Let me begin by distinguishing three (sets of) questions:
(Q1) Can a society do without an elite of some sort--roughly, "a group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status", whatever the name we might choose to give to such a group.
(Q2) How distinct should this group be from the rest of the population--e.g., are they to have a lot more wealth than the rest, enjoy a lot more power, etc., or there is a much smaller distance between them and the rest.
(Q3) Who belongs in this group? Who gets to decide? What qualities determined membership? Is membership open?
Note that these are analytically distinct questions, even though (Q2) and (Q3) will only arise if we answer "no" to (Q1)--that is, if we think that a society will have an elite, whether or not the term "elite" is used. But even if we think that a society cannot do without an elite, there will be a variety of answers to (Q2) and (Q3).
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Once we are clear about the distinction between the three questions, we should likewise be clear about what is it that we are agreeing or disagreeing with in PM's speech
--whether it is over (Q1), (Q2) or (Q3). With the above in mind, let me turn to an issue that came up.
First, Ivan Chew
left this comment
on a previous post:
I'll always have a problem with the word "elite" when used to describe a social class. The word elite is defined as "A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status" (www.dictionary.com)
Based on my understanding, what PM Lee is trying to do is to reframe the definition, or reinvent if you will. That itself is not the problem.
The problem is how the people (and the world at large) understand the term. Imagine, 5 years from now, a kid would will hear the term "Singaporean Elite" and look up the dictionary. They wouldn't look up the ST article or govt archives to look for PM Lee's definition.
(For those interested, he also pointed to the "lively discussion at the Govt Consultation Portal
In response, PM Lee does not seem to be attempting to redefine the word "elite" at all. (How does one do such a thing in the first place?) Furthermore, the criterion of membership of the elite--the real issue--is never settled by the definition of the word "elite" in any particular society.
So what is PM doing? He is working on an assumption that the answer to my question (Q1) is "no"--every society will have an elite of sorts, Singapore included. On (Q2), he would prefer that the distance between the elite and the rest be, as far as possible, minimised. The elite should not flaunt their superior position, but there is still an elite. But much of his speech is in the ball park of proposing answers to (Q3); presumably new answers--in calling for a more inclusive membership to Singapore's elite. But once again, this is an elite, and therefore, by definition, not everyone will be included.
One might also add that every historical society that has an elite (whether Aristocratic France, or Imperial China, or modern America) has an elite in roughly the sense as provided by the dictionary definition cited, roughly. But presumably they have different criteria of membership (noble birth vs. imperial examination, etc.)
In short, I think Ivan's fears are unfounded--provided that he agrees (as he does seem to) with PM that Singapore will continue to have an elite, even if the criterion of membership is made more inclusive.
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The next one is more confusing; from ST Forum (Mar 30), "Singapore should get rid of the word 'elite'", by Dudley Au (subscription required
) [UPDATE: Now available on ST News@AsiaOne
]. The long and short of it: we should get rid of the word "elite":
WHEN Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke recently of an 'elite' group he tried to make clear that it was not to be based on pedigree or class but on merit. I believe the term 'elite' is not compatible with the society PM Lee envisages for Singapore. Why must there be an elite class to lead the non-elite?
Again, I'm find it intriguing that so much is being invested in a word. But I'll let him continue first:
The question that needs to be answered is not who leads, as we know that the most capable have to lead, but can the leader survive without the critical mass of those he leads?
It must be remembered that however brilliant a general, there must be the private willing to go out to fight and die for the plan to succeed. Is the private then not also elite?
I would prefer we based leadership on symbiosis or synergy, relative to the human body. Why must the leader be elite if leadership cannot be accomplished without the synergy of society in unison?
Every cog has to do its part if success is to be achieved. This is essential in the human organism if health is to prevail. Why not see society's health in the same way?
There's more of the same, but I'll quote the final punchline:
The moral is that one can become chief in more ways than one. One does not need the word elite to do a good job; one can be a gatekeeper.
Get rid of the word elite.
Question: what exactly is the disagreement between Dudley and PM? Is it really just about the word
, or something more substantive?
Think of it this way: suppose we all now agree to refer to those in Singapore "enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status" as doulos
), would Dudley be happy? Or even better, suppose we have no name for such people at all, just we there is no dedicated term in English for "left handed male eye-doctor", would Dudley's complaint be answered? I suspect not.
Most of what he says about the symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers makes good commonsense--in the sense that the mere existence of a leader or an elite by definition implies that there would be non-leaders or followers, and non-elite. Furthermore and more importantly, modern societies are far too complex for us to easily pin point any one group as being absolutely paramount in its value to the whole. (Alexis de Tocqueville once made a comment about this with reference to the practices of historians his Democracy in America
, Vol. 2, Sect. 1, Chap. 20.)
But having said all that, is Dudley proposing that Singapore can do without an elite, whatever we might choose to call it? The least that can be said is that his arguments hardly support such a conclusion. It is at best a call--just as PM Lee's speech is--for a more inclusive and open criterion of membership in the elite. With this difference: unlike Dudley, PM Lee was not shy of calling a spade a spade.
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Let me say a bit more about (Q1): let's call the two opposing answer "egalitarianism" and "elitism", with the proviso that the latter should not be taken to be perjorative without further arguments.
I'll wager that historically, there has never been a complex large scale society that managed to be completely egalitarian, i.e., do without an elite of any sort. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence in which is found the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" also spoke of a "natural aristocracy" of virtue and talent rather than birth in a positive light (letter
to John Adams 1813).
On the other hand, in most modern societies, even the elite tends to see themselves in egalitarian lights--i.e., by pointing out that membership is open, that the function of the elite is to serve the common good
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Let me end this post with one of my favorite sections of the Zhuangzi:
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him? (Zhuangzi, ch. 26)
* * * * *
UPDATE: The Singapore Commentator takes notice
. He basically agrees but also made this observation:
...the fact remains that the word "elite" is too closely associated with the exclusivity and privileges of elitism and just doesn't go down well with many people.
Yes; the fact also testifies to the egalitarian tendencies of our times.
UPDATE 2: Acid Flask of Caustin Soda has extended thoughts