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Former academic Donald Low: Root of elitism in Singapore lies not in “lack of empathy” amongst Singaporeans, but inherently elitist “government policies”

Former academic Donald Low has argued that elitism in Singapore is not necessarily rooted in "the lack of empathy or insufficient giving by successful Singaporeans," but in "government policies and its decision-making processes" that he perceives as being "often elitist."

In response to Dr Lee Siew Peng's letter and Prof Yeoh Lam Keong’s post via Facebook, Prof Low explained that such elitism in government policies is manifested through three ideas:

The first is paternalism, or the idea that society would be better off if people would just comply with what the elites envision for Singapore.

The second is social engineering, or the belief that it is possible for the state to plan and create the outcomes the elites want for the country.

The third is authoritarianism: a deep suspicion of a civil society, an independent media, or any non-state actor that might challenge the state’s claims to superior knowledge and expertise.

He argued that "such beliefs are not only condescending and elitist, but they are also quite inconsistent with a society that is becoming more complex."

"As complexity increases, the solutions to our problems also become less clear-cut. The right response is to be more circumspect, more aware of our biases, and less certain of our predispositions and policy prescriptions.

"Ironically, the opposite is probably true in the last few years: the more complex the operating environment, the more doggedly the PAP state has stuck to its core beliefs," he illustrated, citing the poor quality of contemporary “debate” over the minimum wage.

The Government’s apparent elitism, Prof Low posited, “also manifests itself in the way that citizens are often instrumentalized and made to serve the elites’ grand vision for Singapore,” and hawkers are currently the most popular real-life example of such elitism.

He elaborated: “In public statements on hawker centres, the government makes hardly any reference to what hawkers actually want. They are usually viewed as a means to an ends; the ends being affordable hawker food, “vibrant” hawker centres, greater productivity improvements in the hawker trade, smart nation, UNESCO world heritage status, et cetera.”

“You would have thought that the best way to achieve these goals would be to view hawkers as autonomous agents capable of making good choices,” argued Prof Low.

“Indeed, every time a Minister calls for a “mindset change”, you know where that’s coming from. It comes from the state’s instinctive paternalism, its belief in the desirability of social engineering, and its reflexive authoritarianism.

“The way that the state views many other social groups—low-wage workers, the poor on welfare, middle class households worried about the decreasing values of their ageing HDB flats, or even the people who’d like to see 377A repealed—is also elitist in very much the same way, that is it’s usually just as illustrative of the state’s paternalism, its penchant for social engineering, and its authoritarian impulses,” warned Prof Low.