Elitism Lite à la Russell Tan Wah Jian

YESTERDAY, when I read the forum letter, Elitism Can Be Good for Society, published two days ago, I shook my head with amusement and disappointment. What’s this young gun trying to do, this Mr. Russell Tan Wah Jian, who spoke with all theory and no empathy? Either he had a bone to pick with his principal, or he merely wanted show off his skill at rhetoric and to see his name in print.

There’s very little to add to the comments I’ve seen all over Facebook: they are all unkind, nasty, salty in places, as expected, though my favorite one came from a friend of a friend of a friend: can not express properly how much I like this little piece of wit.

Talking about wit, let’s examine his prose and determine if he is truly “little” in that department. As an argumentative essay, one must credit him for executing quite impressively the classical methods of essay-writing taught in school.

Let’s look at his introduction: he has two, the first paragraph and the second. I’ll get to the first later, but let’s tackle his second one first. It’s clear, it cuts to the chase, it’s good. He lays out the values of our society, and immediately gets to the problem in the second sentence: However, in recent years, we seem to have collectively confused equity with equality. But pray tell, my boy, where do I see the word equity in our national pledge?

Then he does the classic essay tactic: define the key terms. And so there we have it: equality versus equity. And thank you, young man, for the enlightenment on equity because every time I hear the word, I always think of my portfolio.

Next, he proceeds to illustrate, doing so with a hypothesis—what if we returned our statehood to the good old days of kampong living, but hang on, did he forget the coolies by our busy docks? Those folks can’t talk agrarian with you, Mister Russell.

But he moves on, picks up pace, builds momentum, delivers the punchline, which he might well call a sound bite if he’s gunning to make this a speech:

Elitism, in reality, is just the darker side of meritocracy. 

Now, he must elaborate on this thesis statement, and you know he’s almost going for gold with an analysis and commentary on his next new word meritocracy, but it collapses somehow. He made a faux pas, a poor writing decision. Let’s call it a backpedal: saying one thing, then refuting it.

“If anything, it is the fault of meritocracy,” he writes, only to turn against it with his next sentence in the next paragraph: “But maybe that is not a fault at all.”

This backpedaling is a snarky little dirty trick that gives his voice an edge, that superior, know-it-all tone. Which brings me to the first paragraph and the whole premise of his argument. In his opening, he tells us that he has only graduated from Raffles Institution last year, but how could he have “witnessed the transformation of the school” as such a young graduate? Those who have the eyes to see that transformation are years older than him, his father, or grandfather even—that was the point his principal, Mr. Chan Poh Meng, was trying to make.

What his letter lacks is the weight of maturity, which, Mister Russell fails to see, can only come with wisdom, authority, and years. And what his lack of maturity has failed to open his eyes to is that in polite engagement, one wouldn’t write “but what for?” so curtly and brusquely, not least to his principal. I think the phrase grates in part because it has a Singlish phraseology, because if you rewrote it as “but for what?” that wouldn’t sound so harsh, but even then.

What his writing also lacks is grace and empathy, and here, I was just about to add charm and humor, but let’s not even go there, because with someone like our young Mister Russell, who’s all hard facts and cold theory with no human feelings or sense of gratitude, nothing else would do. Which is precisely what Mr. Chan is lamenting about, isn’t it? Aren’t we glad that, at least, he’s not as bad as Donald Trump?


Related:

Dangerous To Dismiss Elitism as Consequence of Meritocracy ~ Simon Sim Ruiqi
Lack of Diversity in Schools a Troubling Issue ~ Daryl Yang Wei Jian

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