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Deconstructing the arguments of yet another teenage Singaporean elitist

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By Visakan Veerasamy

It’s very interesting to me whenever a teenager thinks that he has something important or meaningful to say about society. I used to blog about social issues as a teenager myself, and it wasn’t too long ago – so I like to think that I relate to the civic-minded young ones.

The first and most important thing we need to remember about young teenage thinkers is that they’re most probably dependent on their parents.

This does not automatically discredit their perspective, but it does shape it tremendously.

Or, to look at it from another point of view, there’s a lot about society you simply don’t know about until you start paying for the roof over your head and the water coming out of your taps.

How does this play out in Russell’s argument (forum letter published in The Straits Times)?

He claims that “equity is better than equality”, but he has no proposal for actually increasing the net amount of equity in Singapore.

So all he’s really saying is that the status quo works well for him, and he’d like things to be kept that way, thank you very much.

Which is quite rational from his perspective. Why should commoners get access to the privilege that he inherited?

(Actually there’s a good reason: because it’s a step towards increasing the net amount of equity in Singapore. But he avoids talking about this, probably because he’s a teenager who isn’t actually accountable for anything yet.)

Let me go through Russell’s argument, bit by bit:

In recent years, we seem to have collectively confused equity with equality.

Well, maybe. Let’s see.

Equality is making everyone stoop down to the lowest common denominator of society – everyone does the same thing and all are given equal probabilities.

Straw man! We’re conflating equality of opportunity here with a sort of imposed collectivism. Imposed collectivism typically leads to the shittiest kind of equality, AKA “we’re all equally miserable”.

Also, “Making everyone stoop down to the lowest common denominator” implies some sort of Down to the Countryside movement. Like we’re deliberately weighing people down so that they can’t be excellent (see: Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron).

Vonnegut’s story demonstrates “making everybody stoop down”, where people are literally policed and maimed. Giving the disenfranchised access to education is a totally different thing.

Equity entails everyone doing what their abilities allow them to do, and everyone being given equal opportunities to succeed; only the most outstanding grab those opportunities.

That’s the end goal that pretty much everybody agrees is a good thing.

The challenge is that we often disagree about how to get there.

If we take a modern society and reduce it back to an agrarian one, where everyone puts in equal effort, we achieve equality but not equity – because we are taking people with the capability to be, for instance, lawyers and doctors, and making them do the same menial tasks as everyone else.

What is up with the “reduce modern society back to an agrarian one” motif?

Also, what are these horrible menial tasks that everybody does except lawyers and doctors? Washing their own underwear? The horror.

It is a natural consequence that students from affluent backgrounds get into better schools because their parents are likely more well-heeled and can afford better-quality education for them.

Oh man, that’s not even half of it. Parents from affluent backgrounds also are likely to read more, read to their kids more, have more thoughtful conversations at the dinner table, have better connections and so forth. Check out this great comic: On a plate.

On a plate

There is no point aiming for equality for the sake of equality, and giving up equity.

Ah, but you see, the point is to GAIN equity by reducing inequality. The point is to GAIN more high-quality doctors and lawyers from the people who don’t currently have access to opportunities.

Did you seriously think that the Principal of RI is saying “let’s give up equity for the sake of equality”? Equity bad, equality good?

[…] when we stream students according to their abilities, it is only natural that students whose families can afford better quality education make it to better institutions.

Try to avoid “it is only natural” statements, because they’re actually non-arguments. It’s only natural for a 17-year-old to write things like this. It’s only natural for people to desire and persue equality.

Everything is only natural, ergo it’s redundant to talk about it.

A natural consequence that stratifies society does have its own purpose for the well-educated, critical minds to mingle together to build Singapore up to greater heights.

Don’t pretend that “natural phenomena” has noble intentions. It only seems to because it serves your interests.

The idea that a country will be brought to greater heights by a circlejerking elite is a romantic one, but it’s BS.

Intelligence is an asset; and we cannot allow ourselves to prioritise equality over intelligence and equity.

Again, the idea that equality takes precedence over equity here is utterly mislaid.

The fundamental point that you’re missing is that addressing inequality is a necessary step towards creating more equity. We don’t need to send doctors and lawyers to the countryside. We need to give rural children the opportunity to read and write.

RI is often touted as a factory for future leaders – why would we want to draw resources away from the nurturing of our future leaders, or worse still, level the playing field?

Oh, that’s a pretty simple one. Because leaders aren’t made better by throwing more resources at them, or by putting them on a pedestal.

Leaders need perspective. Leaders need empathy. Leaders need to see the big picture. Leaders need to mingle with everybody, not just the equity-laden, menial-task-avoiding elites. Leaders are nurtured in difficulty and struggle, not with silver spoons.

You see, Russell, you fundamentally misunderstand the pursuit of maximizing equity for a society, and you fundamentally misunderstand leadership.

We should relook the way we go off the well-trodden path, and ensure that we do not shake up the status quo just for the sake of doing so.

The status quo will get shaken whether you like it or not. What you should actually re-look, though, are the assumptions in your own thinking.

Here are a couple of quotes worth ruminating on:

Elizabeth Warren: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Lee Kuan Yew: “The successful have forgotten that without the peace and stability that made their education, their job or their business opportunities possible, they would never have made it. But having made it, they think they made it on their own. Some students from the top schools like Raffles Institution or Hwa Chong, they go abroad and they think that they had done it on their own. They don’t owe the government or society anything. They are bright chaps, but how did they make it? Because we kept a balance in society. With peace, stability, we built up our education system and enabled the brightest to rise to the top.”

This article was first published on Visakan's blog.