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Singapore must not become a ‘yardstick society’: Chan Chun Sing

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office tells the St Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum that instead of blindly chasing conventional definitions of success, society must have diverse groups of people and talents.

SINGAPORE: The “saddest thing” Singaporeans can do for themselves is to become a “yardstick society” where people blindly chase after stereotypical definitions of success, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing on Saturday (Jan 23).

He was speaking at the inaugural St Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum - the first of its kind outside the annual global conference held in Switzerland - where he delivered the keynote address on economic growth before participating in a panel discussion and dialogue with the audience.

Some students in the crowd raised concerns of Singaporean society favouring scientific and mathematical disciplines over the humanities and social sciences, as well as being biased toward those from schools such as Raffles Institution (RI), where Mr Chan was educated.

In response, he said: “I don’t think the subjects we do define us. But what you do with your process of study will. Even if you do science, do you read widely? If you do philosophy, do you bother to go understand science, maths etc.? Never be pigeonholed and say ‘I’m like that because I’m in this course’."

Mr Chan, who is also Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), added: "It doesn’t mean that people who go to RI come out brilliant. There are many different types. Even in my batch for example, some didn’t do well in their studies but were extremely good rugby players. They chose the area they believed in and wanted to excel in and purposefully pursued it, not in accordance to conventional wisdom.”

He shared that his sister “was not extremely happy” in Raffles Girls School. “She was not hyper-competitive and arguably would have done better in a less intimidating environment,” said Mr Chan.

“So for all the parents and students out there, when you’re choosing a school, choose one that will let you bring forth your talent, not just because others say you should choose it.”

“Don’t become a yardstick society in which we aimlessly, blindly chase goals regardless of what we’re good at. That’s the saddest thing we can do for ourselves,” he continued. “The whole society will then lose resilience because it has become monolithic. A resilient society has diverse groups of people and talents to respond to changes as they arise.” 

‘I FEAR FOR OUR SOCIETY’

Pressed by panel moderator Viswa Sadasivan, former Nominated Member of Parliament, to elaborate on whether there were structural issues in Singapore’s education system blocking a move to a more open society, Mr Chan replied: “Compare today’s system to say 30 to 40 years ago… Now we have SOTA (School of the Arts); the Sports School. We can still go further, but we’ve created many more opportunities for this generation.”

He said that even with such diverse options, Singaporeans must not end up with their minds closed to these.

“I spoke to group of parents who said the system was too difficult, too rigid, too much tuition… So I asked, ‘Will you stop sending your son to tuition?’ And they said yes, they will stop if their neighbours stop first,” Mr Chan recounted, to laughs from the audience.

“And I also told a group of students from NTU (Nanyang Technological University) that whether their GPA (grade point average) was 3.5 or 3.6 was a marginal difference. I’m looking for people who are aware and can analyse and adapt,” he continued. “They all nodded. I asked if they were going to do anything different with their lives now. They said they were going back to prepare for a GPA of 4.0.”

Said Mr Chan: “That's important but there are more things in life. When you look for employment, and you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t anticipate or analyse, no employer will take you even if you have a GPA of 4.0.”

“This is something I fear for our society - where everyone goes after the same thing, the same yardstick, and we end up in what sociologists call a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. That’s what scares me,” he said. 

“If you think this is all theory and propaganda, do you know that the Monetary Authority of Singapore did a study of the top echelons, on how many had four As or a perfect score in school, and the answer was zero?" revealed Mr Chan.

"But we have a group of people whose minds are highly agile and aware of what’s going on, constantly asking who’s going to move my cheese and take my lunch. These people survive. So if anybody tells you having four As means you’ve made it for life, they are bluffing you."

“The ones that do well are not just about achieving a milestone at a certain point and saying 'That's it'. The successful ones keep plugging on day after day and adapting despite success or failure.”

‘A HIGHER GOAL’ FOR SINGAPORE

Mr Chan, who is the ruling People’s Action Party whip, was called upon to wrap up the panel discussion and he chose to touch on the topics of success, inequality and values.

“I grew up in a single parent family. Success to me in primary school was to be promoted to the next level without staying back. It was not about getting to RI, but to at least get a bursary to continue my education," he shared.

“Today, as a minister, am I successful? I don’t know. Whatever I do, will I leave behind a better Singapore for my children? Will I touch the lives of the next generation, to uplift and enable them? It’s too early to tell. But I hope that whatever I do, I do with a pure heart and can sleep at night doing it.”

Mr Chan then related how he questioned Singapore’s subsidy system when he first became a minister. “It used to be that we gave every child the same subsidy. I asked, ‘Why is this so? Is this the best way?'" he said. “A S$3 subsidy to someone who earns S$10,000 is a rounding error. A S$300 subsidy to someone who earns S$10,000 is a rounding error, but for someone who earns S$1,000, it makes a significant difference.”

“So I decided that those with more will still be helped but to a smaller extent; that those with less will get more help - but when implemented, nobody was happy,” Mr Chan added. “Everybody was happy they got more until they found out their neighbour got even more. But with this attitude, can we bring forth a more equal society?”

He conceded it was no simple task. “The rich will naturally want to entrench the privileges they have and can give to their children. Every society does that and that happens in history over and over again,” Mr Chan stated.

Singapore should set itself a “higher goal”, he said. “Try to go down in history as having lent our shoulders to the next generation to stand taller and see further. Take pride in the next generation doing even better than us. That as stewards, we left behind a better place for the next.”

Mr Chan noted: “That choice belongs to us all, not some amorphous society system. We, the people of Singapore, define our society.”

“If we can continue to do that, then Singapore will continue to attract not only Singaporeans who strive, but many other talented people who want to contribute to our cause, to come here,” he concluded. “If we can do that well, we will go beyond 50 years and more; we will continue to succeed in spite of a lack of resources and so forth; and we will go on to have a great country.”