an open letter, Teo said the PSC would reach out to students from different schools and backgrounds, not only the premium schools.

“A public service comprising only the privileged and upper classes will add to the impression that merito­cracy leads to a lack of social mobi­lity in Singapore,” he said.

(He gave some figures: In 2007, 82% of PSC scholarship holders came from two top schools – Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong. Now it’s around 60%, the rest coming from less prominent institutions.)

Lee’s successors are evidently taking it a few steps away. First was the education system. It is de-emphasising the difference between top-ranking and neighbourhood schools that heartland parents generally avoid.

“Elitism has crept into just about every aspect of our education system. Our primary and secondary school suffers from class discrimination,” said a commentator.

Poor children make do with tuition offered by self-help organisations while the wealthy send their children to expensive tuition centres or engage experienced tutors for one-to-one coaching, he added.

The PSC chairman said: “(We are) acutely conscious of the need to have public servants coming from all socio-economic classes, lest we end up breeding a class of elitist public servants who lack empathy.”

To a small extent, it has already happened. Singapore’s civil servants, elite or otherwise, have generally run the city well and contributed to its progress.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced recently that its ranks would be widened to comprise people of different backgrounds, skill sets and experiences.

The new effort may soothe some feelings in the heartland among parents who are hopeful their children from non-elite schools now have a better chance of getting a government scholarship.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong fired the first shot when he recently warned of the threat of elitism, saying it can divide society.

“What we need is to get the successful to understand that they have a responsibility to help the less fortunate … with compassion, to give back to society … and serve the country,” he told students of top-ranked Raffles Institution.

The public’s anti-elitism feelings were evident during the Punggol East by-election in January.

The PAP candidate, a prominent medical specialist with sterling achievements, was surprisingly defeated by an opposition lady of average education.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, who had been expected to win, lost to the Workers Party’s Lee Li Lian, who had campaigned with peasant simplicity. He lost because he was viewed as part of the elite, a likely recurrence in future elections.

This apparently confirmed to the PAP leadership that many Singa­poreans are unhappy with policies that favour the rich and powerful.

Lim Boon Heng said recently before he quit as labour chief and Cabinet member: “The stability of a society depends on how people feel. If there is a group which is unhappy such that they rebel against the system, it can lead to all kinds of trouble.”

The next possible step is a change of criteria and selection of PAP Members of Parliament, from whom the Cabinet is selected. So far, most of them are – like Dr Koh at Punggol East – selected from scholars or successful businessmen or professionals, described by Lee Senior once as “the best in Singa­pore”. (Only a few are social workers or people with good community links.)

In a different era, this type of leaders had worked well in winning elections. But in the new Singapore, elitism breeds resentment.

Senior minister of state (finance and transport) Josephine Teo once described the issue as a serious one.

“The ‘elite’ is portrayed as a class of people who do not understand the problems faced by ordinary Singaporeans, and are only interested to pursue their ‘elite’ interests,” she said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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