PM Wong says S’pore youths don’t want an ‘endless rat race’, here’s what he might do about it

The need for a new approach to success has been a key theme raised by PM Wong since he was DPM.

Matthias Ang | Seri Mazliana | May 16, 2024, 08:45 AM



Prime Minister Lawrence Wong was officially sworn in at the Istana on May 15, 2024.

During his swearing-in speech, he brought up the conversations with Singaporeans that were held under the Forward Singapore (Forward SG) exercise.

He noted that younger Singaporeans in particular have said that while they will strive and work hard for their goals, they do not want to be trapped in an "endless rat race of hyper-competition".

"They (young Singaporeans) want a refreshed Singapore Dream — one that is not defined by material success alone, but also offers meaning and purpose in their careers and in their lives," PM Wong said.

The Prime Minister then vowed to find new ways to make Singapore more productive and innovative, and strive to achieve a better balance — "where work is purposeful, and life is meaningful".

Building on his previous mention of a new approach to success

PM Wong has previously commented on the "rat race" and the need to redefine the Singapore Dream.

In June 2023, at the Institute of Policy Studies' 35th anniversary conference, then-DPM Wong said a new approach to success must be adopted.

This was in light of technological and social shifts such as a rapidly ageing population, slowing social mobility, and greater anxieties and stresses felt by various demographics.

How far should Singaporeans go in pursuit of material goals?

At that time, PM Wong pointed out that Singaporeans used to set their eyes on the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club membership.

While this goal is outdated, PM Wong noted that Singaporeans still tend to converge around certain material definitions of successes, such as the size of the paycheck, their property, or the prestige of a brand-name school.

He clarified that it is important for people to be concerned about the basics in life — such as being meaningfully employed, having a home, or providing for the family.

"But how far should we go in pursuing our material goals?" PM Wong asked.

"How much is enough? How do we avoid getting trapped in a vicious cycle of endless competition, just to keep up with the Joneses or to get ahead of others?"

Closing the pay gap to prevent "paper chase"

PM Wong has outlined concrete moves his government would make towards this new approach to success.

As he said in a speech during the debate on the President's Address in Apr. 17, 2023:

"It is not enough to say we will celebrate a variety of professions. Our economic structures, remuneration, and career prospects in various professions must also be consistent with what we value."

PM Wong also talked about narrowing the wage gap across different professions, such as by further professionalising skilled trades like electricians and plumbers so that society attaches "the right values" to such work and pays them more.

He also set out the aim of narrowing the wage gaps between graduates from Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics, and their university-going counterparts.

According to PM Wong, this is so ITE and polytechnic graduates will not have to "succumb to a paper chase to secure a good salary and a viable career path".

Thus, a significant component of the Forward SG exercise for youths aims to narrow the salary gaps between ITE fresh graduates and those from polytechnics and autonomous universities, including by encouraging and enabling ITE graduates to get diploma qualifications.

The Forward SG exercise also set out the aim of widening access to diverse opportunities.

This would be done by allowing schools to partner each other for programmes, including Co-Curricular Activities.

It was also noted that interest and aptitude are now taken into account for admissions to autonomous universities, beyond grades.

PM Wong also highlighted that many young Singaporeans may feel caught in the rat race from a young age, including pressuring themselves to take on a specific path in school in order to reach a narrow idea of success.

However, he pointed to "significant moves" such as phasing out PSLE T-scores, and the removal of the NT, NA and Express stream labels, saying he hoped these moves signalled serious intent to refresh the system.

He said:

"Remember, at the end of the day, we are more than our grades; we are more than the schools we go to."

Success must be based on diverse paths taken by different Singaporeans

At the IPS conference in June 2023, PM Wong shared that from his engagements with Singaporeans, more people are starting to prioritise more intangible aspects of life, like having a "sense of purpose and fulfilment".

"In other words, success is less about means and more about meaning," he added.

Whether someone wishes to focus on family instead of work or possesses talent in non-academic fields like arts and sports, there must be a place for them to shine, PM Wong pointed out.

The revised Singapore Story, according to PM Wong, must base its success not just on one template but on the diverse paths taken by all Singaporeans.

He also encouraged Singaporeans to value the success of every individual — each one pursuing his or her path.

It was a point he reiterated again on May 14, 2024, a day before he was sworn in, in an interview with local media.

"We all have different abilities and strengths. We learn at different paces, so recognising that, I think this pursuit of our dream, it is not about comparing with one another and ending up in some endless rat race.

But it is really about understanding what our strengths are, what paths each one of us might choose, and in the end, embracing these different, multiple pathways of success."

Top photos via Lawrence Wong/Facebook