Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Bernie Sanders, US politicians and self-described Democrat Socialists, have in recent years been lampooned as Champagne Socialists.
Among AOC’s sins include her fourteen-thousand dollar ensemble for a recent Vanity Fair cover, one merely borrowed for the shoot. (Did she dance in those Louboutins?)
Bernie, meanwhile, triggered moralisers in 2016 when he bought his third home, this for some six-hundred-thousand dollars on Vermont’s Lake Champlain. Presumably the cantankerous grandpa should be living in a forest cabin, Unabomber style.
The label is as old and tired as it is persistent, over the years spawning countless others such as Gauche caviar and latte liberal. Despite its obvious inherent fallacy—supposedly only the poor have the moral right to fight for equality—it always elicits a sort of frenzied smugness among conservatives who are against greater redistribution. There are few more galvanising ripostes, more rewarding forms of “Got you!”, than the exposing of a political opponent’s apparent hypocrisy.
One wonders what those who brand their opponents “Champagne Socialist” really want. Would they rather the socialist forgo all trappings, and lead society through an agrarian Pol Pot-style revolution? Black pyjamas, sickles, onward to the countryside.
Perhaps the Champagne Socialist label is best viewed simply as a symptom of capitalism. As long as there is inequality, there will always be some further up the income ladder who are uncomfortable with the privilege of their class, with perceived injustices. Their attempts to promote greater social justice will, in turn, inevitably invite scorn.
“…it forms an ugly paradox that applies only to the left,” writes Elizabeth Bruenig of The Washington Post. “If you care about material equality and you aren’t destitute, you’re a hypocrite; if you care about material equality and you are destitute, you’re never going to have a real shot at political engagement to begin with.”
Last week in Singapore Jamus Lim, a Workers’ Party (WP) member of parliament and chief advocate of a minimum wage, sparked outrage through a social media post about eating panettone this Christmas.
In a series of responses, Calvin Cheng, the (unofficial) chief provocateur of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), first joked about Jamus’s love of panettone and ownership of an iPhone 12, the device that photographed the unsuspecting loaf; then called him a “Panettone Socialist”; and finally, for good measure, sent a sarcastic birthday greeting to Raeesah Khan, another WP parliamentarian, insinuating a sort of hypocrisy in the mundane fact that her parents and her live in nicer digs than those of her constituents. (Jamus and Raeesah, alongside He Ting Ru and Louis Chua, represent the Sengkang district.)
Calvin, a wealthy entrepreneur who lives in Sentosa Cove, one of Singapore’s most expensive neighbourhoods, later attempted to backtrack on these statements. Regardless of his true intentions—anybody’s guess—the issues that have emerged are worth contemplating. They offer clues about the future of elitism, meritocracy and political ideologies in Singapore.
Is The Workers’ Party “socialist”?
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the whole incident is that the WP’s proposed policies are not at all radical. The WP is not “socialist” by any modern definition. AOC and the Sandernistas, clamouring for free education and healthcare alongside punitive tax rates, as well as stricter regulations on business partly owing to environmental concerns, would surely cringe at seeing the “socialist” label used on the WP. (Read about the socialism of AOC, Bernie and Jeremy Corbyn.)
The WP, by the PAP’s own admission, is a mere “half a step to the left” of it. Consider the WP’s proposals for unemployment insurance and a minimum wage. The first has strict limitations attached to it while the second is set at a relatively low S$1,300 per month—assuming 176 work hours in a month, that is S$7.39 per hour; compared to US$15 in the most progressive US states. The WP’s proposals seem more like efforts at affording greater social protections amid wrenching economic upheaval; hardly the stuff of socialist wet dreams.
Singapore, a global port city, has an economic model built on free trade, flexible labour markets, low taxes and other paragons of economic liberalism. Notwithstanding slight egalitarian leanings, notably in education and healthcare, it seems highly improbable that the electorate would ever countenance any leftward lurch, the way segments of the US population have.
Several years ago Joshua Wong, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, had to brush off suggestions that Hong Kongers are pining for a socio-economic revolution. Democratic aspirations, he argued, do not necessarily equate to socialist ones. “High-school students, especially, take no interest in social issues…Their mindset is that society should become more liberal, not more equal.” (Wong was however hopeful that “Hong Kong changes quickly and people also adapt quickly to new momentum.”)
So, while the city-state’s yawning inequality, including shoebox apartments, surely contribute to disgruntlement and underpin the current crisis, the average Hong Konger is likely far more comfortable with inequality and corporate power than the average human. I suspect the same is true of Singapore.
The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer showed HK, SG and many East Asian countries, alongside the likes of the US and the UK, as being relatively comfortable with modern capitalism. By contrast, countries such as France, India and Thailand are far more skeptical of it.
The WP, then, seems to recognise that many Singaporeans want moderate, not extreme, socio-economic change. Over the past decade, in fact, some voters have poo-poohed the WP for its moderation, using “PAP lite” pejoratively on it. This partly explains the support for parties like the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), seen by some as the true champion of social justice and democratic rights.
This is also why the PAP today is so wary of the threat from the WP: same same but different. If the recent minimum wage debate is anything to go by, the WP appears to be successfully outflanking it on the left, more attuned to shifting ground sentiment.
Meanwhile, with the PAP’s succession plans floundering—for the first time since independence, Singapore is facing a leadership vacuum—the WP has flawlessly executed the most unlikely one, from a Teochew-speaking old-timer to a young Sikh lawyer.
In the years leading up to the next election (due by 2025), it will be interesting to observe whether the PAP’s fans keep trying to paint the WP into a socialist corner.
We do not yet know what exactly motivated Trump voters in the recent US election, but one plausible explanation is that Trump successfully incited in people the fear of the Democrat Socialists, and their possible influence over Biden.
Similarly, the PAP might reason that “socialist” is a better attack than “half a step to the left”; the “slippery slope to a welfare state” rather than “same same but different”.
Separately, there is a delicious irony in Calvin co-opting Champagne Socialist for use in Singapore. For decades many in the establishment have smeared critics by associating them with the West. (Standard fare for right-wing nationalists and rabble rousers in many post-colonial countries.) It happened last year with brownface/blackface, which they claimed had no currency in Singapore because it is a recent Western import, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
So when Calvin Cheng used Champagne Socialist on Jamus Lim, he was using a term from the West with negligible local history on somebody who’s not even a socialist. Calvin and his acolytes, roaring with approval, were doing the very thing they so often deride: unthinkingly, uncritically, mimicking the West.
Elitism: born or bred?
In his final, I’m-just-joking post, Calvin bemoaned the fact that PAP politicians in recent times have had “to downplay their material achievements, and emphasise their humble roots.” Theirs was a meritocratic path to success, he says, unlike the “real elite” of the opposition.
Though I agree with the inanity of the PAP’s “sibei cham” siren song, the post is filled with false equivalences and whataboutisms that must be challenged, because they distract the reader from the real issues: authenticity and the nature of meritocracy.
By cherry picking examples over the past decade—from Tin Pei Ling’s Kate Spade bags to Jamus’s panettone—Calvin crafts a narrative of the biased Singaporean voter, who is supposedly more judgemental of PAP politicians than of the opposition.
It is a bizarre suggestion, given the vastly superior brand equity of the PAP. For “buyers” in our political marketplace, the lightning bolt is the most valued brand (albeit in clear decline). Social media often glosses over the deep structural imbalance between the parties’ brands. The idea that the opposition attracts the “real elite” must be a surprise to the likes of Lee Hsien Loong and Desmond Lee, sons of ministers, and Edward Chia, scion of a wealthy family.
Calvin describes a person who approves of Jamus’s panettone but calls Chan Chun Sing a “fake” for wearing a Casio watch. Who is this person trading in the false equivalence? It often feels like Calvin spends too much time with gadflies on the political extremes, trapped in tiny echo chambers and hobbled by perpetual siege mentalities. (Or, perhaps, that he is cunningly crafting messages to incite social media outrage and draw eyeballs.)
Calvin, casting further doubt on his own intentions, took one last swing at Raeesah, suggesting that as somebody “born with a silver spoon in her mouth” she did not have to work. Yet the more salient point is that Raeesah has been working, including in 2016 founding the Reyna Movement, an NGO that empowers women. It is not clear why Raeesah’s parlaying of privilege into social work is any less respectable than, say, Edward Chia’s parlaying of privilege into business (co-founding Timbre at 21).
An individual’s background shouldn’t really matter. Each brings a unique perspective useful for a diverse society. Far more important are honesty, integrity and the willingness to serve.
To me, the likes of Raeesah Khan and Jamus Lim come across as more authentic than many of the PAP’s candidates. From their unabashed foreign accents to her assertiveness on issues of social justice and his penchant for repeating witticisms—are we finally done with cockles?—I get the feeling I’m listening to authentic, genuine voices. Whatever their flaws, they seem more self aware, more comfortable in their own skin. It is the same with many other opposition politicians.
With PAP politicians one can never tell. Am I listening to individuals or to Shan’s Stepford wives? What makes the sibei cham narrative all the more galling is that it complements a seemingly concerted effort by others to hide their privilege.
In the lead up to the recent election Edward Chia made no mention of his family background and neither did the mainstream media. A 2016 Straits Times interview says that he is “the eldest of three children born to a housewife and a now-retired businessman who ran an events and exhibition company”.
Saying “now-retired” and “ran” is factually incorrect and disingenuous. Edward’s father is the co-founder of the HK-listed Pico Group, a “global leader in total brand activation”, with a S$300m market capitalisation, 25 offices worldwide and over 2,500 employees. He is currently the director of Pico Singapore.
I would have had a lot more respect for Edward (and the PAP) if he had just owned his privilege from the start. Now instead the image that emerges is of a closet rabid capitalist who at first can’t decide if workers are worth S$1,300 a month, and the next moment advertises positions on Facebook for S$2,000.
With Edward Chia, it seems, the performance, the manicured image is everything. A few too many evenings watching the Timbre stage?
Twilight of the elites…
So while I agree with Calvin about the worrying symptoms—PAP candidates forced into humble performance mode—I disagree with his apparent diagnosis. It is not because the electorate is unfairly judgemental, I think, but because of the party’s own straitjacket.
The PAP seems unable to resolve the contradiction between its own working class roots and its current status as home to the world’s most highly-paid politicians. There is a constant need to validate the Darwinian meritocracy that delivered them to power, a drive which, in my opinion, blinds them to the potential problems with it.
A proper critique of meritocracy is beyond the scope of this piece, but let me share some brief thoughts. Recent years have seen a slew of publications assessing meritocracy in the West, from Twilight of the Elites (2012) to The Tyranny of Metrics (2018) and The Tyranny of Merit (2020). I have read only snatches of each, but have heard their arguments repeated in different forms.
It may be a while before Singapore gets the study it deserves, partly owing to the fact that meritocracy’s winners are very much in control, including of essential data; it would take a brave local academic, working with limited information, to interrogate the very system that gave rise to his/her political masters.
While we should exercise caution when translating insights from the US, we should always look for lessons, constantly strive to improve Singapore’s meritocracy. (Singapore ranked twentieth of eighty-two countries in the World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Index, seven ahead of the US.)
Relative to the US, for instance, I do not worry so much about institutions being fundamentally reshaped so that elites can game the system or protect their status. I think of education systems, and the nature of politics, lobbying and campaign finance laws. Of course there are Singaporean issues that need addressing—one thinks of the clustering of elite local schools in rich neighbourhoods—but in my mind, perhaps comparatively less of a problem than in the US.
What bothers me more are the following potential parallels between the US’s and Singapore’s meritocracies: over-reliance on paper credentials and university placements; unfair distribution of rewards (consider: lowest-paid cleaners vs highest-paid public servants in the rich world); contempt towards those lower down the ladder (“Credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice,” says Michael Sandel); and the subsequent undermining of social cohesion and democracy.
From the FT: “As British sociologist Michael Young observed when he coined the term in his prescient book of dystopian fiction The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), for all the flaws of the old class system, its moral arbitrariness prevented both elites and the working class from believing that they somehow deserved their position in life…As Young put it, “now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are . . . no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism.”
I do worry, deeply, that Singapore’s meritocracy has created a class of kepala besar elites and a mass of working class people who deem themselves less worthy (as Teo You Yenn has argued). In almost every contemporary socio-economic and political incident I see this dynamic at play, from Josephine Teo’s demeanour towards migrants and the Parti Liyani “maid versus millionaire” case to the debates about the lack of Singaporean representation at the top of the corporate ladder.
This, I suspect, is partly the context behind the sibei cham stories, the desire of the PAP’s candidates to furiously validate the system they are now charged with protecting.
In 2012 The Straits Times published a letter of mine suggesting that potential problems with Singapore’s meritocracy need to be reviewed. Shanmugam dismissed my suggestion as “absurd”. (In his cursory dismissal of an ordinary citizen, of course, he poetically proves my kepala besar point.)
I sometimes wish the likes of Calvin and Shan spent less time badgering others and more, given their obvious abilities and means, helping to inspire deep thought in their followers. I think that would benefit both the PAP and Singapore. They may not realise how divisive their rhetoric is, how damaging to the tenor of our nascent democracy’s discourse.
Calvin ends his “series” by referencing Deepavali and calling for enlightenment. “If we are to be a competitive democracy, let’s do it with our minds open.”
Unfortunately, in the battle between knowledge and ignorance, I think Calvin’s “series” was batting for the wrong side.
…or does Singapore have too many elites?
This panettone saga made me think of a recent article in The Economist: ”Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing?”
The article describes the research of Peter Turchin, a scientist at the University of Connecticut, who in 2010 predicted much of the political instability to come in the West, pointing partly to the “overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees”.
Turchin relies on “cliodynamics”, a discipline which uses math to model historical change. He believes societies behave and function like “large, complex systems that are subject to certain patterns, if not laws.” His research, going back to ancient Rome and imperial China, shows societies swinging from periods of political stability to instability, often at intervals of about fifty years. (Singapore 1970-2020? Plausible.)
Like Marx, Turchin believes that human history is defined by class struggle. Unlike Marx, his focus is on the elite, not the proletariat. Turchin suggests that over time societies produce more would-be elites, partly through broader access to education. The subsequent intra-elite fights lead to political turbulence. “Elites stop co-operating, counter-elites emerge, and order breaks down.”
Reading the above, I wonder if Singapore is currently experiencing elite competition because of this secular trend, an overproduction of highly-qualified people.
Just thirty odd years ago, the PAP and the Administrative Service could still monopolise much of Singapore’s top talent. Today most of the smartest Singaporeans I know are outside.
Jamus Lim, of course, could very well have been a PAP candidate. (One who eats ang ku kueh?)
Turchin’s is just one theory, of course, and perhaps more applicable to larger states. But if valid it suggests that political contestations today are less about airy-fairy ideologies than raw power; less about half steps to the left than about who holds the keys.
Thankfully Turchin’s instability doesn’t last. “Sooner or later most people begin to yearn for the return of stability and an end to fighting,” he argues.
Who knows, one day we may even see kaya toast and panettone on the same table. Whether that table will more likely be found in Sengkang or Sentosa Cove is a topic for another day.
Additional research: Jonathan Chan
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More on Turchin in this Atlantic profile:
Eventually, Turchin hopes, our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically preordained disaster. He says he could imagine an Asimovian agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly. It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.
and, finally, in the spirit of above essay, I love this cartoon from Matt Bors. (h/t: Jin Liow.)