Dangerous to dismiss elitism as consequence of meritocracy

While Mr Russell Tan Wah Jian attempts to make a distinction between social equality and equity ("Elitism can be good for society"; Forum Online; Aug 11), he seems to have misguided definitions on what each term entails.

Equity acknowledges that a portion of society is more disadvantaged than others, through factors uncontrollable by the individual and aims to compensate for this. It is based on the principle of fairness.

In practice, equity is often achieved through helping the disadvantaged, rather than punishing the advantaged. 

Equality targets equal access to communication, information and opportunities for all. It is not so much the dilution to the "lowest common denominator". Either way, it is arrogant to assert that "only the most outstanding grab these opportunities".

That said, Mr Tan is not wrong in his allusion to elitism as a consequence of meritocracy, Even compassionate meritocracy, touted by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to guard against elitism ("Meritocracy works but beware of elitism: ESM Goh"; July 28, 2013), does not solve the root of the systemic problem.

However, the worry at the individual level is if our youth similarly shrug this off as "just the darker side of meritocracy". Raffles Institution's principal Chan Poh Meng acknowledges this in his advice for alumni to have an awakened purpose and mindful gratitude ("RI now a 'middle-class' school / 'Make RI a better school for S'pore'"; Aug 4). 

Beyond the strength of arguments that Mr Tan puts forth, the worrying part of his letter is, first, the revealing of a potentially elitist attitude through his distinction between what professionals (doctors and lawyers) do and the "menial tasks" that "everyone else" performs; second, a sense of entitlement in both his concern about "drawing away resources" to nurture future leaders and his seeming reluctance to derail from the "well-trodden path". 

If anything, this path should be relooked, not because we want to shake up the status quo per se. Rather, because this "well-conditioned" path runs the risk of producing future leaders who cannot connect with the ground. 

Lastly, it often takes a Rafflesian to get out of the Raffles bubble to learn that intelligence goes beyond academic prowess. It is naive to think that community involvement projects undertaken in school may allow students to truly appreciate others in society - such programmes have, ironically, become achievements to bolster students' curriculum vitae. 

National service and the workplace expose - and humble - the Raffles boy to the fact that intelligence takes on other forms, especially interpersonal intelligence.

Paul Sim Ruiqi