Singapore's young are a brave new cohort

A BBC journalist I met in Kuala Lumpur last week wanted to know about the changing of the guard in Singapore. Have past efforts to get Singapore to loosen up made any difference? And will government efforts to turn us into a creative, entrepreneurial society continue at the same pace?

I was quite bemused by his assumptions: As if having survived and thrived for almost four decades did not mean we were innovators in social organisation and economic development, long before innovation became a buzz-word.

But it did get me thinking about how the Singaporean personality has changed over the past decade or so. And that's putting aside the big events like 9/11, Sars, the financial crisis, to look at the atomic level of the individual.

Take for instance, my sister, who's 23. Less than a decade separates us two, but what a difference that decade has made.

Being hard-headed while following the heart appears to be the norm in the new Singaporean outlook.

In the wee hours of Aug 9, she left the country - she was on assignment abroad - one of a new breed of fresh corporate recruits deployed on overseas projects once reserved for senior staff. These days her ever-present mobile phone, laptop and a packed suitcase attest to a 24/7, global work-life she and her peers commonly take for granted. Driven by a new outward momentum and empowered by the Internet and mobile communications only nascent a decade ago, their conception of work has been radically transformed.

So too has the 'proper' choice of vocations. Ten years ago, the slate of respectable professions was largely confined to the Big Three: law, engineering and medicine. Or else there was the public sector via the much-vaunted scholarship route, with a view to snagging a cushy official post eventually.

But the options have multiplied dramatically since. Three local universities now offer an expanded range of study options, and an overseas education has become far more affordable than ever, even for families of modest means like mine. Nor is the conventional junior college-university track the only way to go. Diploma holders work on their own time towards external degrees, or start their own businesses right off the bat.

All these are simply facts of economic growth, yet the implications are startling.

With access to educational opportunities once unavailable without financial sponsorship or personal means, my sister and her peers chose to pursue their own passions, seeing no particular need to take up the traditional careers and lifestyles - nor stick to only one - in order to thrive. Ironically, these conventional choices are now considered soft options: safe, stable and ultimately limited in scope. As for creativity and enterprise, well they're not waiting for an edict to say it's okay before proceeding.

But these aren't starry-eyed dreamers either. Being hard-headed while following the heart appears to be the norm in the new Singaporean outlook. I've met young architects who are installation artists, a poet cum property consultant, even a civil servant who's a 'guerilla' social activist. The de rigueur strategy, it seems, is to have an ambitious business plan brewing even as they slug it out for a few years in the corporate or public sector arena to cut their teeth.

a more savvy, outward-oriented cohort sees the establishment not as boss and master, but as partners and facilitators

It's no surprise that a more savvy, outward-oriented cohort would be prepared to see the establishment not as boss and master, but as partners and facilitators towards their own ambitions. The new Singaporean may be less cynical than exacting, more selective than apathetic, with a strong impatience for the paternalistic and the bureaucratic. But I'm not sure they are the materialistic, self-interested individualists they're popularly painted out to be, if the proliferation of non-profit organisations in the past decade - from the Cat Welfare Society to Food from the Heart - is any indication.

And while the statistics show room for improvement (the national volunteerism rate was a mere 14.9 per cent in 2002, up from 9.3 per cent in 2000), they have yet to fully account for new and less formal volunteer-led groupings such as The 2nd Rule, a creative consortium which organised a street culture cum arts festival this year.

To be honest, I confess a certain envy at the joissance of this rising breed of new Singaporeans: their self-reliance, confidence and pleasure in hitting the ground running, their taste for broaching new frontiers in their chosen (not assigned) fields; their sense of being unshackled by the status quo.

For them, being Singaporean seems not a matter of passing the right exams or enduring a series of crises, but rather, a maturing relationship and an unveiling of purpose.

Idealism? Perhaps. After all, the new cohort has yet to define itself in the national consciousness. But there's always some room for optimism at the beginning of a new era.