The Emerging Elite, by Devan Nair

Transcribed by Jess C Scott from Not By Wages Alone (Selected Speeches and Writings of Devan Nair, 1959-1981).

A shorter version is available on Jess’s blog.

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“The Emerging Elite” (20 March 1973)
by Devan Nair (Speech to the Kiwanis Club, Singapore)


Devan Nair:
Istana File Photo

A rapidly industrialising society throws up an elite. And in modern Singapore the elite are the professionals of various types, the technocrats, the engineers and the business executives.

This is necessary and inevitable, for without this professional, technocratic and executive elite, and the managerial, professional and technological expertise they possess, the modernisation process would not have been possible. The not-so-elite majority of working Singaporeans have therefore put up with the higher remuneration and the extra perks and privileges enjoyed by this elite group.

But the shortcomings, weaknesses and foibles of the elite have their reactions on the ground. It is good for Singapore, and in the larger interests of the elite themselves, that there should be periodic and public assessments of ground level reactions to them.

I have the privilege of being one of the leaders of organised labour in Singapore, and may claim, without being immodest, an ability to assess, at least as well as anybody else in Singapore, the present reactions, and the likely future reactions of our working population, to the manner in which our elite conduct and comport themselves.

What distresses me is the feeling that, at ground level, the new elite in Singapore appear to be generally regarded, not as the inspiring social leaders they ought to be, but as somewhat odious but necessary evils.

There is a very vital reason why our new elite should take a hard look at themselves, the image they project to the ground, and their social values, or more correctly, what strikes the ground as their lack of social values. For, in the very nature of things, the future political leadership of Singapore is more than likely to come from this group. But in order to rule and to lead effectively, there is a fundamental pre-requisite. And this is the acceptance by the ground of the social bona fides of the aspirants to political and social leadership in the Republic.

The present generation of political leaders have established their bona fides with the ground beyond any possibility of doubt. They earned it the hard way, over two decades of effort and struggle, and close identification with the real interests of the people.

It is important to appreciate, however, that Lee Kuan Yew and Co. belong to a freak generation. In fact, as individuals, they were quite unrepresentative of the great majority of their social class, the members of which were brought up and educated in the colonial era, and whose major preoccupation was to fend for themselves and feather their own nests. Nation-building and a large vision of the future was not in their line of living and being, for they were essentially a colonially fostered class of people. But because the present generation of leaders exceeded their class characteristics and loyalties, and developed a creative vision of a better society, they were able to establish themselves as the modern leaders of Singapore. In more senses than one, this freak generation are the creators of the vibrant and bustling Republic we know today. However, freak generations are never repeated by history. Indeed, it sometimes happens that their work is undone by those who inherit their mantle of leadership.

It is one of the ironies of development that some of the results of the work of the leaders of development are not what they themselves desired or intended. The emphasis that they quite rightly placed on social and financial rewards for skills and expertise, the accent on quality and excellence, have been the driving force of our economic growth. But one unpleasant side-effect has been the creation of a professional and technocratic elite with an enormous appreciation of their own financial value and a singular lack of any larger social consciousness or commitment. The success syndrome has engendered in many of them, not loftier and more worthy social drives, but baser and narrowly personal and selfish appetites.

It does not seem to be sufficiently well understood that the aspirants to political and social leadership in the next generation will not have the advantage of having led the people from subservience to an independent national identity, and from the old to the new. What then, it may be asked, are their chances of earning the same kind of acceptance from the ground which the present generation of leaders enjoy? Very little indeed, to judge by the values and the motives they exhibit as a social group. Individual exceptions to the rule appear to be distressingly few and far between.

Excessively self-centred, their primary concern seems to be the constant enhancement of their own market value, and the extra perks they can get for themselves. The ground in Singapore has been educated or persuaded to accept the view that in the interests of growth, the full market value of the new elite should be conceded, as it is being conceded all round.

My colleagues and I in the NTUC have done our part to persuade the workers to accept the growing income differentials between them and the burgeoning new elite of Singapore — the professionals, technocrats and management executives. We think our workers are sophisticated enough not to grudge the new elite their extra perks and special privileges but what they do resent is the lack of any tangible signs of general social concern or commitment on the part of the new elite. This raises the possibility that in the long run, any effort at political and social leadership by members of the elite, distinguished as they are, as a social class, more by self-centred concerns than by social awareness, must be seriously undermined. Flamboyant life styles, and vulgar displays of affluence and spending power, do not endear the elite to the ground. They only estrange. And the most impervious barrier that can, in future, divide the rulers from the ruled, the elite from the ground, is the Dollar Curtain.

Thus far, Singapore has managed to escape any acute confrontation between the elite and the not-so-elite in our society, for the following reasons:

Our classless education system, the absence of hereditary privilege, and the free social mobility up the whole hierarchy of educational, professional and industrial skills.

Many a washerwoman’s son is today a professional or an executive. Long may this social mobility remain a strong feature of our society.

But the virtues of social mobility being granted, the fact remains that an elite in any society must be a minority. And the sole social and political justification for an elite, in the long run, is the degree to which they can lead and inspire a whole society to higher levels of achievement. If they fail to do this, and are content merely to serve themselves and feather their own nests, there can be only one end-result — social and political instability in the Singapore of the future.

Succession to the present political leadership there must inevitably be, for the good reason that our present leaders are not immortal. But the question that exercises many minds is whether this succession will be able to command the same respect and acceptance from the ground which the present generation of leaders clearly do.

Lee Kuan Yew and Co. do not have to prove themselves to the ground. A lifetime of effort and solid achievement, in intimate association with the ground, will take care of that.

But we can imagine the aspirants to political leadership in the 80s and the 90s, even if they belong to the present ruling party, having to face some very searching questions at the hustings:

“Yes, we know what the previous generation of leaders did. But what have you done to deserve the same kudos? We know what you have done for yourselves. But what have you done, and what do you propose to do, for us and for Singapore?”

It would be much easier for members of the emerging elite in Singapore to answer such questions if they took their own market value a little less seriously, and concentrated much more on widening and deepening their social values and commitments. This is the only way to bridge the dollar gap between them and the ground they hope one day to lead.

What is called for is less of the cocktail circuit and more of the community circuit. The greater the identification and active involvement with our community development programmes, our community centres, our labour and co-operative institutions, and with the improvement and upgrading of the skills of our workers, the easier will it be for the new elite to establish itself with the ground as an accepted and respected group. And all this must be done sincerely. For nothing smells more rankly to ground level noses than insincerity and hypocrisy at the top.

After all, it requires only a little reflection on the part of our emerging elite to help them restrain their own selfish concerns. The simple truth is that they are where they are today, with their enhanced market value and special perks, because of the discipline and wage restraint exercised by the working population, without which all the development we see around us would not have taken place. And where would your market value be if the market itself were not kept healthy by the restraint and discipline observed by, and often enforced upon, the non-elitist majority of our working population?

The elitist aspirants to the future leadership of Singapore must be educated to realise that to be accepted as leaders of society, they must be clearly seen to be giving of themselves, their time and their energies, in a whole-hearted way, to the community. Those who choose only to receive, but not to give, will deserve, not the crown of leadership, but the failure of the Singapore effort to create a more just and a more equal society. It will be a failure which will be placed squarely at their doors.

C.V. Devan Nair, in Not By Wages Alone (Speech: 20 March 1973)


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