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     FrontPage Edition: Mon 31 July 2006

Of young Singaporeans then and now


An Excerpt
...I was in Raffles Institution from 1972 to 1977. It was a different world from the one that you are growing up in.
No mobile phone, no internet and no ipod. The photocopying machine was then considered cutting-edge technology. (After I left school, the fax came along and we worshipped it as a wonder of modern communications.)
The classroom was not air-conditioned. No Nike Air. No Dry-Fit T-shirt.
When I first represented RI in the sprints for the City District Championship in 1973, I borrowed my friend¡¯s spikes for the finals. It must have helped as I got silver for both events and our 4 X 100m Relay team broke the ¡°C¡± division record.
Organised trips abroad by the school were rare. Our hope for overseas adventures rested on securing a scholarship to study abroad. The first time I took a jet plane was as a shaven-haired army cadet to Taiwan.
As for assembly talks, we had guest speakers but unlike your ¡°interactive¡± talks; they did all the talking, we did all the listening and no one thought that we might want to ask them some questions.
My teachers were more concerned that we did not fall asleep during the session. This I am told is one of those things that have resisted change as this generation of students is also similarly afflicted.
A few years ago, RI invited me as a guest speaker and I was grilled for more than an hour by an unending stream of secondary students.
They were bright, articulate and I believe different from my generation. They have a different world view.
They place greater importance on what sociologists would call post-materialist values such as self-expression, greater political participation and quality of life.
I don¡¯t think that this is simply a generation gap issue. If it is, then as these young Singaporeans grow older, they would be more like the older ones which place greater emphasis on economic security issues.
What we may well be seeing is an inter-generational shift in value priorities. This is because the post-independence generation has grown up under much more secure formative conditions.
This is not a reason for acute alarm. It simply means that if this shift indeed takes place, we will have a different society over time.
In fact, I think that it is good that you are different because I believe that you need a less deferential frame of mind towards authority to succeed in a world where the premium is on creativity and out of the box thinking.
It is in this spirit, that I would like to make three arguments against what seem to be the prevailing wisdom of the day.
First, is the proposition that ¡°Singaporeans lack the romantic spirit of adventure¡±.
When I was young, one of my favourite quotes was from Lee Kuan Yew.
In September 1965, a month after independence had been thrust upon us, he declared to an anxious nation, ¡°A hundred years ago, this was a mud flat. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!¡±
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, his words struck a chord with me. It appealed to my youthful idealism that we would succeed against all odds.
There is no mountain so high that we cannot conquer it if we are determined to succeed.
We built a modern industrial economy from a colonial entrepot by welcoming multinational companies to our shores when it was unfashionable to do so.
Today, this policy is emulated throughout the developing world. We are a major oil refining centre even though we have no oil of our own. We have one of the best airlines in the world in spite of our tiny population.
So contrary to what you often hear ¨C that Singaporeans lack the romantic spirit ¨C our very national character is animated with a spirit of derring-do without which we would not be where we are today.
Second, is the view, that ¡°the opportunities today are much less for your generation¡±. The good life is getting out of reach because globalization has made competition that much tougher and getting ahead that much more difficult.
Is it true that the best is over? Not for a moment should you believe this. The truth is far from it.
Yes, competition is tougher because of globalisation. But globalisation has also enormously expanded opportunities through market liberalisation and integration.
Just take careers for instance. When I grew up, they were more limited. Because families had less, many had to go for the beaten track rather than pursue what would then have been regarded as esoteric dreams such as being a singer, actor or entrepreneur.
But today, you can be a famous singer like Stephanie Sun with an Asia-wide appeal, or an actress like Beatrice Chia whose accomplishments include being judged best actress, director and playwright in the Life! Theatre Awards, or a doctor turned entrepreneur like Dr Loo Choon Yong who was not content to being just a GP and went on to build a significant healthcare business in Singapore.
And you may wish to note that they are all Rafflesians! These careers are made possible because in an increasingly integrated world economy, the demand is there for a diversity of services and goods - and you can find fame, fortune and fulfilment in any one of them.
What about China and India? They are the biggest story of this new century.
Two giant economies with more than a billion people each and home to 40% of the world's population. They are now joining the global economy and making up for lost time with a vigour that leaves one breathless in trying to keep up with them.
Many Singaporeans who visit and work in China come back shell shocked. Will they wipe us and other small economies out of the economic landscape? I think not. Yes, they are a challenge.
But as any Economics 101 student will tell you, that even if China can produce everything that we can cheaper than us, there is still room for us to grow and prosper as it is comparative rather than absolute advantage that is critical for trade.
So we need to find our niches and ride these two giant stars of Asia. And because we are geographically situated at the confluence of these emerging economic powerhouses, and intimately understand their cultures, we are well positioned to ride their updraft and fly higher than we ever have before.
So the opportunities are there. It is what we make of them.
Third, is the belief that ¡°there are no more great causes to fight for.¡±
All the big and important things to build Singapore as a successful country have already been done ¨C by the generation that fought for independence and the generation that grew up during Singapore¡¯s economic transformation. There is not much more to do except to keep improving things at the margin.
Again, I think not. The years ahead will be both challenging and exciting. We have not arrived.
We must constantly tell ourselves that even as we reach one mountain peak, our thoughts and sights must be to scale the next higher peak. This is because there is no permanent advantage in whatever we do. The world is fast-forwarding at an unprecedented pace powered by globalization and the digital revolution.
The big challenge for us is to stay ever more flexible and adaptable to constant change, so that even though we are only a little red dot, we are continuously relevant to this world in flux.
The challenges are not just external. In fact, the internal challenges may be even more important.
What is the impact on the ties that bind our society when increasingly more and more people are connected and identify with virtual communities that transcend our national boundary?
What does it mean for the governance of our country when the internet creates pressures for more direct participation on policies without the traditional mediating process of debate, deliberation and compromise inherent in our system of representative government?
How do we deal with the social consequences of a widening income gap between the top and bottom of our society caused by the very forces that underpin our economic success ¨C liberalization and globalisation?
What is more, it makes a world of difference whether you are addressing these issues from the perspective of a nation with several hundred years of history to that with only 41 years since independence.
So contrary to what some of you may think, the real challenges in bringing Singapore to the next plane of development are only beginning. There is so much for your generation to do...

Full Text of Speech

Source: Press Release 29 Jul 2006

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