A couple of years ago, I was having a coffee with an undergrad, a student community activist, when this conversation came up.
D: You have chosen a very interesting thing to do in your free time. What is your motivation?
J: I come from a working class background. Got interested in this while doing the community involvement project and realised the poorer, older folks have no voice, no one to speak for them.
D: I see, but doesn’t the government help them quite a bit? The PAP MP there is a rather good fellow who cares for his constituents? You work with him what.
J: Yah, but they are all elitist lah no matter how caring they are. The guy is a professional, how much can he understand the old auntie being resettled, her flat torn down to make way for a condo?
D: Hm, why not? Empathy is a human virtue. If someone from a privileged background realizes his privilege and do things to help equalize the situation, is he still elitist?
J: Just look at the Workers’ Party. The candidates are professionals, like you prof, where are the workers? The way you guys speak English, can you understand the HDB aunties and uncles speaking dialects?
D: But J, you are going to be a professional after you graduate and you use English more often than not, so are you elitist?
J: Maybe, if I have the elitist mentality, you know, talk like I know everything, big shot, look down on people and don’t care about those who need help.
D: That sounds like arrogance, not elitism. They are often associated, but not the same thing.
So what is elitism? It is a belief that a certain group of people with some privileged attributes — academic credentials, scholarship awards, physical prowess, wealth, cultural breeding, blood ancestry, specialised training — should have fundamentally more authority in a system. Take note that it is the belief that makes up elitism, not the attributes themselves.
Meritocracies, based on achievement rather than birthright, can be elitist, because it depends on how you define “merit”. So if by virtue that I am a PhD holder, I am given more authority in a political party or a political system, because “merit” is defined by the achievement of academic credentials, then such a party or system is elitist. If by virtue that I am a professor at a premium university, I am given more authority in a political party/system, because “merit” is defined by achievement of tenure, then again such a party/system is elitist.
So am I elitist just because I am a PhD holder or a tenured professor? If I believe that I should have more authority in a party/system by virtue of those privileged attributes, then YES. The grey area is when one doesn’t quite believe so, but participates in a party/system and uses the attributes to assert more authority — perhaps I could be said then to be cynically exploiting an elitist system to succeed. But for an unbeliever (non-elitist) to succeed, there must be many elitist believers.
And this is the crux. Anyone can be elitist, rich or poor, super-educated or school dropout, scholar or non-scholar. If someone believe that a party candidate belongs to the elite because of the privileged attribute (he is a doctor, a scholar, a CEO, a professor, etc.) and vote for or against him/her based on this, then he/she is elitist. I’ve met supporters and detractors of WP alike who have used the same reason (that I am a prof) to praise and attack me. Not right.
Ideally, one should vote for a candidate based on the person’s ideas and performance. Notwithstanding the unequal and uneven playing field shaped by gerrymandering and other un-constructive tactics, I do think our system fundamentally operates on voting on ideas and performance. The electorate is essentially rational, but more recently muddled by “everything also elitism” allegations usually unfairly targeted at PAP ministers and candidates.
The “everything also elitism” attitude will not be good for the opposition parties or democracy in the long run either, attracting candidates who think they are entitled to more authority because of their professional or academic credentials. If we think a system is elitist and should not be, we have to stop believing in elitism first, question the elitism, and not judge/trust/attack someone based on privileged attributes.
Please call me Daniel.
p.s. Glad that Saturday’s Straits Times‘ feature on possible GE candidates didn’t go ra-ra on professional credentials and talked about, for examples, my colleague Dennis Tan’s involvement in MPS sessions on the ground and WPCF, and my involvement in Punggol East grassroots.
The above was posted by Daniel PS Goh, a Workers’ Party candidate and current sociology professor at NUS, on his facebook page, as a note.