Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Elite Is As Elite Does

So the current interesting topic is this 'elite' thing. Wang Zhen has reproduced the newspaper article here.
My application to join the 'elite' club was rejected when I failed to score 4 As and a S-paper distinction. My eagerly awaited interview for the prestigious PSC scholarship never materialised. For the first time in my life, I felt vulnerable. The clouds I had been floating on since my days at Raffles Institution suddenly evaporated. I was hurled back into reality and felt like another casualty of 'the system'... I stumbled through NS like an elephant on stilts. It was an awkward and uncomfortable time, but I saw the real struggles of those who had fallen by the wayside. I realised that far from being a casualty, I was still very much a functioning product of 'the system' - I had an education. I did eventually secure a scholarship that allowed me to go overseas. I was part of the elite again.
Robin Chan contributes his thoughts to the newspaper and proudly announces that after he got a scholarship, he can call himself an elite. First thing that came too my mind was :他怎么好意思在新加坡最受欢迎的英文报纸向大家宣布自己是精英?Anyway, an online journaler I read knows this guy and is thinking of going over and b**ch slap him. I don't know Robin, but I'd love to have tea/coffee with him. I'm looking at this issue from the 'elite is as elite does' view, i.e., what does it actually do to people? What connected the dots for me was reading about the PCK musical a few days ago. Phua Chu Kang Pte. Ltd. is this local TV comedy that has 'bad English' and involves the lives and family of the protagonist, a renovation contractor. So there's this new musical based on the show performed by the cast, and I was reading the official website. There was critical reviews on the front page, three of them from Ministers, and two were the mainstream press. (That's comedy in itself, really.) All of them have nothing but praise, which is nice, I'm sure the cast worked hard at this. The alternative media seems to disagree somewhat. Anyway... the first quote is from the Senior Minister...
"The Phua Chu Kang Musical is a bold and entertaining enterprise by local artistes. It is a commendable creative effort. I find the show fast-paced, hilarious but touching towards the end. Heartlanders will enjoy it." Goh Chok Tong Senior Minister, Republic of Singapore
I did a double take when I saw this. What on earth does he mean when he says that the heartlanders will enjoy it? For those who are not familiar with this terminology, 'heartlanders' are people who:
"...make their living within the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors ... If they emigrate to America, they will probably settle in a Chinatown, open a Chinese restaurant and call it an 'eating house.'"
This is contrasted to the term 'cosmopolitan', those who:
"...speak English but are bilingual. They have skills that command good incomes: banking, IT, engineering, science and technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. [They frequently] use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world.[Goh Chok Tong National Day Rally Speech, 1999, via here]
So, does Mr. Goh think that heartlanders will enjoy it, and probably other categories of people will also enjoy it? Or does he mean that heartlanders will enjoy it, and probably other categories of people will not? I think I'd give Mr. Goh the benefit of the doubt and claim that he's quoted out of context. Another possibility is that he really doesn't think much of what he said, it's just a harmless reaction. It's probably like me saying, "Oh my goodness! I just watched Les Miserables! What a fantastic musical! Michael Ball rocked! And so did Lea Salonga! You know what? I think the poor among the audience would really have enjoyed it too!" Although there is nothing inherently wrong with categorising and naming people and using the term 'elite' as brought up here by Hui Chieh, even if difficulties defining it certainly exist, I think my point of bringing Robin and Mr Goh together is to illustrate what this sort of labelling does to people. One thing it does is to enable people who feel they are elites to wear rose-tinted glasses, and see though a glass, darkly brightly. Sidetrack: what on earth does the relatively poorer have to do with enjoying the musical? I think it's OK when marketing departments do similar things, appealing to the 'tastes and desires' of a certain 'class'. But it's a little different when a head of state says something like that. Unless, of course, the country is actually a big company, which is what Adina suggests. Going back to the glasses, yeah, these glasses make people think in terms of 'elite' and 'non-elite'. I don't think Mr. Goh meant anything bad when he said that, nor Robin. The concept has been internalised already. It's how the world works. From a product differentiation POV, it's an immensely powerful, and persuasive marketing strategy. It's also very good for those in charge because it keeps them in charge, and it allows everyone to know their place in life. The punchline is: who on earth defines what this labelling mean? There is probably a narrow definition to it (like probably if one has a government scholarship and works for the government). The labelling is irrelevent for most things, except maybe for top jobs. And as such, it doesn't really have a real bearing in life, unless of course, if indeed it's the case that most people subscribe to similar notions of achievement and personal worth. I'm just not sure about this assumption. I don't really have anything against people who choose to believe (or know) that they are beautiful, clever, elite etc. But I do have a problem if an elite uses that 'status' and does something to other people; let's just say, the non-elites in the context of the definitions that elites hold dear to themselves. If it keeps others down, if it marginalises them, if it destroys their self worth, if it enslaves others in bondage, if it subjugates them, if it creates a sense of pride and arrogance though no other reason other than self-created power, then I think these rose tinted glasses are certainly not as grand as they claim to be. And they should be discarded at the earliest opportunity, ironically, to stop the person from seeing through a glass, darkly.

15 comments:

takchek said...

I also had some thoughts on this - http://takchek.blogspot.com/2005/06/thoughts-on-scholarships-travelling.html

Although mainly based on trying to explain there's a gulf between the 'elite' and the 'others' since sec school.

Heavenly Sword said...

I think what SM Goh meant by "heartlanders will like it" is that "the musical has a very 'Singaporean' flavour". That is most probably his intended meaning.

The associated meaning is this - that Singaporeans will like it. It's merely a statement of belief: he is confident that most Singaporeans will like it (and the majority of Singaporeans are, in fact, heartlanders).

Anonymous said...

i hate it when people are arrogant. i used to look down in disdain at those who speak chinese, and i would think im part of the "elite", or the "intellect" because i speak englishhhhh. thank god i came to america where everyone speaks english and im part of the "commoner". haha. well, i also grew up lah.

-methegirl3

Huichieh said...

"First thing that came too my mind was :他怎么好意思在新加坡最受欢迎的英文报纸向大家宣布自己是精英?"

问得好!And this is hardly the first time something like that happened. It's hard to put a finger on this but it does seem (oddly enough) not all that uncommon to find instances of people boldly claiming that they are part of the elite. Perhaps it says something about our society--that the more egalitarian and democratic ideals are not all that in vogue, or that they are in competition with other, more hierarchical ideals. Either that, or that someone has a big chip on his shoulder.

jeffyen said...

takchek: thanks for the link, very interesting to read the experiences of others. I guess this gulf is not only applicable to scholar/elites/whatever, but probably applies to most people's perceptions of others.

heavenly: you could very well be right in that he might have meant most Singaporeans would like it. So why can't he say, 'It's a good musical, it has a wonderful Singaporean flavour, despite my ministry's efforts to eradicate Singlish. I know most Singaporeans will enjoy it.' :)

I think probably my rant is that it presupposes what 'most people' are like. Nothing wrong with using 'most people...', but Goh's heartlander definition is quite specific: most people are poorer, have less skills etc. Another hypothetical line of thought: most people don't usually like musicals, but this PCK musical, they might just enjoy? I know I'm being cynical here and could well totally be wrong about this LOL (so please don't sue me, SM Goh, I know you're a good man!) but just for the sake of argument, if this line of thought is indeed somewhat true, who knows how many people are forced to endure this 'if you're elite/cosmopolitan you should like this, if you're non-elite/heartlander, then maybe not' frame of reference/tinted glass. In time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It just keeps people down...

jeffyen said...

youthegirl1: hahaa, don't look down on me! 我在家里都是讲华语的! Goodness me, now I'm thinking of a 'Recovering Elites Spport Group' where people put down their thoughts about their path to the Dark Side, and finally, they see the light! hahaa

huichieh: That's the reason why I wanna ask Robin out. I think he's fascinating! lol I think it has to do with socialising, like what is on sgink's comments page. We learn the things the schools wants us to learn. For e.g., I came from a school which stresses that we should be 'officers and gentlemen'. In time, this gets fed into the value system of the students. In other schools, different sets of values are emphasized. I'm not surprised if due to pure chance, getting scholarships and being part of this 'club' is very much a celebrated culture in some schools...

Heavenly Sword said...

Hi jeff: my honest reply to your question is...

..."i don't know"... :)

Here are my thoughts on the ST article on 'being elite'.

wandie said...

Anothering thing, why did they pick the Indoor Stadium instead of the shining glory that is the Esplanade?

jeffyen said...

I'm not sure, maybe it's because rental costs for Durian is more expensive? Or maybe indoor stadium can fit more people? Or maybe some other logistical reason. Or maybe... hey wait a minute! Don't tell me folks choose the Durian for 'cosmopolitan' events?! hahaa just kidding! I think most likely it's due to some sort of cost/business reason. Or maybe there's no reason. Nothing really wrong with the indoor stadium I guess. I went there for Phil Collins concert.

OT: Anyone, I'm currently reading SGSerf's blog from the beginning, and this is another interesting perspective on the cosheartmolanpolider issue...

jeffyen said...

I just found Vivienne's blog from Serf's, and she has a better and more complete context of the origins of the terminology in the national day speech here.

Huichieh said...

Trackback: From a Singapore Angle, "Robin Chan responds". "He has taken the trouble of leaving a long comment at Heavenly Sword to whom he was responding in particular--If you ask me, the blogosphere is doing its job as an engine of civic discussion."

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I was wondering why bloggers like yourself do not write to the forum of ST. For example, your take on SM Goh's comments brought out a very important point on Singapore society's attitude today. Does not writing in have anything to do with heavy editing on ST's part?

jeffyen said...

Hi anonymous, I wrote about this issue here. Nice of you to drop by. :)

VIV said...

Jeff, 我决对同意你的看发!I ask myself 2 questions all the time when this issue springs to mind:
1) Will i be content to live in a HDB flat?
2) Will I be content to send my kid to a "neighbourhood" school (another label)

The answer? Some days, i think I am certain, but now I know I am not.

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