Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday challenged undergraduates to define success as more than just their own achievements and well-being, and also as what they do for Singapore and those less privileged than themselves.
He had asked them about their definitions of personal success at a two-hour forum, before giving his views on what would make or break Singapore as a nation in the years ahead.
Several of the 160 students at the forum, organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Students' Political Association, said their idea of success is having stable and fulfilling jobs, getting married and starting a family.
They are confident they can get a job and the only obstacles to getting their desired job are their attitude, drive and values.
This confidence struck Mr Chan, who said it was rare as many young people around the world were less certain of their future. Citing Europe, he said unemployment among the young had gone above 20 per cent in some countries.
Many of his friends from Cambridge University had not been able to fulfil their potential, despite being brilliant, he added.
The reason is that capabilities alone would not guarantee success, he said. The macro environment is also crucial in bringing their talent and hard work to fruition.
Hence, he urged them not to be complacent in thinking that Singapore's competitive advantages were "immutable".
Already, globalisation and technological advancements have hastened the obsolescence of skills and widened the income gap.
The challenge is not just to stay unified, he said, but also to keep pace with global competition.
"If one day Singapore goes into a prolonged recession and doesn't provide opportunities, will you stay with your backs to the wall and make it a better place? That will define whether we succeed or fail as a country," said Mr Chan.
Economic development is "necessary, but not sufficient" to build a great nation. It goes hand in hand with social development.
"Our country is defined not just by economic success, but also a sense of solidarity with the rest of people who form our society."
For this reason, social mobility is important, he said. Otherwise, an ossified society - where the rich get richer and the rest get left behind - will fracture.
"You are the fortunate bunch, with tremendous opportunities ahead of you," he said as he urged them to help lift all of society. "To those with great blessings come great responsibilities."
During a question-and-answer session, a student asked how secure Singapore's family unit will be in the context of recently discussed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
Mr Chan said: "The family as an institution will always evolve, just like how it has evolved from our grandparents' generation to now."
He drew their attention to differences between the generations. For example, family structures have changed and fewer young people grow up with their grandparents.
"Societal expectations have changed and evolved. I'm not making a judgment on whether it's good or bad, just saying that it has evolved," he said.
At the end, each generation decides which way it evolves. But, he added: "Our society is not a closed society and will always be influenced by the greater environment, the kind of values in the rest of the world.''