Thinking Aloud

Singapore's shifting values

Less concern about physical needs, more appreciation of post-materialist values

This SG50 year has been jam-packed with events from start to finish and yet, the Asean Para Games (APG) that ended last week more than held its own against the rest. It proved a fitting cap to a year of celebration and reflection on Singapore's journey thus far and where this nation wants to go from here.

I experienced the Games vicariously through the wonderful stories by my colleagues at The Straits Times sports desk and through the accounts of a friend who was an APG volunteer. She spent days at the Sports Hub providing technical support during the matches and races. I was amazed by how animated she became when describing the way the athletes - who each have a physical disability - played their hearts out, getting up again and again after falling, checking on their opponents after collisions and inspiring spectators with their determination, sporting spirit and generosity.

Her sentiments were echoed by Ms Eileen Ng, who wrote to The Straits Times Forum page about taking her children to the games.

"It was humbling and inspiring to witness people with disabilities overcome all odds in order to move their bodies to meet the sporting challenge... I have taken my children to participate in many activities during the holidays, but I must say, this one day spent at the Asean Para Games was the most enjoyable and meaningful of all," she said.

People's response to these Games set me thinking about the values that we, as a society, hold close to our hearts, and how these have evolved in the 50 years since independence.


Critics of the Singapore system have long bemoaned the materialism of this society; the preoccupation of the majority with physical security and material comfort, at the expense of individual freedoms including self-expression and even self-determination. There have been periods in Singapore's history when individuals, and the human values they championed, have been sacrificed in a bid to preserve the stability and security needed for economic growth.

Even when those years were past, Singapore society remained elitist rather than inclusive, carefully husbanding resources to focus on developing the best and the brightest, which tended to exclude those with disabilities - whether physical or mental. The slow shift towards a more inclusive society began perhaps two decades ago and has gained momentum in the last 10 years.

As a society becomes wealthier, and Singapore today has a level of per capita income that is among the highest in the world, there is an expectation that its values will shift towards what may be termed post-materialist ones.

Post-materialism is a concept in sociology that describes a value orientation that emphasises self-expression, quality of life and other non-material values over economic and physical security. The term post-materialism was first coined by American social scientist Ronald Inglehart in his 1977 book, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values And Political Styles Among Western Publics.

In a 2000 essay, Professor Inglehart explained that back in 1970, he hypothesised that the post-war generation in Western Europe would have different value priorities from older generations, because they had been brought up under much more secure conditions.

"While the generations that had experienced World War II, the Great Depression, and World War I would give top priority to economic and physical security, a growing share of the younger generation would give top priority to self-expression and the quality of life," he wrote.

His research was guided by two key hypotheses:

  • A scarcity hypothesis. An individual's priorities reflect the socioeconomic environment. One places the greatest subjective value on those things that are in relatively short supply.
  • A socialisation hypothesis. The relationship between socioeconomic environment and value priorities is not one of immediate adjustment; a substantial time lag is involved for one's basic values reflect the conditions that prevailed during one's pre-adult years.

"Taken together, these two hypotheses generate a set of predictions concerning value change," Prof Inglehart explained.

"First, while the scarcity hypothesis implies that prosperity is conducive to the spread of post-materialist values, the socialisation hypothesis implies that neither an individual's values nor those of a society as a whole will change overnight. For the most part, fundamental value change takes place as younger birth cohorts replace older ones in the adult population of a society.

"Consequently, after a long period of rising economic and physical security, one should find substantial differences between the value priorities of older and younger groups; they have been shaped by different experiences in their formative years," he said.

His predictions were borne out by surveys first carried out in 1970 and then in subsequent years in Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.

In Singapore, there are nascent signs of that inter-generational shift in the way the values of some millennials differ from those of many of their elders.

In this year's National Day Special, my colleague Janice Heng, who is in her 20s, wrote in an essay with the headline "The Pioneers' improbable heirs" of her generation's pursuit of happiness.

"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?" she said.

As for her peers who have stepped off the treadmill of material advancement, she wrote: "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." Indeed it can and the mark of a maturing society is that it has room for citizens to flourish in their own ways.

Of course some of those who subscribe to post-materialist values may have interpreted the results of this year's general election as a disheartening shift back to materialist values.

Yet another possible interpretation is that they reflected the success of measures by the People's Action Party to cater to certain post-materialist values, such as respect for the individual and political participation.

The experience of other countries has also shown that movements towards post-materialism involve back-and-forth swings, with prolonged periods of prosperity tending to encourage the spread of post-materialist values and economic decline having the opposite effect.

It is not only the young who appreciate the intangibles in life. Many older Singaporeans are also tempering their materialist values, thanks to education and yes, exposure to younger cohorts with different perspectives.

Every society needs a mix of both sets of values and it is good that those who hold different views can help society find the right balance for Singapore's second half-century.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore's shifting values ThinkingAloud'. Print Edition | Subscribe