Sunday 5 February 2012

The young Singaporean adult...

Young Singaporeans lack drive, some CEOs told Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. While the definition of 'drive' is debatable, attitudes have definitely changed, say employers
By Ng Kai Ling & Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 2 Feb 2012

EVEN before he graduated from university, Mr Lawrence Kim was already running a million-dollar business.

The Singaporean had taken over his father's marine inspection and service company in 2005 when he was just 23, and turned it into a million-dollar venture in just a few years.

'My father had been doing a good job with it, but he didn't really want to grow it,' said Mr Kim, now 30 and the managing director of Ebenezer NDT Services.

'I saw the potential in it and I couldn't let my father's efforts go to waste.'

But it would appear that young Singaporeans like him might be in short supply.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat expressed concern about feedback he got from chief executives, who felt that young Singaporeans lack the drive and the confidence to venture out of the comfort zone to succeed.

Several employers and human resource consultants interviewed yesterday said this is true to some extent.

They said that compared to the older generation of Singaporeans, young adults would rather stick to something that they are familiar with and can handle than take up new challenges.

They also lack the tenacity to weather tough times - such as when they are unhappy at work - and will quickly look for greener pastures.

They offered some reasons for this shift in attitudes.

Too comfortable

YOUNG adults do not have the responsibilities that their parents, who lived through Singapore's early years, had. They lead relatively comfortable lives and most do not have to struggle to put food on the table or help support their families.

The statistics bear this out: Median household income has risen from $438 in 1972 to $2,303 in 1990, $2,638 in 2000, and $5,000 in 2010.

Mr Paul Heng, managing director of human resource consultancy NeXT Career Consulting, noted that for many young graduates, finding and keeping a job after leaving school may not be an immediate concern.

'Compared to young people like those from India or China who are here to work, young Singaporeans are less hungry,' he said.

Singaporean parents, he pointed out, also tend to support their children emotionally and financially even after they have graduated.

Such a culture puts young Singaporeans at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in the West, where the norm is for them to leave the nest, some as young as 18, said Mr Kurt Wee, vice-president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.

Americans, for example, learn to make decisions for themselves and take charge of their lives at a younger age, he said.

He, too, felt that young Singaporeans may not see the need to exert themselves because they are well-provided for by their parents. 'They do not feel the push to be creative and find opportunities for themselves.'

Risk averse

MR KOH Yew Hiap, managing director of cleaning solutions company UIC, said that because life here is comfortable, many are reluctant to take up career-advancing opportunities in developing countries like Vietnam and China.

'They worry about the standard of living in those countries. They are also hesitant about having to live in a different environment and culture,' he said.

Mr Josh Goh, an assistant director at human resource consultancy The GMP Group, said Singaporeans in general also prefer to lie low and not speak their minds.

'They tend to speak up on things like benefits such as leave and medical coverage, but seldom on how the company can do the work better,' he said.

Singaporeans also want everything to go as planned, said Mr Goh, and they would rather not take on something new and risk making a mistake.

'Perhaps it has got to do with our education system,' he said. 'Some people may see making mistakes as part of a learning experience, but Singaporeans do not like to fail.'

Political science lecturer John Donaldson from the Singapore Management University (SMU), who has been in Singapore for the last six years, echoed this.

He has found Singaporean students to be driven in that they want to better themselves, but are risk averse.

Some from the business school have said they were interested in doing social science majors, but decided against it because they feared this would limit their job prospects.

Ebenezer NDT Services' Mr Kim said he had set up a fund to help students in his alma mater - SMU and the Singapore Polytechnic - who want to start businesses, but was disappointed that not many took up his offer.

'Many young Singaporeans want instant results, but a successful business takes a long time to build,' he said.

'I spoke to some undergraduates recently and many are contented in their high-paying jobs.'

Education system too focused on good grades

MS STEFANIE Yuen Thio, joint managing director at TSMP Law Corporation, said it would be unfair to say that all young people lack drive. Her firm has 'many young lawyers whose energy, initiative and passion put us - even in our younger days - to shame'.

That said, she felt the education system places an undue emphasis on academic achievement.

'This forces students to focus on exam scores at the expense of a wider education... When confronted with the challenges of the business world, they are often ill-equipped to respond.'

She added: 'I have found that it is the law graduates who are intelligent but are not so academic who generally make better practitioners. They are hungrier and are used to thinking outside the box to get the results they want.'

Mr Koh agreed and said that drive for good academic results does not always translate to the drive to excel in a career. 'In the workplace, there are other factors like having experience and being at the right place at the right time,' he said.

Looking for instant rewards

YOUNG Singaporeans are often too impatient to reap their rewards, said Mr Wee.

He and Mr Goh noted that younger people often expect to see instant rewards from the work that they have done.

'They may have done well in their jobs for one or two years, but they may not necessarily have enough experience to be promoted and be in decision-making positions,' said Mr Wee.

Mr Goh added: 'There is this mindset where they just quit when they are unhappy. Once they feel unappreciated, they leave for greener pastures.'

Some, however, caution against branding the young as lacking in drive and ambition.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan said choosing the easier route does not mean that young Singaporeans lack drive.

'Is it necessarily bad that the youth choose what is tried and tested?' she said.

'From a rational perspective, most would pick something that is comfortable, but it does not mean that they will not do their best.'

What CEOS told the Education Minister

EMPLOYERS here think young Singaporeans need more drive and the confidence to venture out of their comfort zones.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat got this feedback at a meeting he had with a group of chief executive officers earlier this week.

He used this as a wake-up call for about 300 university students at a forum at the Singapore Management University on Tuesday.

Mr Heng said that, to his surprise, a number of chief executives told him that they were not seeing enough drive among young Singaporeans.

Another trait missing in students here was their willingness to leave their comfort zones and try something new, the minister also said.

He recounted the experiences of a chief executive who described the differing responses from a Singaporean worker and a European one, when both were promoted.

In Europe, when the chief executive told workers that he wanted to try them out in a new role that came with different responsibilities, the staff members asked how the company would help them to succeed and what sort of training they would need.

But when the chief executive approached Singaporeans, he was shocked by the response: 'What if I fail? Will I still have a job? Is there a support system and do I get retrenchment benefits?'

The young, the minister said, also needed to be hungrier.

When he was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, he gave a speech in a university in China and was overwhelmed by the intelligent questions from the students.

One of them had even been following all his speeches through the global financial crisis.

Mr Heng said that, aside from drive, hunger and the confidence to try new things, young Singaporeans would also need two other qualities: the ability to adapt in a rapidly changing world characterised by technological changes and instability in the global economy, as well as the ability to collaborate across cultures.

Singapore Management University's Inaugural Ministerial Forum

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