I GREW UP in Singapore in the 90s.
It was an interesting time, economically and socially. As an economy, we were reaping the growth rewards of the foresight of our fathers. As an export-oriented economy, we were able to engineer extremely strong economic growth, with annual GDP growth of approximately 7–8% from 1990 to 2000. These numbers would be unthinkable post 2010.
This meant that there was rising affluence throughout the country. As the world became increasingly globalised, we were able to entrench ourselves as a key port, a manufacturing hub, and a financial centre in the region. Economically, we were getting wealthier relative to our neighbours in the region, and as a boy growing up, it was impossible not to feel some of the changes reverberating.
My earliest memories as a boy involved days where I spent my days in my grandparents’ HDB flat in Hougang, my time waiting for the school bus, and my primary school in a secluded area in Lorong Chuan.
It was also a time where we only had 2 subway lines (the East-West line and the North-South line), where bus stops were tin-roofed, and public buses were without air-conditioned. There was also no Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. We spent our downtime in malls, and shopped at department stores like Yaohan, Daimaru and Robinsons.
It was a different, more analogue time, and despite the pressure that came to anyone in the Singapore education system, it was an idyllic existence for the 10-year-old me. As a child, I had the time to learn the piano, play football, roam the playgrounds and visit arcades to hone my video gaming skills.
Culturally, despite our multi-racial and multicultural creed, Singapore was relatively insular and homogenous.
The “great expatriate movement” was in its early days, and as globalisation in its 21st century form hasn’t taken off, there was a very distinct Singaporean identity. It was a peaceful time, and looking back at the literature of the period, words like “stability” and “continuity” were used to describe the country frequently.
The early 2000s, for me were relatively similar to the late 90s. The internet was still in its early days (think of dial-up modems), and social media was practically non-existent, save for Friendster and a very early version of Facebook that only came into the mainstream towards the end of the decade. However, a part of me remembered how the academic pressure on me was becoming a tad crippling, and Singapore as a society was becoming increasingly competitive and at a subtle level, changing.
Perhaps the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 played a part. I was nonetheless too young to draw parallels between the global economic situation and the increasingly competitive nature of my academic life.
I went to New Zealand in 2011 for university, and I came back to a different Singapore. Perhaps it was because of a good amount of “sepia-tinted” nostalgia, or that deep down, Singapore as a society and economy underwent a shift in its composition and direction.
It was a period where the government had focused on transforming the economy away from a low cost manufacturing hub to a “knowledge based economy”. We did our best to transition to a full-fledged financial centre, a biomedical hub, in line with an increasingly populated Singapore. Perhaps it was a product of growing up, but peak hours in the 2000s was drastically different from the 90s, where trains were less crowded, and roads were emptier.
Singapore had become crowded, and coming back from New Zealand, there was a degree of social and physical oppressiveness that never used to exist.
Folks in my parents’ generation often speak nostalgically about the “kampung spirit”, a time of communal living and engagement that characterised Singapore throughout the 70s and 80s, and how we have so little of it in the concrete jungle today. There are many times that I feel that I am an oddity in modern Singapore, especially in my stubborn refusal to “fit in” and get stuck in societal conventions of what happiness means (i.e. getting married, settling down, having kids, etc etc).
MERITOCRACY is a political system where economic power and/or political power is distributed and vested in individuals based on talent, achievement and effort rather than wealth and social class. It is also a fundamental bedrock of how Singapore’s society is ordered (at least theoretically). When Michael Dunlop Young coined the term in 1958 in his satirical and dystopian novel, he would never have imagined that it could manifest and transform how we view societal order today.
I was brought up (like most Singaporean children in the 90s) that the way to a figurative bright future was to study hard, do well in my examinations, get a university degree, and a good career will inevitably dangle itself in front my bright, idealistic eyes.
Perhaps it worked well in the 90s/early 2000s, and the tuition industry was not the billion-dollar industry it was today. There was less of a pressure cooker environment — we just studied really hard, and accepted whatever fate threw in the way. We were a lot more easygoing.
When I came back from New Zealand however, I saw this side of meritocracy where perhaps I was a tad blindsided by in my earlier, formative years. In a bid to “outperform” their peers, children today go through a gamut of “enrichment classes”, from mathematics, science, to piano playing, tennis stringing, and pottery.
Michael Dunlop Young’s dystopian vision of meritocracy has come true — and the childhood that I had growing up will never be fully experienced by those growing up today. This sign encapsulates everything that has gone awry -
Even today, there is an incredible social pressure to fit in — to have a “respectable career”, to have your life in order, to be part of the Singapore story, and to be “in line” with your schooling peers are doing.
As Singapore becomes increasingly crowded and competitive (every one has a university degree, has multiple “hustle” projects, and a grievous amount of self sustaining motivational mantras), a part of me remains fearful that I will never fully fit in the Singapore narrative.
The Covid-19 years (2020/2021/2022) brought home some of the inequalities that we have seen manifest in Singapore society over the past few decades. We have seen, first hand, how different segments of society are affected by the pandemic disproportionately. It gave us a first hand view of meritocracy’s dark side.
When inequalities manifest, increased xenophobia and tribal instincts take over. It is my personal observation that many lines that we perceive split society, such as race, nationalities, etc are deep down a class division. It boils downs to the eternal conflict between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and can spill over in the form of expressed xenophobic tendencies, classists perspectives, and ultimately, anti-globalisation mentalities.
Globally, the rise of right-wing political and economic movements simply illustrate the point.
For many years, there was the belief (and hope) that as Singapore moved forward with the winds of globalisation, our boats would rise in tandem. However, reality moved in a bit of a different direction. While the economy has risen as a whole, it has not come at a cost. Income inequality (like many developed nations) have risen over the years, and the net result of economic development is that a segment of society has become progressively worse off relative to other parts of society.
As a millennial Singaporean brought up on the lessons of “study hard, find a good job, and you will succeed”, a part of me inevitably feels that such inequality and “outcomes” are but a by-product of our iteration of meritocracy. In essence, people are where “they deserve” because they didn’t “work as hard” as I did.
Does this view continue to hold water today?
Teo You Yenn’s seminal book — This Is What Inequality Looks Like; challenges almost all facets of these assumptions. It illustrates the structural challenges that lower income families face when raising families, it talks about how our version of meritocracy is flawed and too narrowly defined, and how we place an overt amount of importance on academic success in the minds of our next generation.
What do I hope for Singapore then?
The straight answer is — more equality, more open-mindedness, and a tad more compassion.
We often hear the adage that Singaporeans are “Kiasu”, an attitude borne out of the desire to stand out and outperform one’s peers, in school, in life and in general, everything. In that, we manifest the worst of our tendencies, including the need to be selfish, to put ourselves before others, and to “game the system” and win at all cost.
In an ideal world, I hope we can be defined by a different set of values — with inclusiveness, compassion, openness, and above all, selflessness.
Starting with inclusiveness, it is an ideal beyond tolerance, but an embracing of the idea that not everyone wants to live the default Singaporean dream, that many are different, or choose to be different, and that academic success merely means a narrow band of the “ideal life”.
In a compassionate society, it is also about not assuming the worst in people, and that starts with legislative behaviour — for instance, we can cut down the amount of red tape and bureaucracy (cue “means testing”) for those who are seeking aid or welfare (either in the midst of unemployment or personal crisis). Ultimately, legislative action shapes behaviour, and not everyone seeing help is “gaming the system”.
As someone who is proudly Singaporean, I hope that ultimately, Singapore can be more than a home for some, but a home for all who choose to call it home — where they feel valued, a sense of belonging, no matter their station in life.
After all, it is in our values that we will find the strength to fight for our country in the times of need, and they have to stand for something beyond academic and career success.