Everybody’s a little bit elitist

Not all monsters are born equal

Not all monsters are born equal

When society’s brightest and most able think that they made good because they are inherently superior and entitled to their success; when they do not credit their good fortune also to birth and circumstance; when economic inequality gives rise to social immobility and a growing social distance between the winners of meritocracy and the masses; and when the winners seek to cement their membership of a social class that is distinct from, exclusive, and not representative of Singapore society — that is elitism.

Well said, Mr Goh Chok Tong, in this recent speech to alumni of Raffles Institution.

Some argue that, by definition, meritocracy as a system means certain people will end up being better off than others. Elitism, therefore, is a natural consequence. But it doesn’t have to be, because elitism is not about the state of having acquired wealth or success — it is the mindset of being superior and deserving of success. It is also about imposing your own experience in a narrow judgement of others without “walking a mile in their shoes”, and the lack of empathy toward those who have not enjoyed similar good fortune.

When you equate being poor to being lazy or stupid, you are being elitist. When you judge an older colleague who is lower ranked as less competent, you are being elitist. When you think being high-flying professionals entitles you and your spouse a car each, you are being elitist. When you wonder why low-wage cleaners don’t just go find a better paying job, you are being elitist.

Elitism is not necessarily just an ailment of society’s brightest and most able, as Mr Goh alluded to, but inflicts every one of us. You can be the richest man in the world without being elitist; yet at the same time, you can be a high school student who has accomplished zilch in life but have an elitist mindset. We are all guilty sometimes. Just like the foul-mouthed monsters in the musical Avenue Q singing “everybody’s a little bit racist”, we can say that everybody’s a little bit elitist from time to time as well.

But it’s okay, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to remind yourself to be a little more humble, a little more empathetic and a little less judgemental. Go ahead, pat yourself on the back for what you’ve achieved, but don’t get too carried away.

This is not to discredit talent or hard work, but a recognition that luck must play a part in one way or another — a luck that many others may not have enjoyed. As Mr Goh quoted from Mr Ben Bernanke in a similar speech to Princeton grads:

A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and general endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement and, probably income; …. and luckiest in so many other ways too difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

Still think luck has nothing to do with it?

You are the valedictorian of the graduating class who can even speak Mandarin — wow! — but like Yogi Bear you were lucky to be born smarter than the average bear.

You came from a broken single-parent family but worked hard to become a military general, then successful politician — inspiring! — but you were blessed with great health while all this was happening.

You battled business failure after business failure to be the multimillionaire that you are today — amazing! — but you wouldn’t even have gotten started if your parents were incessant gamblers constantly needing you to bail them out.

You were born with subnormal intelligence, lost your eyesight at three, your parents sold you to the circus because some strange disease was turning you into a freak, after which you ran away into the jungle, got attacked by hyenas that chewed away your legs, dumping you in wasteland where you got struck twice by lightning, yet somehow you overcame all that to become a professor in quantum physics by age 16 and an acclaimed painter by 21, before being appointed UN global ambassador and bringing lasting peace to the Middle East by age 30?

Hmm, okay, in that case you win hands down. You are truly the elite of the elite.