What 18-year-olds tell us about Singapore's future

As chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Mr Eddie Teo interviews 350 young people vying for scholarships each year. In this excerpt of a speech at an Overseas Singaporean Unit event in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept 24, he outlines the strengths and weaknesses of these teenagers, as gleaned from their essays and interviews.

Every year, my colleagues and I interview some 350 of the top students from our junior colleges and polytechnics in order to offer them scholarships to study in university, both locally and overseas. (The 350 have been shortlisted from some 2,500 applicants for the PSC scholarship. Although there is no quota or cap, we award some 70 scholarships a year on average.) Those who accept will serve in the public service, initially under a bond of between four and six years.

During the half-hour interview, PSC has the opportunity to ask candidates questions not only to determine how suitable they are for the public service but also to get a sense of how young Singaporeans feel about our country and its future. One of the topics they have to write an essay on is indeed what kind of Singapore they would like to see in 15 years' time.

POST-LEE KUAN YEW GENERATION

What can we say about the present generation of 18-year-olds, judging by the essays they write, their school records, their psychological profiles and their responses at PSC interviews?

Our young people are not unaware of the values espoused by our founding fathers, particularly Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

They may not be fully conscious of them, and they may quietly rebel against National Education taught in schools, but because they live in Singapore, go to Singapore schools, and have grown up with family and friends, they are still cast in the same mould as previous generations of young Singaporeans. Many of them have heard the Singapore national narrative. This narrative was emphasised a hundred times over during Mr Lee's funeral and the recent SG50 celebrations: how Singapore was cast adrift post-Separation and survived against all odds, how vulnerable we are as a nation given our size and the neighbourhood we are in, and how we must remain exceptional to continue to prosper. How our people must work hard and stay disciplined because no one owes us a living. How social benefits must not be allowed to erode our work ethic.

Our best and brightest - the potential public-sector leaders - have imbibed many of the values passed down by our founding fathers. By and large, success has not gone to their heads. They work hard, stay humble and help the less privileged. Many are committed to serve the public and see their job as a calling. But they must shed the "kiasu" and "kiasi" attitude which other Singaporeans continue to share and become bolder, less risk-averse and more innovative.

The ideal citizen envisaged by Mr Lee is someone pragmatic, responsible, disciplined, frugal, hard-working, well-behaved, family-focused and puts society before self.

Mr Lee also expected public servants to have all these values as well as stay incorruptible.

Singaporeans often take our zero-tolerance policy for corruption for granted, but many foreigners regard it as exceptional and want to learn how we do it.

But the young, while cast in the same mould, are not exact copies of the old. Older Singaporeans should not be surprised that the younger generation has different views and different aspirations - even different values. All they have to do is speak to their own children or grandchildren.

Their values have changed, leaving the old somewhat bewildered. When Mr Lee visited Australia during my term as High Commissioner, he asked me to organise tea with ex-Singaporean migrants in Perth. He wanted to hear from them why they chose Australia over Singapore.

When one of them told him that he gave up a well-paid job in Singapore to migrate there so that he could work half-day and go fishing in the afternoon, Mr Lee nearly fell off his chair. He just could not understand why anybody would make such a lifestyle choice. To Mr Lee, it was irrational. You see, Mr Lee came from the era when the term "work-life balance" had not been invented. To him, life was work and work was life - it was the same thing, no need to balance the two.

Besides, we should be worried if the young are not different from us. If they imbibe everything they are taught uncritically, it means they are not thinking for themselves and have closed minds.

Thankfully, the best and brightest who appear before PSC do still think critically and question what is happening in Singapore, including our socio-economic disparities, our educational policy and system, and our political environment. I am especially pleased that more of our young now aspire to work in the social sector, so that they can help the underprivileged.

When they worry about social inequality and the lack of social mobility, some may have moved away from one cardinal belief that our founding fathers had - that social welfare should be discouraged because it breeds a poor work ethic and a dependence on government handouts.

But they believe that the Government should do more for the poor because they feel it is just, not because they are socialists or communists. Like students elsewhere and unlike those during my time (the 1960s), they want peaceful change, not violent revolution. Their concerns arise from youthful idealism, not dogmatic ideology.

The young are critical of the educational system because they think it overemphasises exam results and academic excellence. This is quite remarkable, seeing that they have excelled in, and are benefiting from, such a system. Yet, they are big-hearted enough to welcome greater diversity in our criteria for success - wishing to see that those who excel in sports and in the arts should be recognised and rewarded as well. Judging by the changes being made by the Ministry of Education, when our students express such views, they are only keeping abreast of government thinking, not streaking ahead.

POLITICAL PRAGMATISTS

The views of the 18-year-olds on politics in Singapore are also non-ideological and pragmatic. They want the People's Action Party (PAP) to continue in power, but they also desire a strong but moderate opposition. Some are attracted to the Workers' Party not because they are against the PAP per se but because they share the belief that the Government needs checks and balances in order to be more responsive to the people.

They want the best of both worlds - the PAP to run an efficient and effective government and the opposition holding seats short of one-third of the total seats in Parliament. Enough to question and criticise the ruling party but not enough to deprive the ruling party of its two-thirds majority, let alone to form a government.

When pressed, the students will admit that it is unlikely that the one-party dominant political system we had in the last 50 years will continue indefinitely in the next 50 years. But if the change does occur, they are confident in their belief that Singapore will not collapse because more and more good and capable people will eventually join the opposition, as many as those who join the PAP today. They are sceptical about the ruling party's contention that Singapore does not have enough talent to fill two strong teams. As more well-educated Singaporeans join the political fray on the side of the opposition, our students may feel that their scepticism is being vindicated.

But these views are those of a few 18-year-olds solicited over the last five years. We should not read too much into them as predictors of how the young vote today or in the near future. So, my sense is that in the recent general election in Singapore, when there was a big swing back to the PAP, it would be inaccurate to say that the young voted differently from the old. I think what it meant was that if there were among younger voters those who felt the way our 18-year-olds feel, they were prepared to put aside their aspirations for a stronger opposition to vote in a stronger government because we are in turbulent economic times, they find that the Government has become more responsive since 2011, and they were not convinced that the opposition fielded better teams. Very pragmatic and rational. And very Singaporean.

FLAWS AND WEAKNESSES

Lest I give you the impression that our best students are flawless, let me now turn to the negative traits we sometimes see in those who apply for our scholarships. There are four main flaws.

First, they have a poor knowledge of Singapore's history. Second, only a few are knowledgeable about, or interested in, current and foreign affairs. Third, they are too risk-averse. Finally, they lack imagination and creativity.

PSC members are often dismayed and saddened when candidates reveal their ignorance on basic historical facts about Singapore. For instance, they do not know who S. Rajaratnam is, and they only knew who Goh Keng Swee was when he died. The exhibitions on our founding fathers and a rather belated attempt to revise the way history is taught in our schools will go some way to fill the gaps. But it is a sign of the times that even trying to teach our young basic historical facts is being challenged and contested, and the outcome will no doubt be controversial. While history is often written by winners and victors, questions have been raised on how much should be taught about those who lost.

The textbook writers in the Ministry of Education will have to grapple with how much our history syllabus should teach about people like Lim Chin Siong and what their motives were - to fight against the British colonialists or to establish a communist republic, or both?

Despite the fact that our students nowadays travel quite frequently, and much more than students in the past, many lack knowledge about, or interest in, current and foreign affairs. This apathy will not breed active citizens. Perhaps the Internet has produced a generation of young people more interested in bite-size news than deeper analysis found in books and magazines? And if they know about current events, it is often about global rather than regional affairs. Those who are better off know London and Sydney well, but have never visited Yangon or Phnom Penh.

It is important for our young to know and understand the neighbourhood Singapore is in. Many influential and powerful people in Indonesia and Malaysia still view Singapore negatively. They regularly seek to remind us that we are a small country and should know our place in the pecking order among nations, and behave accordingly, instead of trying to punch above our weight.

I suspect that is why Mr Lee once exhorted our young public servants to study Machiavelli - not so much because he wanted us to act like knaves, but because he wanted us to be aware that there are Machiavellians around us, who will take advantage of those who are naive and weak.

Why are our best students fearful of taking the less trodden paths? Why do so many choose to be public servants, lawyers and doctors, and go to the same universities in the US and UK? Why do they apply for government scholarships and not launch into business like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg?

I hope that this is partly because the students we see have self-selected themselves and that the private sector is getting its fair share of our top talent. The more entrepreneurial students may have opted not to apply. PSC does not believe in hoarding Singapore's top talent. We are happy to point candidates to the private sector if their aptitude and passion are better suited there.

But the public service also needs a few mavericks like Philip Yeo. Enough to prevent groupthink, but not so many as to disrupt the institution. Philip himself has disclaimed the label. He says that the real maverick was not him, but Dr Goh Keng Swee. However, Philip's peers think that Dr Goh was also a powerful mentor and protector.

The majority of those we interview do not score highly on creativity and imagination. Only a few are deemed by the psychologists as being able to think out of the box and to offer unconventional ideas and solutions. Again, self-selection may have played a part, and the more creative and imaginative students may have opted not to apply. My old friend, Kishore Mahbubani, has been criticising the present generation of public servants for being unimaginative and uncreative, unlike the older generations of public servants. He claims that there is no incentive for public servants today to surface new ideas and they are rewarded for playing safe, not being innovative. Kishore is, as usual, being deliberately provocative. I agree that we need our public servants to be more creative, but I think Kishore overrates the creativity of the older public servants and underrates the creativity of younger public servants. It is counter-intuitive for a highly competitive meritocracy like Singapore to regard failure as acceptable.

Many years ago, I invited the American innovation guru Gary Hamel and then Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina to Singapore to brief our senior public servants and politicians. They spent a whole day explaining how innovation requires experimentation and repeated failures. The response from the audience was, at best, lukewarm. One minister told me that it was not feasible in our government culture to get people to accept failure; we were too focused on success.

The public service needs more creative people because it has to transform itself to help bring Singapore to a higher level of economic and social progress. Future productivity can come only from greater innovation, not from the addition of more labour and capital. Private-public sector collaboration can work only if there are innovative people both inside and outside the public service.

Unconventional ideas coming from one party alone is a recipe for failure. And if the service wishes to utilise behavioural economics to "nudge" citizens to behave in ways contributing to the public good, it must have creative people to imagine clever ways to do so. Wicked problems that are unpredictable and come from the realm of "unknown unknowns" also need creative solutions.

Having said that, I am not at all suggesting that we abandon all rules.

There are, in fact, good reasons for public servants to follow rules. Rules help keep them honest and impartial. If public servants are given too much discretion to interpret rules, and become too creative, it will be a matter of time before our system degenerates into one where guanxi (connections) prevails. One rule for the common citizen, and another - or even no - rule for family and friends. On the other hand, an inflexible adherence to rules will cause bureaucratic inertia and create an unthinking public service which lacks initiative and compassion.

Our best and brightest - the potential public-sector leaders - have imbibed many of the values passed down by our founding fathers. By and large, success has not gone to their heads. They work hard, stay humble and help the less privileged. Many are committed to serve the public and see their job as a calling.

But they must shed the "kiasu" and "kiasi" attitude which other Singaporeans continue to share and become bolder, less risk-averse and more innovative. Hopefully, they will pick up these traits in university and carry them bravely through their future career. Hopefully, too, their bosses will give them enough space to experiment and make mistakes, because anyone in Silicon Valley will tell you that, without failure, there can be no innovation.

A younger generation of political leaders and public servants must imagine and invent totally different solutions as they govern a population that will become more difficult to govern.

The people must be critical but remain responsible and reasonable; the Government must welcome and not fear disagreement. If the Government draws the bandwagon too tightly, it will make too many enemies. If managed well, those outside can be co-opted and turned into allies. If the Government's new skillsets prove inadequate, Singapore will slowly cease to be exceptional and start to decline.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'What 18-year-olds tell us about Singapore's future'. Print Edition | Subscribe