As Singaporeans tire of rat race, incoming PM reimagines ‘Singapore Dream’

Prime Minister-in-waiting Lawrence Wong says residents are looking for more out of life than material success.

Singapore is one of the richest countries on earth [Roslan Rahman/AFP]

Singapore – For three decades, Singaporean corporate lawyer Gerald Yeo* chased the so-called Singapore Dream.

He climbed the ranks to become general counsel, managing a team of lawyers on a six-figure monthly salary.

Sometimes he would rack up 20 hours at work handling calls with clients and colleagues in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

When COVID-19 forced employees to start working from home, Yeo put in even more face-time online – until he suffered burnout and swapped the rat race for retirement in early 2021.

These days, Yeo volunteers with the elderly, dabbles in photography and indulges his love of travel, with jaunts that have taken him to the North Pole and Africa to spot gorillas.

“In Singapore, it’s drilled into our minds to pursue excellence, and you can’t slack off  …We are always ‘on’. You have the mindset that you’re serving the corporation but without knowing, you slip into doing too much,” Yeo, who is in his 50s, told Al Jazeera.

Yeo is among a growing cohort of Singaporeans who are seeking to reimagine the Singapore Dream as being less about achieving material success and more about finding meaning and fulfilment.

Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting, Lawrence Wong, is among those who argue the time has come for the city-state’s residents to look beyond money and work.

After the launch of a report on residents’ views on the future of the social compact in October, Wong said Singaporeans today “no longer talk so much about the five Cs” – referring to a condominium, car, cash, credit card and country club membership.

“From our engagements, it is also clear the Singapore Dream is more than just material success,” Wong, who is deputy prime minister and finance minister, said at the launch of a festival based on the findings of a 16-month consultation involving more than 200,000 Singaporeans.

“It is also about fulfilment, meaning and purpose in what we do. This is not a top-down government agenda. This is very much a shared consensus, a co-created road map for our next round of nation building.”

Singapore, whose government tightly controls displays of dissent and political activism by the population, is on the cusp of a major political transition.

Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 72 — the eldest son of Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew — is this month stepping down from the helm of the tiny city-state after two decades in office.

On May 15, Wong will be sworn in as Singapore’s fourth prime minister.

Lawrence Wong
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is stepping down to be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong [Rodger Bosch and Julien De Rosa/AFP]

Under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, Singapore transitioned from poverty to prosperity within a generation of gaining its independence from Malaysia in 1965.

Today, Singapore has a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than the United States and its residents enjoy some of the highest living standards on earth.

While Singapore’s success has been credited to a culture of competition and hard work, the city-state has also gained a notorious reputation as one of the most overworked, stressed-out and strait-laced societies in the world.

But there are signs that priorities are beginning to shift.

In a survey carried out in October by the Institute of Policy Studies, more than half of Singaporeans said they would accept lower pay or a less senior role to benefit their family or personal life.

Wong, who gained plaudits for his handling of the country’s pandemic response, has been seen as Lee’s successor since April 2022, when the long-dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) chose him as head of its team of “4G”, or fourth generation, leaders.

A former technocrat, Wong emerged as a dark horse for the premiership after the PAP’s first choice, Heng Swee Keat, a former central bank chief and education minister, stepped aside in 2021 citing age and health issues.

Wong, a self-professed fan of playing the guitar and listening to rock, blues and soul, has admitted to not harbouring any grand political ambitions and has been portrayed in international media as being more relatable than as is typical of Singapore’s governing elites.

A spokesperson for Wong declined a request for comment, citing his busy schedule.

Donald Low, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies Singaporean governance, said that Singapore cannot simply prioritise GDP growth or emulate other more advanced societies or economies going forward.

“This is not because Singapore has nothing to learn from other countries. Rather, it’s because Singapore is now at the leading edge of development and it’d have to chart its own future…The country must harness the creativity and ingenuity of its people – to a far greater degree than the PAP government has been used to,” Low told Al Jazeera.

Low said that while he hopes Wong can oversee “small but much-needed changes” in Singapore’s political culture, it is unlikely he will do much to satisfy Singaporeans’ desire for the government to embrace greater diversity and representation – or better tolerate dissent and criticism.

“Because the party leadership is not emotionally convinced that there is much merit in what the critics or dissenters have to say – a consequence of its elitism and high-handedness – I don’t see any significant shifts in the way the PAP conducts politics,” he said.

Singapore is known for its workaholic culture [Edgar Su/Reuters]

Chong Ja Ian, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore, said that more Singaporeans are expressing interest in issues beyond monetary and material success – including the environment, meaningful political participation and diversity – which may shape their career plans and how they devote their money, time and energy.

Chong said that while the PAP has been trying to soften its image and engage more with younger people, it is “less clear when and whether such contact and image management have translated into concrete changes in policy”.

Chong pointed out that Wong has largely stressed continuity.

“Whether and how he intends to move in a clearer and bolder direction on these issues – especially how he transforms general principles and ideas into specific and concrete policies – remains to be seen,” he said.

Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University, said the Forward SG initiative to rejuvenate the social compact should be seen as an “attempt to strike the balance between material and post-material concerns”.

“Going beyond material concerns to balancing that with post-material aspirations – fairness, social justice, egalitarianism, national identity – is not just about putting in place and financing measures that support the policy shifts identified in the Forward SG report,” Tan told Al Jazeera.

“It is a fundamental mindset shift requiring tangible behavioural changes and committed action that will take years before the outcomes would be evident. The question is will Singaporeans be prepared to wait patiently.”

Tan said that announcements in the 2024 Budget, such as financial incentives for graduates of the Institute of Technical Education, which provides vocational training to post-secondary students, are an important first and necessary step.

Still, Tan acknowledged that shifting the perception that growth is necessary at all costs has been difficult.

“The vulnerability of Singapore means that material concerns are always writ large but Singaporeans do not want that to be all that is to life in Singapore,” he said.

“Forward SG seeks to nudge and mould societal understanding of success and if the PAP under Wong is unable to do that successfully, then its political grip on power will weaken further and faster.”

While Singapore’s economic transformation was a vote-winner for Singaporeans born before and shortly after independence, millennials and members of Gen Z who have only ever known prosperity are in many cases itching for change, as demonstrated by the rising vote share for the opposition Workers’ Party.

Jayee, a student at Nanyang Technological University, said he acknowledged that the PAP has gradually allowed greater space for discourse on issues like LGBTQ rights and income inequality, but wished for more sufficient checks.

“While the PAP has done wonders for the country, it is often done with a heavy-handed approach…There is a real need for more watchmen in parliament to scrutinise the PAP and question their policies and conduct,” he told Al Jazeera.

Toby Ang*, a former civil servant in his 30s, said he is more worried about structural issues in the economy, such as stagnating wage growth, that cast a cloud over the city-state’s future trajectory.

“Real leadership and fresh ideas are lacking,” Ang told Al Jazeera.

Ang said he is unconvinced that Singaporeans who aspire to a more egalitarian society are prepared for the necessary trade-offs.

“The future state of the economy is quite worrisome. I am a bit concerned that we have put ourselves on a slippery slope, that we are moving towards a high-income Scandinavian model. But we are wired very differently in psyche from the Nordics,” he said.

SMU’s Tan said that Singaporeans increasingly expect a government that “talks with – rather than talks to or, worse, talks down to – the average citizen”.

“They want Singapore to remain exceptional but also a place that they can call home even as others make the country their hotel and playground,” he said.

“Ultimately, they want their views to matter and they want to be courted for their votes.”

As for Yeo, the former corporate lawyer, he is determined to make up for the time he lost working himself to the bone.

“I wonder what life would have been like if I’d lived differently in the past, if I’d set more boundaries and prioritised my well-being instead,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Source: Al Jazeera