COMMENT: Of "natural aristocracy" and earning your place

kirsten han

“You want people to stand up, not scrape and bow. But if you don’t have a certain natural aristocracy in the system, people who are respected because they have earned that and we level everything down to the lowest common denominator, then I think society will lose out.”
Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore At 50: What Lies Ahead? conference at the Institute of Policy Studies conference

The word “aristocracy” has triggered shock and indignation, but the sentiment Lee Hsien Loong expressed on Thursday evening was not at all new.   

It’d be inaccurate to believe that Lee was trying to describe Singapore as a place with a hereditary nobility/monarchy - what he was talking about is simply Singapore’s system of “meritocracy”. 

Singapore, as we are often told, is a meritocratic society where people are rewarded for the amount of work they put in. What Lee is saying is that these industrious, ambitious, brilliant people should be accorded respect because they’ve earned and therefore deserve it.

It’s also very paternalistic: we’re taught from a young age that we should respect our elders, because their age and experience presumably also makes them our betters. Deference is thus built into the system; you can question and criticise, but only with the implicit understanding that you’re on a lower rung of the social ladder. 

This is not how a truly meritocratic and democratic society should function. A political leader might have fought hard for the approval of the people to get where he/she is, but respect once earned can also be lost. Rather than demand deference and constant recognition of his/her place at the top of the hierarchy, a leader must earn, and keep on earning, the respect of the people. If he/she can’t do so, then someone else will eventually take his/her place. 

It’s hard to be the subject of scrutiny by so many people; there will be criticism, fair and unfair. And through it all one will always be expected to present one’s best self. It’s not a job I envy. But hey, that’s politics. And the rewards at the top are hardly insignificant. 

Another thing that’s problematic about the concept of the Prime Minister’s “natural aristocracy” is the issue of access and social mobility. In the context of conversation over attempts to foster a “culture of respect” in Singapore, Lee quite clearly sees himself at of the top of the heap, his position earned and deserved.

Opinion is split, as it always is with political figures, over whether this belief is justified. But its veracity is not the key point of this discussion. What’s more important is for us to think about those who, no matter how hard they work, cannot move up in the hierarchy (much less conceive the idea of being in a position of such power).

Meritocracy without acknowledgement of structural inequality and power is not meritocracy. It merely creates a sense of entitlement among the “ruling class”, one that makes it blind to its own privileges. It is a system without empathy; rather than examine inequalities that perpetuate cycles of poverty and deprivation, it assumes that one’s inability to improve one’s life comes from a lack of ambition and motivation. It’s why we see arguments against social security and safety nets (not just in Singapore but from right-wing politicians around the world); if poor people cannot haul themselves up by their bootstraps, they say, why should the rest of us pay? 

If this is how our “natural aristocracy” works, society will ultimately be the loser. While respect can build trust, communication and cooperation, but only if this respect is built on mutual understanding, rather than uncritical deference. The Prime Minister is right to say that people should not “scrape and bow”, but standing up should also not be circumscribed by the awareness of one’s station and the fear of speaking above it.