Sunday, September 16, 2012

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: The rise of the Singaporean Elite

In the decade just past and in years to come, more scions of society elites will join the workforce.

Their career of choice and - more to the point - how they got that job will put to test Singapore's meritocratic system.

At stake is our reputation as a country that believes in, supports wholeheartedly and goes to great lengths to protect the practice where people are assessed based on merit rather than their bloodline.

If we agree that the creativity of our people is Singapore's greatest resource, then meritocracy is something we should preserve and protect at all costs.

Burden of proof
Even in situations where there is absolutely no foul play, the burden of proof on the families of Singaporean elites is a heavy one indeed.

This is because the manner in which a candidate is recruited is, in most companies, treated as staff-in-confidence. It is, therefore, easier to throw unsubstantiated brickbats alleging wrongdoing than it is for the system to defend its integrity and credibility without compromising the confidentiality of the hiring process.

So even if scion emerged as hand on heart, really the best candidate for the job, suspicions will linger that his or her family connections helped the scion to clinch that internship/cushy National Service desk job/full-time job that heartlanders also have their eyes on.

No silver bullet
From an information management standpoint, the challenge for elite families will grow in frequency as the number of scions of first and second generation mandarins start leaving the school system to find their first job. The intensity and explosiveness of debate will grow correspondingly as these scions pop up on the radar of Singaporean heartlanders and people start speaking their minds.

There is no silver bullet, no public relations contingency plan that can inoculate the elites against cynics who allege that their scions somehow always seem to emerge primus inter pares.

What is crucial is the self-awareness from elites that the life and fortunes of their scions will come under close scrutiny. The career trajectory of one's son or daughter must therefore be open to public scrutiny and must be defensible according to society's expectations of how a meritocratic system ought to work. You must be seen as being whiter than white.

In some cases, the elites may be tripped up by people in the system itself who have the best intentions for these mandarins in mind. Unbidden by the elites, servile minds may try to ingratiate themselves by rolling out the red carpet for the princelings in the hope of scoring brownie points or favour from the elites. This is a reality not just in Singapore but in societies all over the world. This point is important because the extent to which unsolicited ingratiation takes place could upset the apple cart of meritocracy.

This is why self-reflection and self-awareness is so crucial. If it is unusual for heartlander families to have their sons defer full-time National Service (NS) for, say for example a period of 12 years, the elite family must ask itself how such a deferment would be seen by the hoi polloi. If the deferment period deviates from the norm, then the elite family must make a judgement call whether or not junior should walk that road.

For that call to be made, the elite must first be self-aware. Alas, such prescience is not always present.

Yes, this is reverse discrimination because one would be forced to hold back the scion's career trajectory - assuming the scion earned it fully on merit. If the collective wisdom of the elite family rules in favour of walking the path less trodden, this decision must be transparent and fully defensible. If not, the party that pays the price is not the family's honour but this abstract concept called meritocracy. Besmirched family reputations can be patched up, harder to do so for Singapore's reputation.

When to pull strings
Where favours are sought and granted through the old school network or business connections, all parties involved in such transactions must be prepared to explain their stand. Once again, such string-pulling and personal recommendations are not unique to Singaporean society. Nor is it illegal or an uncommon business practice. It happens everywhere.

On the other side of the coin, there are elites who cast their scions to fend for themselves, believing that the school of hard knocks will do them good. Yes, such mindsets exist and their presence among the glitterati of Singaporean society provides assurance that not everyone will resort to pulling strings.

As our society matures, we must ask ourselves to what extent string-pulling should be practised or tolerated. Take two candidates with identical paper qualifications: Candidate A comes from a heartlander family whose parents are ordinary folk whose only chance of appearing in the newspaper is in the obituaries - if they can afford it. Candidate B's comes from a family whose father/mother are society elites known to everybody. Which candidate do you think will have a headstart in life?

Plutocrats must have the conviction and social conscience to help aspiring and promising candidates from all types of heartlander homes, not just their own. Stories of heartlander children made good are inspiring to read about. But as jobs dry up, the hard truth is that the system must actively police itself or risk killing the pool of promising candidates who hail from humble backgrounds.

As with the example of self-awareness where favour is granted by fawning minions, an astute patriach/matriach must be fully aware that the ears of society gossips are finely-tuned to the slightest hint that junior enjoyed a privileged route of advancement. The begs the question: If word gets out, can you take the heat?

The elites must also be aware that their scions will be under close scrutiny by co-workers even if they landed their job purely on merit. Attention to these scions will surface despite best efforts at keeping their bloodline secret because that is the nature of how office politics works.

How many of us have come across individuals who are described with the line "He/she is so-and-so's son/daughter" as a prefix or suffix to that individual's name? In chronic cases, people may not even remember the scion's name and may simply refer to the scion as so-and-so's son/daughter.

To be sure, there are scions who take pride in flaunting their family tree. There are also parvenu elites who love nothing better than to flash their newly won elite status (example: recipient of some prestigious scholarship). Such behaviour should be frowned upon because it damages confidence in the system.

Now, some words on the scions themselves. Scions are aware they have big shoes to fill. In happy situations where the merit-based assessment works as advertised, the scion who is onboarded really pulls his/her weight, is a credit to the organisation and a joy to work with.

Then there are instances where scions try too hard to prove themselves or wilt under the pressure of constant (and largely unspoken) comparisions with their illustrious parent(s). This may give rise to deep-seated insecurities in the scion, who ends up over compensating and chafes co-workers with their overbearing and bossy nature when they are low on the corporate hierarchy (but their father is the boss' golfing partner...).

Scions are generally more articulate and broad-minded that your typical heartlander-bred example. Being the progeny of powerful mandarins or the political elite, they grew up in a setting where they saw their parents speak their mind and get their way in most situations.

Undoubtedly book smart as proven by their grades, scions may need help polishing their EQ to help them avoid situations where they unwittingly come across as social buffoons (Britain's Royal Family has many outstanding examples). There are those who ape the mindset, mannerism and syntax of their parents, little knowing that behaviour won from a track record of robust performance or years of experience on the corporate/political battlefield cannot simply be copied and mimicked theatrically by an unproven flyweight.

While the elite may make a remark that sounds amusing or witty, the scion may come across as lofty and sarcastic (because there are some jokes that only the boss can crack).

Where the elite may have been outspoken and confident in speaking his/her mind, the mimicking scion may strike others as being arrogant, conceited and pompous. It does not help when insecure scions feel they must have the last word in any debate, must have their own way and are unable or unwilling to eat humble pie.

In situations where a sense of humility and understanding could have saved the day, scions who lack EQ may end up burning bridges with co-workers.

By scoring own goals, it will not take long for such scions to grow their pool of detractors who claim they wouldn't have landed in their position if not for their bloodline.

Such situations poison our trust in the meritocratic system.

There is an antidote: Having self-aware elites and glitterati who know that even in the realm of the high society, there are OB markers they should not cross.


Laremy said...

White horses... Couldn't drag me away...

Anonymous said...

It does not matter whether Singaporeans have confidence in the system or not.

Let's assume a scion took the reins of the family bank from his father. He soon proves inept and his disastrous decisions submerges the bank and the whole Singapore economy.

Even in this worst case scenario, the ordinary Singaporean dares not take any action other than gossip, which is something those in power are happy to tolerate, because it remains forever gossip.

This dynamic of popular impotence will remain true come what may.

Anonymous said...

Do you know of these cases? Are they real?

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous,
Facebook message that led to the post titled "SAF insensitive towards deceased NSF's family" can be verified.

Will reserve commenting on response from "Philip Phay" till bona fide of author can be verified.

Ample flame bait on both threads cited.

I read up on Wesley from what I could find on the Net. Am sorry to see a young life lost just like that.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Elitism is the anti-thesis of meritocracy: the presence of one is clear evidence that the other does not exist.

The said...

Amakudari and Nomenklatura.

Already happening in past decades - no need to wait for the decades to come.

HSH said...

Meritocracy actually breads elitism:

See, for example,

For the most part, I think many of the "elite" are quite grounded.

Any ignorance, low EQ, insensitivity etc., is usually unintentional, a product of their peculiar upbringing which has limited their social experiences to a smallish bubble. Sort of like many colonialists. Not innately malicious, just clueless to the lives of "natives." They don't mean any harm, they just don't know better.

Sad, but true.

Anonymous said...

yeah, now we got 'classes' ..the untouchable ???