Deconstructing the arguments of yet another teenage Singaporean elitist

‘Elitism’ can be good for society

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. [1]

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. [2]

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?

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


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 relook, 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.”


[1] If you’re bored enough to dig into my archives, you’ll find that I too was a presumptuous little twit who thought he had a valuable perspective that the world ought to know about. What changed? I moved out, bought a flat, and pay my own bills. Lol.

Incidentally, I think it’s very important to remember that news sites are uniquely incentivized to publish incendiary letters. If a letter published on sparks outrage, that means a lot of traffic for It’s not hard to imagine the editors sorting through the letters and laughing amongst themselves, saying, “Wah, this one damn jialat, publish this one!”

[2] One of the easiest ways to “win aguments” as a teenager is to just use bigger words and talk longer than everybody else. (You’ve got all the time in the world, and no bills to pay.)

People will eventually find it too tedious to engage with you, and their disengagement means you’re the one left standing. Hooray, you win!


Update: Got a great comment about this on Facebook:

“I think your argument could be summarised into a “equity good not equals equality bad” essay rather than a slightly tedious point-counterpoint.

Also, the only part I slightly disagree with is precisely the part you quoted above. I think you’re both arguing on a false dichotomy. More resources do to a certain extent allow for the development of better leaders. It can pay for programmes that stretch the capabilities and capacities of participants beyond what normal programmes allow. It can also create opportunities for experiences that are beyond a smaller budget. The problem is that those things are easy to programme, but what we’re missing is the perspective and empathy that you’ve rightly pointed out. We need to be doing more of that, which doesn’t necessarily mean we have to scrap the other good developmental programmes that are already in place.”


#GE2015 – Lui Tuck Yew stepping down is a wise political move


CNA: Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew will not contest the General Election

It’s interesting to pay attention to Lui Tuck Yew stepping down.

I believe it was probably the best call for him to make as a PAP member, for the sake of the party.

Here’s why.

First of all, public sentiment is a real thing that every party has to account for.

Perceptions are leaky: your car always seems to drive faster after you’ve washed it thoroughly.

So even if Tuck Yew wasn’t responsible for SMRT’s failures, he will still be associated with it. People are going to think of train breakdowns when they see his face. And it’s something that they would take with them to the voting booth.

By stepping down the way he did, LTY has earned goodwill for being self-sacrificial, and the PAP earns a little goodwill by extension (for trying to keep him, despite ‘populist sentiment’).

Also, now instead of focusing on LTY’s failures, people are going to focus on the details that the two of them mentioned in their open letters to one another.

The two open letters LTY and LHL wrote to each other are very skillfully done to influence public sentiment positively.

Here’s what stood out for me:

LTY: “You reminded me that the responsibility of Government was a collective one,, and no minister carried difficult problems like public transport alone”.

This is masterfully done! I mentioned before that it’s political suicide for politicians to talk about how difficult their jobs are, because common citizens wouldn’t sympathize.

But this is the one unique circumstance where they can do exactly that. LTY is leaving, so he can speak honestly about what a wise, thoughtful leader LHL is, and how challenging it is to be a Transport Minister.

LTY: “The BSEP has produced shorter waiting times, new routes and less crowded buses […] … the total train fleet will continue to grow some 50% over the next 3-4 years. The entire Downtown Line will open within the next 24-30 months.”

Now, under what circumstances do you take the trouble to tell your ex-boss all of these details in a “I quit” letter, when he already knows?

When your letter to him is going to get national press.

PM Lee Hsien Loong does a really great job handling this whole situation, too. So much is communicated in the sentence “I reluctantly accepted his decision”, whether intentional or otherwise.

The very subtle undertone here (with perfect plausible deniability!) is that LTY “has to suffer” because of flighty public sentiment. LHL wishes he could keep LTY, but he can’t.

LHL: “My senior colleagues share my view that you have more to contribute, both in transport and in other areas in government. We discussed the matter with you several times, but could not persuade you to continue.”

So that’s how the narrative is set. LTY wasn’t asked to leave. He wasn’t a scapegoat. He left despite the PAP urging him to stay, and it was a subject that he had “broached early in the year” – NOT a knee-jerk response to the most recent events lingering in everybody’s memories!

Is this the first time that this has happened?

All of this made me think back to Wong Kan Seng and the Mas Selamat incident. What happened then?

Wong Kan Seng was the Minister of Home Affairs when Mas Selamat escaped from Whitley Detention Center in 2007.

Coincidentally, Wong Kan Seng chose to step down as Minister after GE2011.

(Also, people were chanting “Mas Selamat! Mas Selamat!” when he spoke at Nomination Day.)