The loss of trust between the elite and the masses

If elites abandon the masses and pursue their own interests, the masses will revolt and there will be a breakdown of trust

Chinese philosopher Mencius once said that those who use their minds govern those who use their strength.

The structure of a modern society is generally similar to that of a society in the past, but modern Western political academics refer to those who use their minds and govern others as "elites", and those who use their strength as "the masses". Both sides have to do their best and do their part for a society to work properly. They must work closely together, trust and complement each other in order to form a virtuous circle.

In a democratic society, mutual trust between the political leadership in charge of running the country and the voters is particularly important. When trust is insufficient or there is a lack of it, there will be frequent changes in ruling parties, with society increasingly divided, eventually leading to political chaos. Such a situation is common in Western democracies.

The more prominent examples are countries that used to be democratic models, such as the United States and Britain, where governance deficits and a lack of trust have emerged. A high percentage of voters do not vote in every election as they are tired of politics and elections. It is also difficult for a political party to win more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and form a government by itself after every election. Such problems have occurred even in Germany, the most stable economy in Europe, as Chancellor Angela Merkel has still not formed a coalition government more than two months after the election.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked about this phenomenon at the recent People's Action Party (PAP) convention, but it did not seem to gain much attention. He pointed out that trust has essentially broken down in many Western democracies today. Mainstream political parties such as the Conservatives and Labour in Britain as well as the Republicans and the Democrats in the US are no longer seen to represent the common man's interests. The elites have been disconnected from the population.

In the US, the white working class support President Donald Trump because their lives had not been improving and they had lost faith in the country's leaders and elites. The Democrats were traditionally the party of the working class, but they lost touch with this political base. The white working class voted for Mr Trump not because they thought he had better solutions to the country's problems, but because they wanted him to break up a system that was not working for them. In America, the loss of faith was not in just one leader or political party but the whole system of politics and government.

PM Lee said earnestly: "We must never let this happen in Singapore. The PAP must always pursue policies that benefit the broad majority of Singaporeans. We must always hold the ground, stay close to Singaporeans, and maintain their trust and confidence. Voters must always know that the PAP is their party, the PAP will work with you and look after your interests."

The "revolt" or turning away refers to the elites giving up the spirit of ideals and responsibilities found in Western traditional civilisation, abandoning their obligations to society, becoming keener on pursuing individual comforts and wealth, and ignoring the suffering of the masses. They lose touch with the masses even though they are in leading positions.

PM Lee, as secretary-general of the PAP, issuing a speech with such a high degree of vigilance to party workers and members at its convention shows that the ruling party has a great awareness of potential problems. But to prevent a lack of trust, one must study how trust is lost. In other words, one must find out the cause and seek a remedy for the problem in addition to diagnosing the illness.

Why are the mainstream political parties in Europe and the US losing touch with the public? For the US, social academic Christopher Lasch made an observation of the so-called phenomenon of "The Revolt of the Elites" during the 1990s. The "elites" refer to professionals in the upper classes of society who dominate the flow of international money and information, occupy leading positions in all walks of life (including political parties, various foundations and institutions of higher learning) and control the social, political and cultural agenda.

The "revolt" or turning away refers to the elites giving up the spirit of ideals and responsibilities found in Western traditional civilisation, abandoning their obligations to society, becoming keener on pursuing individual comforts and wealth, and ignoring the suffering of the masses.

They lose touch with the masses even though they are in leading positions. They feel that their achievements today are based solely on their own capabilities and talent within the meritocracy implemented by society. They bask in their own successes, sing their own praises and no longer have the slightest empathy for the people, with the political parties fighting for power but unable to understand and sympathise with the public feeling.

The system becomes such that it is your own problem if you cannot keep up with the times or are left behind. As a result, many pressing issues do not get proper attention. For example, jobs being outsourced or becoming short-term hired labour because of globalisation, job losses, workers facing job instability, wage stagnation, uneven distribution and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

"The Revolt of the Elites" is relative to "The Revolt of the Masses".

The concept of the revolt of the masses appeared in the first few decades of the last century. It was a time of turmoil over the various doctrines, revolutions and mass phenomena. Academics in crowd psychology have painfully pointed out that the masses, being aware of their own power, are irrational, unable to exercise self-discipline, have no moral principles and are unable to govern themselves. They have only rights and no obligations in their own eyes. A motley crowd is particularly scary, as they are like spoilt children out to satisfy their desires with no regard for the consequences.

But during the 1990s, Professor Lasch felt that the situation was reversed completely and the masses were already losing ground, and it was the turn of the revolt of the elites. The elites had turned their backs on the masses, lost touch with them and lost their trust.

This turning awayby the elites in turn led to populism, which could be said to be a version of the revolt of the masses, the result of reciprocal causation. For example, the innovation in science and technology as well as the disruptive changes in economic structure (such as through globalisation and automation) impact on the entire social structure but are not accompanied by social and policy adjustments. This can be described as the short-sightedness, indifference, incompetence or neglect of duty by the elites and the ruling class. When the lives of the masses are not improving and the problems are not resolved, the anti-establishment sentiment and mentality will arise naturally. That is why PM Lee warned party members tirelessly that the PAP needs good politics and cannot lose touch with the grassroots.

Like mainstream political parties in other countries, the PAP may encounter issues of being too comfortable, of arrogance, slackness and losing touch with the grassroots because of its long-term rule, if it does not have sufficient awareness of potential problems or is unable to correct some possible problems in time, even if it has established a fairly tight network of grassroots organisations since it began running the country.

But maintaining success today is different from doing so when the party was established. The composition of the network (that is, the members it absorbs) will naturally change with changes in the social make-up. Some mechanisms that could originally provide feedback effectively may undergo qualitative changes or become a mere formality and fail to work eventually. They must be reviewed and maintained regularly, just like the water pumping system at Bishan MRT station.

This law of development is the same everywhere and in any political party (even communist parties with revolutionary roots can become corrupt).

The original selfless dedication and enthusiasm often change unknowingly into a collusion of interests between various vested interest groups. Corruption will occur if there is insufficient vigilance or things are not corrected in time. Any organisation or mechanism facing corruption or deterioration will see its operations fail inevitably, resulting in a disconnect between those in power and those who are not. This may be what the ruling party needs to be most alert to.

American anthropologist Janine R. Wedel said trust is the lifeblood of a thriving society. The Western countries of today are in great need of this blood transfusion.

However, until their entrenched elites are sufficiently aware of the critical situation and no longer ignore the needs of those who have fallen behind, their political systems will remain on life support.

This statement should apply to the elites in all countries.

•The writer is a former journalist and former Member of Parliament.

•This commentary first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao last Wednesday.

•Translated by Lim Ruey Yan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'The loss of trust between the elite and the masses'. Print Edition | Subscribe