National Day Special 2015

The Pioneers' improbable heirs

Thousands at Victoria Theatre for Television Singapore’s opening on Feb 15, 1963. Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam was the first to appear on screen.
Thousands at Victoria Theatre for Television Singapore’s opening on Feb 15, 1963. Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam was the first to appear on screen. ST FILE PHOTO
The family of Sergeant Karthigesan, who was the right-marker in the commando contingent, watching the 1985 National Day Parade on television.
The family of Sergeant Karthigesan, who was the right-marker in the commando contingent, watching the 1985 National Day Parade on television. ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Eric Kwan, who has a young daughter, says staying up late to watch TV or movies and play video games is a necessity.
Mr Eric Kwan, who has a young daughter, says staying up late to watch TV or movies and play video games is a necessity. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Graduate student Hidhir Razak spends his time reading and sometimes meets his friends at cafes. He says his generation “dared to say ‘I prefer not to’ when asked to give up some of our passions and dreams”.
Graduate student Hidhir Razak spends his time reading and sometimes meets his friends at cafes. He says his generation “dared to say ‘I prefer not to’ when asked to give up some of our passions and dreams”. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The 'lucky generation' is not as weak as it has been made out to be

Heirs have diverse notions of success

Unlike the rugged pioneers, my strawberry-soft generation is cause for worry rather than celebration. Born from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, we have grown up to be self-absorbed selfie-takers, fixated on luxuries like work-life balance.

Placing Singapore's future in our hands - once you've prised our smartphones from them, of course - seems a risky gamble. That, at least, is how some commentators see us. Every so often, another article bemoans Generation Y's pampered upbringing and its unwillingness to work hard.

Like our peers in Taiwan, we are dubbed the "strawberry generation" for bruising easily under pressure. Is this a generation that can keep Singapore - the improbably successful city state - exceptional?

We can't deny we are the lucky ones. How could we, when our parents' dinner-table reminiscences are history lessons, underscoring the gulf between their lives and ours? In moving from kampung childhoods to the matrimonial flat, their story is Singapore's story.


Young people glued to their smartphones and mobile devices while travelling on the MRT. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

So even despite the fact that not everyone today has a cushy middle-class upbringing, it is true that most of my generation will never face the bread-and-butter struggles our parents and grandparents did.

Such is the result of Singapore's breakneck economic progress and the explosion of its middle class. Compared to previous generations, a much larger proportion of Gen Y were born into prosperity - not to mention a country of gleaming infrastructure, imported frippery and air-conditioning.

As National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan puts it: "One of the reasons why (Gen Y) has been negatively labelled is that people hark back to the environment of the 1960s, and comfort conditions are very different now."

Education has opened more pathways for us. In 2013, more than half of those aged 25 to 35 had university degrees, compared to just over a fifth of those aged 45 to 54.

But criticising us for all this good fortune seems to miss the point. Parents want their children to lead better lives than they did. In our apparently selfish pursuit of happiness, we are doing exactly that. We want to explore the opportunities which we are lucky enough to have, instead of keeping our heads down and noses to the grindstone.

Poet Tse Hao Guang, 27, notes that we were raised under this paradigm, "one where children were encouraged to develop their full potential, be anything they wanted to be, et cetera".

Perhaps older generations’ tendency to despair about “the youth of today”, whenever “today” might be, is due to misapplying an earlier era’s expectations.

Mr Hidhir Razak, 25, who is studying for a master's in English, says: "We grew up in a stable, prosperous environment and so we actually dared to say 'I prefer not to' when asked to give up some of our passions and dreams."

So our demands for work-life balance come not from a lack of hunger, but quite the opposite: the greediness of wanting to have it all.

At the same time, the numbers show that young Singaporeans are not the skivers they have been made out to be. According to the "Labour Force in Singapore" report in January, workers aged 25 to 29 put in an average of 45 hours per week, just half an hour less than those aged 30 to 49.

What looks like laziness to older generations is actually a doubled enthusiasm: not just for work, but pursuits outside it.

Says Mr Hidhir: "Many of us lead double lives; teachers, accountants, lawyers, students by day, and singers, poets, travellers, and food critics by night."

Nor are we necessarily that weak. Though we grew up with less hardship, we also faced new demands.

Older generations bemoan Gen Y's fragility, yet decry the pressure- cooker education system that we somehow managed to survive. And they worry, on our behalf, about the fierce competition in the working world today.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser points out that when people refer to Gen Y, what is usually meant is "not just young people, but also those from middle-class families".

These are people from comfortable backgrounds who enjoy material indulgences - and may thus find it hard to meet their own high aspirations and expectations, he adds.

"In short, most of those in Gen Y recognise that they can't afford to slacken, if they want to maintain the lifestyle they have tasted," he says.

So can we be trusted to take Singapore into its next 50 years? Arguably, we can - at least as much as any past generation could be.

Indeed, because life keeps improving, pampered youth have long been a source of worry for their tougher predecessors. Consider this description of a problem generation: "self-centred, sheltered and materialistic", "too absorbed with material things... and (caring) little about how the Republic had succeeded or its limitations".

That was how post-65ers - those born after independence, who are now sober 40-somethings - were described two decades ago (1996). In 2035, my peers will doubtless be writing hand-wringing op-eds about people born in the 2000s.

Perhaps the tendency of older generations to despair about "the youth of today", whenever "today" might be, is due to misapplying an earlier era's expectations.

My generation's resilience is a different sort: not a diligent acceptance of back-breaking work, but a refusal to accept that that is the only route to success.

Today's world, which prizes productivity and working smart, even makes a virtue out of our tedium-shunning ways.

Besides, even as we honour older generations, we should not mythologise them. Most ordinary people who worked hard in earlier times were not aiming to "put the nation first", but simply to put food on the table and raise a family. Asked if they had grander goals, they are likely to laugh at the idea.

Similarly, even if today's youth are living allegedly self-absorbed, leisure-pursuing lives, they too can contribute to progress. Those trapped in the rat race may be decried as materialistic, but their efforts keep the economy moving. Those who opt out may be branded lazy, but their other pursuits form a richer national tapestry.

After all, what is the point of being a garden city if no one stops to smell the roses? Singapore can afford its share of artists and hipsters, its weekend partiers and doting parents who rush home from work.

This is not to defend selfishness, but to recognise that the act of building a nation can take many forms.

Says Professor Tan: "I would argue that when Singaporeans of whichever generation do their part to take care of themselves, their close relations, and the wider social networks they are embedded in... they would have, even if unintended, contributed to a better Singapore."

So even in the worst-case scenario of a generation that is guilty as charged, our self-interested efforts could still help to maintain Singapore's improbable success.

It will not be the success of a developing young nation built through sweat and blood, which our parents achieved, but that of a maturing global city that flourishes through diverse notions of success, where quality of life is measured not just in public amenities, but private leisure.

Move away from the worst-case scenario, and Singapore's future looks even brighter. Not all of us are lost causes. There are still young Singaporeans who consciously set out to do their part for society, even if this might not take the Government's preferred form of joining politics or the public service.

Research analyst Amanda Quey, 23, helps out at Meet-the-People sessions but is uninterested in party politics. "I just want to do what I can," she says. "I don't think that requires joining politics."

Ms Aditi Shivaramakrishnan, 26, who works in marketing and is a civil society volunteer, says: "I feel a sense of responsibility to think about what I can do for others, and for the community that I'm engaged in."

We put in the hours at work, but not too many, for our parents always said that we should not have to work as hard as they did. We volunteer because we realise how much we owe to others.

And, yes, we also have fun. We try to live the fullest lives we can, for that is what Singapore's improbable success has made possible for us, the generation of "good-life kids".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'The Pioneers' improbable heirs'. Print Edition | Subscribe