An Elite Dedicated to Serving One and All

WHAT is an 'elite'? The dictionary defines it as 'a group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, especially because of their power, talent or wealth'. I shall be talking about the elite in a society or a country, meaning the core group of people who occupy key positions of power and influence, and set the direction for the whole society and country.

Who belongs to the elite, how this group relates to the wider society, and what role it sees for itself all differ across countries. It depends on the culture, history and social structure. I will give you examples of three countries - Britain, China and the US, to provide the broader perspective, before discussing how the elite has emerged and evolved in Singapore.

I will explain why the elite is crucial to our country's future, and how we can keep it an open and inclusive group that is committed to Singapore.


I WILL start with Britain. For a long time, Britain was a class-based society. The elite came from the upper classes. They belonged to wealthy, often land owning families. Many attended public schools such as Harrow or Eton. The ablest went on to Oxford or Cambridge. This group governed the country, provided officers for the armed forces and, during the British Empire, ran the far flung colonies.

The British elite had a strong sense of its mission. They felt that they were born to rule. They had strong networks of mutual support, and took care of one another. The old school or college tie meant a great deal. So did belonging to the same club or serving in the same regiment.

But it was an exclusive group. It was not easy for an able person from the working classes to rise to the top. Even when someone from a poor background did well in his business or career, he was often not accepted into the elite, because he would still speak with a lower-class accent, lack the school connections, and be a misfit in upper-class social circles.

After World War II, things started to change. After the enormous hardships and sacrifices of the war, Britain went for the welfare state and egalitarianism. Socialist governments tried to break down the class system, and elitism and elites were frowned upon. Comprehensive schools were introduced to take students from all social classes. State schools were disallowed to admit students by academic merit, and had to take in students of all abilities.  

In 1963, Harold Wilson (just before he became prime minister) made a famous pitch against the old class-based system. Speaking at the Labour Party Conference, he said: 'For the commanding heights of the British industry to be controlled today by men whose only claim is their aristocratic connection or power of inherited wealth is as irrelevant to the 20th century as would be the continued purchase of commissions in the army by lordly amateurs.'

But class distinctions proved tough to eradicate. Even in the 1980s, one of the appeals of Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major to middle-class voters was their humble backgrounds - Margaret Thatcher was a grocer's daughter, while John Major was a poor Brixton boy made good.  

Today, British society has become more open, under the pressure of globalisation and international competition, but class differences still exist. As Tony Blair said in an interview a few years ago: 'The class war is over, but that is not to say that there still aren't class divisions.'


IN CHINA, when the Communists took power in 1949, they set out to create a classless society. But it was not a realistic ideal. Distinctions existed between cadres even during the severest periods under Mao Zedong - in power, in privileges, in subtle differences in their Mao jackets.

At first the elite was the revolutionary group, especially those who had been on the Long March. In Marxist jargon, the Communist Party was the vanguard of the working classes. Most of them were not well educated - they were revolutionaries, not scholars. But they shared a strong sense of common mission and idealism - to rebuild the country and (paraphrasing Mao) to make China stand up again.

Later, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, all notions of elitism came under attack. Professionals and intellectuals were persecuted. It was better to be red than expert. This led to total chaos and set China back for many years.

Today, China is being transformed before our eyes, not by revolution, but through economic growth. Its government is still Communist, but the economy is market-driven. The elite no longer comprise revolutionaries or ideologues, but are builders and technocrats, highly-educated and capable people.  

Many have attended top universities like Fudan and Qinghua. A growing number have studied in foreign universities. The Communist Party has a comprehensive system to identify and develop outstanding cadres from all over the country.

At the same time, with more and more Chinese going into the private sector, many successful entrepreneurs have emerged. The Communist Party of China, once the party of the workers and peasants, has had to devise a way to co-opt the new business elites, through the theory of 'Three Represents' propounded by Jiang Zemin.

In a country as big and populous as China, the elite do not speak with one voice on all matters. Indeed many rivalries and factions exist. But all are united in their strong desire to restore China's glory, and see China take its rightful place in the world as a major power.

While competition to reach the top is intense in China, not everyone has an equal chance of making it. Education investments are concentrated in the cities, so those of the rural population are severely disadvantaged - an imbalance that the Chinese government is now trying to address.

Further, guanxi remains extremely important. In a large country, top people cannot all know one another. A person still needs patrons, and the right connections to move up the ranks. Those who have worked with a top leader during his earlier career will get into a guanxi network. So too those who have worked together in the same city or province such as Shanghai or Nanjing. Such is the reality of a big country.

United States

THE US is an immigrant society and a relatively young country. Americans have a strong faith in social mobility, in people getting to the top through hard work and ability. Its founding ideals were democracy, freedom and equality. Thomas Jefferson wrote about 'a natural aristocracy of virtue and talents', as opposed to 'an artificialaristocracy founded on wealth and birth'.

And indeed the US created a society which was much more socially mobile than the older and more settled societies of Europe. Colin Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, rose to become secretary of state. Bill Gates and Michael Dell, coming from quite ordinary backgrounds, built two of the most successful companies of the computer age.

After World War II, educational opportunities opened up further. The GI Bill paid for the college education of millions of military veterans. Higher education was no longer a privilege of a well-born few. More Americans from poor backgrounds went to college and rose in society. They showed that America was a land of opportunity, and attracted more immigrants, legal and illegal, to the US.

Successful Americans do not neglect their social responsibilities. A strong civic consciousness is one of the strengths of American communities everywhere. People get together to form all sorts of associations to solve their own problems and lobby for their special interests. They become involved in social causes, and do a remarkable amount of volunteer service. Henry Kissinger still teaches at a school in a Hispanic neighbourhood in New York, while Michael Bloomberg quit his high-paying CEO job to be the mayor of New York City.

However, new social trends are making the US a more stratified society. The brightest students are increasingly concentrated in a small number of elite universities like Harvard and MIT. In the workforce, the ablest are increasingly being sought out and rising to the top. Successful people are marrying one another, and having children who also tend to do well and join the elite.

This is accentuated by the widening income gap between rich and poor, and by inequalities in the education system. Although the best US schools and universities are outstanding, poor people are more likely to attend public schools whose standard is uneven, or inner city schools with serious problems - poor teaching, low expectations, drugs and violence. As a result, the down and out get stuck at the bottom, and few of their children make good.

But the American genius lies in its ability to expand criteria for the definition of elite and admission into it. Today, sportsmen and sportswomen, entertainers, designers, film stars and TV hosts enter the top circle. Jennifer Lopez, or J. Lo, now a superstar, was a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx.

Overall, the US has one of the most socially mobile societies with an open and dynamic elite. This is a key reason that America today is the most powerful country in the world.

The elite in Singapore

THESE realities have influenced the way we manage and shape the elite in Singapore. After the War, when Singapore was still a British colony, this was an immigrant society. At the top were the British expatriates who ruled the colony, and the English-educated locals who worked with the colonial government and accepted the British as masters.

They were the social elite of that time, but they did not take part in the defining events of Singapore history - the anti-colonial struggle for self government and independence, the life and death struggle with the Communists and pro-communists to win the support of the masses, and later the fight against the communalists in peninsular Malaya that ended in separation from Malaysia and the birth of independent Singapore.

The people who led these struggles were students who had studied in Britain and decided that they would stand to fight to determine the country's future, union leaders who had risen from the ranks, journalists and teachers caught up in the cause. Many were from poor backgrounds and not well-educated, but they were the natural leaders who emerged in those revolutionary times to shape events and write history. After independence, this group held key positions in government and the political leadership. This was a very small and close-knit group. As the Minister Mentor has said, all of them could fit into one jumbo jet. They had gone through fire together. They now had a new mission - to transform Singapore, and build a new nation from scratch.

As time passed and the country developed, a new generation of leaders emerged. They are the products of the Singapore system - good schools, full and equal opportunities for all, and a meritocratic system which developed and made the most of our talent. Many graduated from the local universities, while others studied abroad on government scholarships.

Some are the second generation of the elite, but many more come from humble backgrounds. They form a broader and more diverse group, and a thicker layer of talent. We have key people not only at the top of the government, but also in the civil service, in the SAF and police, in the private sector and the professions. It will take several Airbus A380s to fit all of them in, rather than just one jumbo jet.   

This new generation are not revolutionaries or rabble rousers trying to demolish an unjust system and replace it with something totally different. Like the elite in today's China, they are technocrats and builders, striving to improve and strengthen a working system, though they also contain some mobilisers who can rally the population to tackle difficult problems.   

The formative experiences of this present elite are not the birth struggles of the nation, but its transformation in one generation from Third World to First, often as reflected in their own lives. This has caused many of them to commit themselves to carry on the work of the first generation, and to contribute back to the society which helped them to succeed. They have established a strong network among themselves, as did the first generation. They did National Service together, studied in the same universities, or worked side by side in the same departments.

 Their personal ties go back a long way. For example, the key ministers in Cabinet have worked together for two or sometimes three decades. Three were in a same platoon in Officer Cadet School.

And the personal links are not just within government, but extend to the private sector and throughout the Singapore system. Such a Team Singapore knows one another, knows each one's strengths and weaknesses, and knows whose judgment to trust.

To benefit society

SINGAPORE'S future depends on our renewing and enlarging this elite group, and ensuring that the group continues to see itself as being responsible for the whole society. To achieve this, we have to keep the group open and inclusive, and maintain a sense of shared purpose among them. Let me elaborate.

Open and inclusive

FIRST, we must keep the elite open and inclusive. We must be able to continually renew this group, to bring in a consistent flow of younger talent, contributing new ideas and vigour to solving new problems. This is also important for demonstrating to all that if you work hard and do well you will make it to the top, which is the whole basis for Singapore's success.

An open and inclusive elite is thus a reflection of our system of meritocracy, as well as an essential part of it. To make this a reality, we need a high quality education system, which maintains high standards across the board. All our schools must be good schools, and not just a few outstanding institutions. This our education system is achieving. From neighbourhood schools to the top institutions, our schools are well equipped, have dedicated principals and teachers, and offer a good education to their pupils. At the tertiary level, not only do our universities rank high internationally, but our polytechnics and ITEs too prepare their students well for jobs in the knowledge economy.   

In addition, we must make a special effort to spot and develop talent from poorer families, through scholarships and bursaries, and through special attention by teachers and mentors, so that they will take full advantage of the educational opportunities available, and be able to rise to the top. We declare repeatedly that no student should ever be deterred from pursuing his education for lack of means, and we mean it.   

With an efficient education system, a large part of our elite will have gone through our schools and universities and done well in their studies. If this were not so, something must be wrong. But there will always be some who do not fit the mould for an academic education but have other valuable talents and life skills. Some of our most successful entrepreneurs and creative talent like Ron Sim, Elim Chew, George Quek, and Jack Neo never went to university. Our doors must always be open to those who have taken alternative routes to success. This is not just to be fair to them, but because they add something valuable to our collective perspective on the world and approach to problems.    T

o keep the doors open, we must also guard against the tendency for social barriers to grow, which over time make the elite more closed and exclusive. This is why we must consciously minimise the social distance between those at the top and the general population.  

People who have risen from poor homes should feel proud of their backgrounds and of what they have achieved, and not be embarrassed that they started out poor. We also discourage ostentation in lifestyles, dress or social norms, which will make others less affluent feel out of place. The political leaders set the tone. We dress down; we do not wear expensive designer suits; and we have meals in hawker centres. We must maintain this informal tone, in order to keep this an egalitarian society. Shared purpose SECOND, our elite must have a sense of shared purpose, of a responsibility to contribute to Singapore and make it better. Ultimately, a person should win standing and honour in our society more by making a difference to the wider community, than through personal success and material achievements.   

Although we are no longer building a nation from scratch, we have something unique and precious in Singapore, which we must keep on developing and improving. And that depends on the contributions of every Singaporean, especially the most successful ones. By serving together, they strengthen the emotional bonds, trust and camaraderie which held previous generations of elite together through all their travails and struggles.   

Getting successful Singaporeans to continue to dedicate themselves to serve the community depends first on their having a sense of obligation, realising that their success would not have been possible without Singapore's system of good education, equal opportunities and meritocracy. Having benefited from the system, they have a moral obligation to give back to society.   

It also depends on their patriotism. Singaporeans who love our country, love the land we grew up in, and take pride in what we have achieved together, are the heart and soul of the country. Such citizens will naturally also care for the people and the community, and want to achieve even more for Singapore. In countries with longer histories, people are naturally patriotic. Singapore's history as a nation is short, but we have much to be proud of. With the passing of years, as we experience crises and triumphs together, we will build our collective memories and strengthen the spirit of patriotism among us.   

A sense of obligation and patriotism are not things that we can dictate or implement. What we can do is to open up avenues for Singaporeans to step forward, contribute and make a difference. So we encourage Singaporeans to take charge of community matters, and to take part in the national debate on important issues.   

During the (Dec 26) tsunami disaster, we saw how active and effective the non-government organisations could be, raising funds, organising relief, and sending volunteers to do the hard work in the disaster areas.   

The universities can be an important avenue for Singaporeans to contribute to the community too. The US universities are a particularly successful model. They have a strong alumni body, and many successful alumni devote large amounts of resources, time, energy and expertise to help their schools raise funds, manage endowments, interview candidates, and make key decisions. They do this out of gratitude to the schools for helping to make them what they are, and for the satisfaction for seeing future generations of students following in their footsteps.   

We have not yet developed such a strong tradition in Singapore, but are now starting to do so. This is one key reason why we are giving the universities more autonomy and flexibility. We hope to engender a greater sense of ownership amongst stakeholders like the council members, management, faculty, students and alumni, so that everyone will chip in their effort to develop first-class universities. This will be good for the universities, and will also strengthen the community spirit and civic society in Singapore.    

In recent months I have been speaking about making Singapore a land of opportunity. This is both an economic and a social vision. Economically, globalisation and a booming Asia have enabled a small island like Singapore to tap into the markets around the world, offering us tremendous opportunities and bringing growth and prosperity to our people, which in turn has enabled more Singaporeans to improve their lives. Socially, we are building a nation where each citizen has a part to play, and everyone, rich or poor, can live with dignity and fulfilment. We are making Singapore a vibrant and cosmopolitan hub, strengthening our cohesion and sense of identity, and broadening the paths to success.   

Realising this vision depends on the effort of all Singaporeans. But the elite bear a heavier responsibility, keeping the group open and inclusive, and sharing a common mission to serve society. The founder generation accomplished this. They toiled for the country, transformed it, and at the same time identified, inducted and developed younger talent to form a new leadership group comprising some of the ablest members of our society.    

But renewal does not end. We are continuing to groom a new group, as able as previous generations, but more diverse. Many will come up through the universities, but others will climb up using different ladders, and succeeding in different ways. We do not recognise just a single peak of power or achievement, but a mountain range with many peaks - in government, in the public sector, in business, in the professions, in community work, in arts and sports. We are building a broad elite. In turn, their key responsibility is to continue to uphold the values of openness and inclusiveness, and dedication to community and nation. By upholding these as the enduring traits of our society, and embedding them into our social DNA, Singapore will adapt and flourish in an ever-changing world.

Straits Times, March 21, 2005


Posted March 22, 2005