In defense of young Singaporean adults

~by: Eugene Lim~

I write in response to “The young Singaporean adult” by Ng Kai Ling & Stacey Chia (The Straits Times, Home Section, Page B4, 2 Feb 2012). 

The accusations about Singapore youth lacking drive and being unwilling to step out of their comfort zone are overstated and shows a clear distinction between the high chair of policy-making and on-the-ground reality. This is in response to the statements made by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and comments from various CEOs in a forum held in SMU.

I seek to clarify each claim with due fairness in defense of Singapore youth.

1. The Lack of Drive

Firstly, this phrase requires much more clarification so as to prevent parties from arguing past each other. If by ‘drive’, Mr Heng refers to doing your best in what one is doing, then this comment will almost certainly not fall through. With reference to students in SMU, most  are hard workers. Some describe every semester as a battle as part of the ‘war’ to get their degrees. If students lack drive, they will not be able to pull through the heavy workload filled with presentations, term papers and examinations. According to the teaching pedagogy of SMU, the seminar-styled lessons are structured in a challenging and interactive manner. If these are not enough, one can always take a trip to the library during examination period and it will not be hard to find someone who has yet to go home since the day before.

On top of the workload described, one need not look hard to find a glimpse of the youth doing what they love to do. That is passion and it is undeniable that passion is a formidable ‘drive’. Across Singapore, there are more youths who are willing and daring to express and pursue their passion. They could be in the field of art, drama, sports and many other interests. However, from the way our education system is structured, pursuing these ‘unconventional’ paths is not strongly encouraged and many are forced to go ‘mainstream’ from a very young age. Without passion, there can be no drive. Period.

2. Too concerned about grades

Being a capitalistic society and a government that is market oriented, grades are an important determinant of one’s ‘success’ in the context of Singapore. This is the truth (sadly). I would not deny that most Singaporean youths (especially in tertiary institutions) rank grades as a top priority because I know for a fact that we do. However, rather than pointing fingers as youths, it is wise to examine the underlying reasons for this phenomenon.

The education system is focused more on what brings home the bacon as compared to what is actually important for character and knowledge building. Despite the rhetoric by the government about a more holistic education and the importance of non-curriculum achievements, employment in Singapore (especially public sector) is still largely based on academic performance. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed a cut-off of a second upper honors or GPA of 3.4 to apply for a position. If one does not fulfill the criteria as stated, one is not even allow to attend the career talk, not to mention being unable to try to apply. The government’s stand (as shown by the ministerial pay issue) remains one that favors elitism vis-à-vis academics performance.

Strong competition in the private sector such as the banking and finance sector follows the lead of the government and often imposes cut-offs. Although employment in the private sector is more flexible and takes into account many other factors, the focus on grades remains strong. Most of the time non-curriculum achievements are ‘besides the fact’.

Take a step back and put yourself in the shoes of a Singaporean youth; what is the best strategy to secure employment upon graduation? It is therefore a no-brainer why there is a grade-oriented culture among the youths. The point of this argument is not about the negative aspects of elitism. I’m trying to examine the validity and fairness of the criticisms made on youths who are just trying to act rationally and pragmatically in a rigid system built on the basis of outdated standards of excellence.

In this system, many intelligent and street-smart youths with ‘less-than-celebrated’ grades are deemed to have ‘failed the mark’. Yet, these are the people you want to get in both the corporate and public sector to lead. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and irresponsible behavior for the employers (i.e. CEOs) to complain about the ‘lack of drive and willingness to face challenges’ in youth when the people who possess the qualities they want are rejected in the first place.

3. Risk Averse

Being a Cambridge-trained economist, it is disappointing that Education Minister Heng Swee Keat failed to identify with the force that drives human behavior: incentives. For a rational human to determine whether he/she wants to carry out an action, he/she will begin a process of costs and benefits analysis. If the costs outweigh the benefits, there are no gains/benefits that will make him/her carry out the action.

If the youths are comfortable in a stable country with a good social network, it will take a lot to convince him/her to move out of his/her so called ‘comfort zone’. Situations drive people too. Trying to form the argument of a ‘risk averse Singapore youth’ by comparing with youths from other countries indicates a fallacious argument, failing to take into account of difference in background and settings.

Singapore youth vis-à-vis Chinese/Indian youth

Why do youths from China and India seem to be more risk-taking and willing to get out of their ‘comfort zones’? Simple. Their ‘comfort zones’ are not comfortable enough. There are fierce internal competition for university slots and jobs which act as push factors. Living conditions for most in these developing countries are not exactly ‘world-class’. In other words, they have a lot of incentive to leave their countries in search of a better life. If you compared that to a typical Singaporean youth, the contrast is big. I agree that a typical Singaporean youth is more comfortable than his/her counterpart in China or India. This diminishes the marginal gain for a Singaporean youth to venture out, thus few expressed such desires. This, again, is a rational choice. Nothing logically wrong.

Singapore youth vis-à-vis American youth

It is insensitive to comment on how certain aspects of the American culture are more ‘superior’ to that of ours. In this context, the attention was given to how American youths leave home at a young age and ‘take charge’. Once again, there is a failure to notice the difference in settings.

Singapore’s housing are not structured in a way for singles (which many youths are). Obtaining public housing and subsequent loans are usually approved only upon marriage. Foreigners who are unable to own property hike up rental prices. So, with what means can Singaporean youths ‘leave the nest at the age of 18’? Our culture is one that emphasis kinship and people typically move out of their parents’ place after they are married.

Leaving the nest early comes with associated cost. Youth needs to work to pay rent and perform more domestic tasks. How do Singapore youths in a highly demanding curriculum afford time to do that alongside a strong emphasis on grades? Is the government willing to accept youths who are less rigorously trained academically in exchange for more ‘taking charge of one’s life at a younger age”? In a recent report, the U.S ranked 14th for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics among the 34 OECD countries. Just saying.

Bringing the spotlight back on Singaporean youth, not all are risk averse and not willing to go out of their comfort zone. Increasingly more youths opt for overseas exchange programs and internships. Many Singapore youths recognized the emergence of a highly globalized market place and choices are plentiful abroad as well. Yet, support for such overseas venture remains weak. With the many references made to other countries from the CEOs, I shall make one to suit the trend. Students in the EU who wishes to take part in Erasmus (overseas exchange program) are able to obtain allowance from the state. Some can be as high as SGD4000 per month. This allowance relieves some of the cost of international exposure through exchange programs. Therefore, what remains is how the government can encourage youths to take action, not sob about it.