Regina Tan
Aug 25, 2016

SG51: What’s next for Singapore?

It's a myth that Singapore's young people are not interested in the fate of the nation. The question is whether brands are missing a trick when it comes to engaging with this group.

Regina Tan
Regina Tan

Singapore's SG50 celebration was all about looking backwards to consider how far the nation has come. SG51 panned out to be a critical turning point for Singapore to look ahead into the next 50 years. This was one of the most important points that prime minister Lee Hsien Loong wanted to bring across in his National Day Rally speech, which he wrapped up by saying, “What I would like to have is that we be blessed with a divine discontent. Always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”

Curious about how young Singaporeans feel about the future, Flamingo Singapore, in collaboration with Tapestry, undertook a qualitative and quantitative enquiry earlier this year.

Before going into the research, we were aware of various perceived wisdom about young Singaporeans. One in particular labels them 'the Strawberry generation': self-interested, sheltered, with a sense of entitlement and not given to worrying much about the future of the nation.

When we spoke to young Singaporeans, however, we found a surprising level of engagement in the question of Singapore’s future. Eighty percent of them are proud to be Singaporean. In fact, they feel markedly more invested in shaping Singapore’s future than the cohort aged 36 and above. Social commentator Sudhir Vadaketh attributes this to their need to seek out an identity for themselves, a need that’s come about through their exposure to different communities around the world and a consequent belief that something is missing from the Singaporean experience.

The ground-up movements that have begun to sprout, led by young Singaporeans, exemplify this sense of engagement. URA’s PARK(ing) Day saw young people coming up with ideas to transform underutilised parking spots into spaces for cultural exchange, with food, street art, children’s play areas, yoga and meditation sessions and even free hairdressing on offer.

These attitudinal shifts seem to be linked to changing conceptions of success today. Money and status are no longer the sole markers of success. Personal satisfaction, happiness, and positive relationships with family and friends are significantly more important than the familiar goals of money, property and cars. In fact, more than half of the young Singaporeans we spoke to claim to be looking for careers where they can help drive positive change in society.

They’re rejecting the 'progress anxiety' that their parents faced, where dreams, aspirations and passions are sacrificed for career and money, and where life starts only after retirement. And the changing shape of the economy is helping them along. A more fluid and diverse job market is providing new outlets for self expression. Fluidity and diversity are positive in the eyes of deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who recently spoke about how the country is seeing a blurring of lines between the academic and practical, between degree and non-degree holders, between white-collar and blue-collar workers. This kind of pronouncement, right from the top, makes it clear that there is a re-think going on as to what might be lacking in the social fabric. Lee Kuan Yew famously said, “poetry is a luxury that we cannot afford.” But tomorrow’s thinking seems to see poetry (or some form of it) as rather necessary.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Today, a new wave of ethically attuned young people is actively contributing its time to make a difference to society. If we look at who is leading the charge in driving social purpose, it seems to be the government, non-profit organisations and passionate individuals. Are brands and businesses missing a trick here? Can brands be doing more to engage and connect with what young people are concerned about today?

We think there’s an opportunity for brands in Singapore to differentiate through their social-purpose conceptions and thereby engage with young consumers who are demanding that companies should have a positive impact on society.

Beyond the government narrative of sustainable progress and improvement, there seems to be a bigger question that young people are posing: What is our purpose?

Singaporean priorities are shifting away from the (arguably unhealthy) obsession with wealth to something more nuanced, something to do with what we might call meaning. Young Singaporeans are now pursuing what really matters. They are driving initiatives that benefit wider community groups. And they are more vocal and active in addressing societal issues that were previously taboo.

SG51 is an exciting inflection point for Singapore as we start to tackle these harder questions. Do we want to be known only for our efficiency and pragmatism and our money-making nous? Or do we—as a truly diverse nation—have even more to show the world in the 50 years to come?

Regina Tan is director and head of Singapore practice at Flamingo

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