The power of giving back in an age of elitism

Dr William Wan was right when he suggested that the issue of social stratification is not about the presence of elites in society, but how these individuals conduct themselves and behave towards others (Kindness in an age of elitism; June 15).

"Downstream" measures to tackle elitism require a soft approach. One challenge is establishing the link between being an "elite" and having a social responsibility to give back.

Volunteering can be a solution for this as it can reveal the humbling fact that luck is as important a factor in one's success as hard work is.

There is grounding in the act of volunteering to help citizens in need, compared with just making monetary donations, as the financially able elite share parts of their lives with others. Real lives are touched instead of faceless beneficiaries, be it underprivileged children or nursing home residents.

When an individual realises the pivotal role that circumstance can play, he can extrapolate this across the entire socio-economic spectrum in society.

Dr Wan also mentioned that Raffles Institution (RI) should focus on how to teach its students kindness, compassion, respect and consideration.

Traditionally, giving back to society has been a feature of RI through various programmes. This includes co-curricular activities like the Interact Club, as well as programmes in the formal curriculum, such as service-learning projects and a gap semester where students may initiate social projects.

One may shrug off such initiatives as entrenching elitism by enriching students' curricula vitae and bolstering their chances of getting scholarships or entering prestigious universities. Yet, to commit to beneficiaries in the long term requires a certain heart and purpose, which aligns with sincere social mixing.

To shift the discussion from what constitutes the elite to why and how these individuals should give back to society is productive.

We do not wish for Singapore to harbour the "new super-elite", as described by writer Chrystia Freeland. These are hard-working, highly educated meritocrats who feel they are deserving winners. They adopt an ambivalent attitude towards those who do not succeed as spectacularly - caricatures that Dr Wan will likely warn against.

Paul Sim Ruiqi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2018, with the headline 'The power of giving back in an age of elitism'. Print Edition | Subscribe