Perspective Unlimited

Monday, October 30, 2006

Excuse Me, are you an Elite? The Brutal Truth behind the Hazing of Wee Shu Min

Elite bashing has reached fever pitch in Singaporean blogosphere. There are nasty blogs, pictures, cartoon, and even a mean animation of the 18 year old girl caught in the middle of all this. Singaporean bloggers are falling over each other in the who can be more creatively mean stake.

Those who mock Miss Wee so vindictively for lack of empathy fail to see that their behaviour towards - may I say again - an 18 year old teenager reeks of hypocrisy. We all said rude or stupid things when we were 18. Where is the empathy here? Elitism may be a real issue in Singapore, but what sense is there in bashing an 18 year old?

I tried hard to make sense of all these and came to the conclusion that people were merely using Miss Wee as an excuse to vent. In one single person, Singaporeans have found the perfect target to unleash all their grievances (perceived or real) against the elite of Singapore. The issue of elitism was never properly discussed in any of these blogs, which were dishing out what I can only described as mob justice. But the issue concerning elitism in Singapore is real, here are some of my observations and thoughts.

The elite are to blame for globalisation

Globalisation is a difficult process. The increased competition and job insecurity is all so real for so many Singaporeans. But those who somehow blame the elite, particularly the Government elite for failing to protect them from competition, are completely mistaken.

In every society, an elite class inevitably emerges, even in communist countries. But would we Singaporeans rather shut ourselves from globalisation and see an oligarchic, rent seeking elite emerge in a static economy? The force of globalisation, and the competition it unleashes, is the best restrain on local elite. Nothing destroys economic rents like competition does. We need only compare the finance and law sectors. One is liberalised, with intense competition between local and foreign players, and increased opportunities for all and benefits for the consumers. The other is still dominated by the same few big local firms, collectively exercising monosony power in the market.

If you want to break up the cozy elitism in Singapore, embrace globalisation, not reject it. A new elite will of course emerge, but it will be one more creative, competitive and ultimately constrained by the very forces that create them.

Elite schools are bad

I also detect an angst against elite school. The fact that Miss Wee is a humanities scholar from a top college in Singapore lends to the impression that elite schools are a problem in breeding uncaring, elitist attitudes.

It is natural that many students from good schools go on to form the elite in the country. But RJC is not Eaton. There is a big difference between an elite school and a school for the elite (or their children). In the UK, there are private schools for the elite costing more than ten thousand pounds per school year.

I know of no school in Singapore costing anywhere near the amount. Even independent schools are not entirely devolved from the state. As long as admission to an elite school is down to results, it would be a cause for celebration if we have more of them.

Civil Service is elite

It is disturbing also to hear the frequency which the word elite is used with civil servants. I am assuming that people who link the two are in fact referring to scholars in civil service rather than civil servants in general. Bashing Government leaders is of high risk in Singapore. The alternative? Take out the civil servants who every one loves to hate. Everyone can appreciate a joke against the stone face, bumbling civil servant. But this is again completely wrong. Unhappiness with Government policies should not be taken out on civil servants.

Furthermore, public organisations - taken broadly to include the civil service, armed forces, statutory boards, and GLCs - must have given hundreds of scholarships each year. Cumulatively, there must be thousands of past and present scholars in Singapore. By this measure, the elite in Singapore must be rather big and pretty inclusive indeed. Scholarships is also a damned good social leveller, judging by the disproportionate number of taxi drivers' children who are awarded with scholarships.

When you have an elite that is so numerous, it is more blase than special.

Definition of elite expanding

Finally, the power of competition unleashed by the internet is creating a new class of elite. Mr Brown, Singapore's most famous blogger, can be considered an elite by this measure. Everyone in Singapore knows him, has heard from him, and has seen what he wrote. When I last looked up my alma matar The Chinese High School on Wikipedia, Mr Brown was listed as one of the famous alumni of the school alongside late President Ong Teng Cheong and the Chief Justice of China!

Seen from this perspective, the recent hazing of Miss Wee by the blogging luminaries in Singapore is nothing but a elite versus elite contest. Though the new elite disguise themselves as non-elite underdogs, their public influence is increasingly clear for all to see. They are clearly articulate, can definitely write well, but somehow always employ exaggerated Singlish to highlight their non-eliteness, condescending perhaps?

These new opinion shapers are taking on the established elite, and often winning in terms of leading public opinion though not necessarily the arguments. Which websites do you think are more popular? Political parties (I mentioned political parties to disabuse anyone of the notion that I might be referring to PAP only) or Mr Brown / This of course brings me back to my original point, nothing breaks up the elite structure like competition. We should embrace it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Hypocrisy of Moral Indignation

It was my army buddy Kevin who texted me from Singapore to inform me of this story. Grace and I almost flipped when we read how a teenage blogger Miss Wee Shu Min was given counselling for 'elitist' remarks.

I can certainly understand how Miss Wee's remarks could have come across as insensitive. Government should help older workers. There are both moral and economic arguments for it. The older generation of workers did not have as many education opportunities compared to the younger generation. They are therefore less equipped to cope with the effects of globalisation. Having been part of the nation building generation, there is a good moral case why they should be given extra help so as not to be left behind as the country progresses. In terms of political economy, it is also not desirable to have an underclass because a social fracture would make it even harder for the country to integrate into the global economy. The benefits of globalisation must be shared to keep society cohesive.

In economic jargon, even though globalisation creates winners and losers, a pareto improvement can be achieved by distributing some gains from the winners to the losers. Of course, how to do it without distorting incentives or creating dependency is the tricky part. With a little more education in economics and life's hard lessons, I am sure Miss Wee will come around.

However, the level of moral indignation aimed at the teenager beggars belief. I can't even decide for which of the following reasons I find most perturbing about the whole episode - Is it the oppressive political correctness that prevents anyone from giving their frank opinions? Is it the fact that people cannot deal with sarcasm? Is it the pettiness in people that makes them take issue with a youngster, and thus themselves behaving like insecure teenagers? Is it the disgust that even a blog on the internet has to be silenced? All in all, this is a warped form of censorship.

But there is a silver lining. Grace and I are impressed with Miss Wee for daring to state her views, and very eloquently as well. As the chinese saying goes, the waves behind push those waves in front. It is heartwarming to see the spunk in the new generation of young Singaporeans. Government should help older workers. But it is youngsters like Miss Wee Singapore needs.

[endnote: Just as I finished this blog, I saw this indignant letter published on ST

Oct 26, 2006 'Insensitive' blogger also lacked humility, empathy

I REFER to the report, 'Teen blogger counselled for her 'elitist' remarks' (ST, Oct 24).

I believe Miss Wee Shu Min has drawn enough criticism for her insensitive and offensive remarks. Hopefully, she will learn from this saga and move on.

The public should spare her further personal insults and allow her to concentrate on her exams, bearing in mind that she is just an 18-year-old with a major examination coming up.

What I am dismayed about is how her father, MP Wee Siew Kim, appears to agree with her opinion and sided with her when he said: 'She wrote in a private blog and I feel that her privacy has been violated.'

If Mr Wee feels that his daughter's privacy had been violated, is he implying that the Government was wrong to punish bloggers who posted racist comments on their supposedly 'private' blogs that were viewable by anyone with just a click of a button? I should think not. One should always be responsible and conscious of his choice of words, be it in an essay or a blog.

In the article, Mr Wee also stated that '(Miss Wee's) basic point is reasonable' and 'some people cannot take the brutal truth'.

I have read Mr Derek Wee's commentary and I feel that he is not the unmotivated or whiny, discontented worker that he was portrayed to be.

Mr Wee was merely airing his fears about how older workers are finding it difficult to cope with today's competitive and practical reality.

At no point did he state that he was dissatisfied with his job and I believe he will 'get on with the challenges in life'.

It seems that Mr Wee Siew Kim endorsed his daughter's 'elitist' remarks and that her only mistake was insensitivity.

The issue at hand is not merely about insensitivity; it also involves values like humility and empathy.

If Mr Wee's only concern for his daughter is about being politically correct, then I am afraid he is missing out on something fundamental.

Hopefully, Miss Wee will learn from this episode about humility and empathy as well.

Yang Sixiang ]

What a sanctimonious piece! First, he asked every one else to move on from the 'saga'. Why on earth is he writing this letter to the ST Forum in the first place? So he gets his say, but others should not. Second, Miss Wee made no racist remarks and is no bigot. He draws a totally unnecessary comparison between the racists blogs and Miss Wee's. Third, he wants to be the moral police and patrol the internet for those who lack the values (empathy, humility) he deems necessary?

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.
H. G. Wells

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Unveiling of a Debate

Something really interesting happened in Britain in the past week - political correctness was blown apart. First, a cabinet minister Jack Straw said that he would ask veiled Muslim ladies visiting him at his 'meet the people' session to remove their veils, and that veils impede on developing inter-community relationship. Incidentally, a slight majority of people polled agreed with Mr Straw.

In the same week, a junior minister asked for a veiled Muslim teacher to be sacked as he did not think she could teach effectively with the veil on. Interestingly, it later transpired that she had not worn a veil when she was interviewed for the job, thereby raising the suggestion that there was duplicity on her part to turn the veil into a political issue.

There was another eye catching incident when a Muslim cab driver refused to serve a blind person with a guide dog because his religion forbade him to go near dogs, which are considered unclean animals.

The Conservative shadow secretary for home affairs later added that he felt that Muslims in UK were creating a voluntary 'apartheid', by choosing to live so distinctively apart from the rest of the communities.

It is very rare for mainstream politicians in the UK to talk about race and religion so openly - besides the usual platitudes. Too much tensions had been swept under the carpet for the sake of racial tolerance some might say. But there was certainly a shift in the mood in the past few weeks, particularly after the Pope's speech. More politicians in the UK are beginning to question the traditional 'do nothing' approach towards race and religious issues. Suddenly, it seems that every politician is getting into the race and religion debate.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Pope and MM Lee

What do the Pope and MM Lee have in common (besides wearing white)? They both gave their frank opinions recently (with much veracity in my humble opinion), created firestorms of controversy, and then had to issue apologies. MM Lee's apologies is carried on the BBC news website.

With the globalisation of news media, a word spoken at a corner the world can create a big ripple effect elsewhere. Instead of promoting more genuine dialogue, the age of global media is bringing about an environment of ultra-sensitivity and political correctness. It is almost impossible to say anything meaningful on difficult issues confronting the world without causing offense to some group or another.

But why the offense and the anger if there were no truth in what was said, one wonders.