Monday, 9 September 2013

Slower pace of life




A relaxed, slower pace? Yes

A majority of the 4,000 Singaporeans surveyed by the OSC say they want a more comfortable, slower pace of life - but the Government worries that they don't understand the longer-term consequences for the nation. But ordinary Singaporeans deny that they want to simply slack off, arguing instead that more comfortable does not mean less competitive and that their vision of the "good life" has changed from previous generations.
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 7 Sep 2013

ASK arts business administrator Eric Chan, 31, what would make a good life for him, and he says: "Opportunities to explore my interests, good relationships with the people around me and to practise my faith."

None of it, he notes, has to do with career advancement or material progress.

Judging by the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) survey of 4,000 people, the bachelor is in the majority.

Asked to pick between a comfortable pace of life and career advancement, 59 per cent chose the former. This rose to 62 per cent among those married with children.

While popular wisdom might have it that young and single Singaporeans may prefer a faster pace, slowing down only when they start families, the survey showed that even those in the age groups of 15 to 19 and 20 to 34 mostly preferred dialling back.

But Mr Chan disputes that Singaporeans like him just want to slack off and lack the grit of their parents' generation.

He rejects the argument that they are complacent and that they take their affluence and job prospects for granted. Rather, he thinks that the hard trade-offs that Singaporeans are perennially asked to confront - between competitiveness and comfort, between stress and mediocrity - are false choices.

"In a sense, we are top in so many fields and have done so well, but we are supposed to live with a perpetual sense of insecurity," he says. "It wears people out in the long run. It's not that we don't want to pursue excellence, but that's not the only thing we want to pursue."

Worn out by trade-offs

THE concept of trade-offs has always been central to the Singaporean policymaking psyche.

As a small country with no hinterland or natural resources, surviving, and thriving, required hard choices, said the founding generation of leaders.

But in the years leading up to the 2011 General Election and since, Singaporeans have shown an increasing irritation at being lectured about trade-offs.

Worryingly for the People's Action Party (PAP) Government, discontent has grown over what the ruling party has traditionally traded off.

No longer does a liberal intake of foreigners for the sake of economic dynamism or a high- stakes, high-pressure education system for the sake of global competitiveness seem like a good exchange to many Singaporeans.

So when the OSC mass engagement exercise was convened last year, a national survey was seen as an opportunity to throw the trading-off to ordinary citizens for their opinion.

This would allow the Government to sense where people would rather see a balance struck, while, it hoped, getting them to see the constraints that policymakers face daily.

Researchers from the Institute of Policy Studies put together a series of trade-offs for the 4,000 citizens to be polled.

Over two months last December and January, they were asked to indicate their preferences between a comfortable pace of life and career advancement, between an inflow of foreigners and slower economic growth and fewer jobs, and between a holistic education system and a competitive one.

Other trade-offs included ones between liberal social values and societal stability, and between higher taxes and less support for the needy.

The survey findings, released earlier this month, showed a clear majority plumping for a more comfortable pace of life, a less competitive and streamed education system, and fewer foreigners.

The results sparked concern among some.

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, speaking at a fireside chat with undergraduates this week, said that his first reaction was: "How much did the people who answered the question understand what slowdown in growth means? People divorce the idea of growth from their own lives."

He said that such a scenario would have an immediate impact on employment, salaries and bonuses - things that Singaporeans have had as a matter of course for many years.

"When you have full employment, when you have expected and gotten annual increases, then you can sit back and be somewhat academic about it. You don't have a job, you won't be so academic."

OSC committee member and Eurasian Association president Benett Theseira says that the scenarios the Government put to Singaporeans "are potentially just theoretical".

For example, the argument for being open to foreigners is about how it is necessary to compete at an international level and that if the Singapore workforce pales in quality or lacks numbers, then industries move away.

"From a branding and image perspective, Singapore will stop being a go-to destination, and this is a serious long-term effect," he notes. "So how do you package and communicate that?"

"What you get is this message from the Government that it's a trade-off," he says. "It's stated in extremes, and people just don't buy that it's so extreme."

Informal conversations that Insight had with Singaporeans across a spectrum of income levels, ages and backgrounds revealed that they indeed did not buy the message that the trade-offs need to be so extreme.

A sense of fatigue with the exhortation to be perennially on guard against decline arose, as did defiance against the narrative that slowing down meant becoming less competitive.

Many pointed to how Singaporeans work some of the longest hours in the world but are mediocre in productivity.

They said that compared to other developed countries, where legislation to prevent overwork exists, balance is so lacking in the rat race here that a little bit more surely would not immediately kick-start a process of fading into economic oblivion.

Theatre practitioner and OSC committee member Kuo Jian Hong says that people need "a reason to work hard" and the long- term viability of Singapore as a nation is not sufficient.

"People don't wake up every morning and think, 'Today I want to do nation-building.' They wake up and think, 'When can I have a holiday with my kids?'

"When you don't have time to spend with your families, what's the reason to continue to suffer through?"

She says that Singaporeans are people who, after decades of striving, want to "beautify their homes". But they are constantly being told that "wait, don't beautify yet, it's not guaranteed that the home will survive, it's fragile".

"But it doesn't have to be one or another," she says. "You can work smart rather than work hard and still be competitive."

Church worker Leon Cross, 25, who has three young children, says a sense of contentedness is not the same as a sense of complacency. He and his wife have a total income of about $3,000 a month and have "more than enough".

"As we pursue the Singapore dream, we realise it isn't everything we made it out to be and start to wonder, why am I doing what I am doing?" he says.

"When it comes down to it, it's a daily bottom line we set for ourselves. Do I choose to max out my daily workload or take a stand for the non-negotiables of our lives? Providing financially for my family is an important thing, protecting the time with my family is everything."

Less swotting, please

IT MAY be the wont of all parents to detest the education system, but the OSC survey's findings showed a clear desire for a less stressful, less stratified learning experience for their children.

Asked to pick, 56 per cent wanted a more holistic, less competitive education system, while only 26 per cent said they preferred globally competitive academic standards despite more stress.

This majority was seen in all income groups, although of those making $10,000 a month and above, the group wanting a more holistic, less competitive system fell to 50 per cent.

Awfully Chocolate group owner Lyn Lee, 40, who has three children, says that the supposed competitive elements in the current system just "take rote-learning to a new level by calling it thinking skills".

"We now teach algebra from Primary 3 using model drawing. Yet there are people leaving school, applying for jobs, who can't write a grammatical sentence or read a measurement correctly."

Plumping for a more holistic system is not about lowering educational standards, says Ms Lee, who quit her job as a lawyer to start a chain of chocolate cake shops in her 20s.

"We are loading too much at too early an age, but then those who go through the tertiary levels lack analytical skills."

Parents also disputed the argument that streaming gives rise to excellence.

In the OSC survey, 56 per cent want students to learn with others of different abilities and backgrounds, while just 26 per cent want students to learn with others of similar abilities and backgrounds. Often, they compare their children's experiences with their own and find a stratification that concerns them.

Lawyer Yeoh Lian Chuan, 44, says that some degree of competition is good, but not when "it becomes a rigid, ideological approach".

The father of two says that he went to schools like Nanyang Primary and Anglo-Chinese School in the 1980s, and there was "a wide range of kids compared to now".

"It's not an either/or, like you either get stratification or it's not competitive. Mixing kids of different backgrounds would not harm our competitiveness and it would not mean we have gone soft."

Immigration bugbear

SINGAPORE'S openness to foreigners is a perennial sore point between Government and citizens.

Policymakers have always worried that Singaporeans are not properly appreciative of what it means to stop taking in immigrants in the context of a rapidly ageing society.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when asked last year what, in hindsight, he would have done differently when he ascended to his role in 2004, said he regretted failing to "bring to the forefront of people's attention to say, 'Look, if we don't do something, in 20 years' time, the population is going to have an average age, say 60, and this is going to be a retirement home and not a vibrant city.'"

A month later, at the PAP's annual conference, PM Lee repeated this fearful scenario. Countering those who called for slower growth, he said that a long stretch of slow or no growth would make young people looking for "opportunities, adventure and challenge" head elsewhere.

In the OSC survey, respondents were asked if they supported an inflow of foreigners or wanted to reduce this inflow, even at a cost to economic growth, the creation of jobs and global competitiveness.

Overall, 49 per cent wanted to reduce the inflow; this grew to 52 per cent among those making $3,000 or less a month.

A minority of 28 per cent supported the foreign inflow.

No Singaporean interviewed by Insight said he wanted to "turn off the tap" totally. The fact that immigrants and foreign workers are needed to prop up the day-to-day functioning of the country was well understood by Singaporeans of all income levels.

But what arose was the belief that supporting an inflow of foreigners came with its own trade-off: the narrowing of opportunity for Singaporeans.

While they are well acquainted with the message that foreigners allow the economy to grow and more jobs to be created overall, their experiences on the ground make them feel displaced.

Madam Edna Teo, 50, recalls being rejected for a Chinese language teaching position in 1998 while meeting teachers from China who said that they had been recruited from their hometowns by the Singapore Government.

Now looking for a job after quitting a position in the food and beverage industry, Madam Teo, who is single, says that she has not seen her wages rise for a decade. She makes less than $3,000 a month.

She rejects the notion that Singaporeans should compete on an equal footing with foreigners.

"The meritocracy cannot be of foreigners, with outsiders as well," she says. "The meritocracy must be just among Singaporeans. If not, what do you do with Singaporeans like me, who have nowhere to go?"

The view percolates also among younger Singaporeans - the very ones who need to stay to keep their nation from becoming an old folks' home.

Mr Tan Peiyuan, 25, is just a few months into his career at an international bank. "I wouldn't support entirely just having an influx of foreigners," he says. "Singaporeans must be given a fair chance at leadership positions available in MNCs here."

Asked if they considered the loss to Singapore's dynamism and vibrancy - and the prospect of becoming an old folks' home - to be a consequence of slowing down, Singaporeans told Insight that they disagreed with this "means to an end" framework.

"Having more foreigners doesn't mean vibrancy," says 24-year-old Neo Yuzhen, who works in an art gallery. "Vibrancy is this place being less restricted, more uncensored and for entrepreneurial spirit to thrive and people to take charge of themselves."

They rejected the argument that creative industries, nightlife outlets or cafes that sell artisanal roasts were possible in modern Singapore only because of its growth strategy.

"That is a consumerist, engineered view of society," says Ms Kuo Jian Hong. "Everything is still seen as a way to stay competitive, or a result of economic competitiveness. But there are some things that are important to quality of life that have no economic value."

Ultimately, what emerged from the trade-offs survey is the conviction among Singaporeans that the country, and its people, should not always have to think almost solely in terms of extreme trade-offs.

"There's the saying that only the paranoid survive," says lawyer Mr Yeoh. "And it's part of the Government's job to do the worrying. But the broad vision that it articulates must resonate with us."

Much ado about phrasing of question on gays
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 7 Sep 2013

THE Our Singapore Conversation survey was wide-ranging in nature, covering issues from the economy to education to press freedom, but in the end, much of the online discussion on its findings centred on how a question on gays was phrased.

Gay rights activists objected to Singaporeans being asked if they accepted "gay lifestyles". The term is commonly used by conservatives to imply that homosexuality is a choice.

The researchers who led the survey do not believe the phrasing unduly affected people's responses.

The survey found that 47 per cent reject gay lifestyles while 26 per cent accept them; 55 per cent reject gay marriage while 21 per cent accept it. The rest are neutral.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser, one of the survey researchers, said they used "lifestyle" in the sociological sense of differences in "social relationship and ways of behaving which distinguish one group from others".

"We use the term in good faith, believing that it is something understood by most Singaporeans within the Singapore context," he said, adding "the question focuses on social relationships and social behaviours, rather than sexuality or sexual orientation".

The survey also shed light on the broad middle ground who remain neutral on this highly divisive issue. The biggest share of those neither accepting nor rejecting homosexuality is those aged between 20 and 49. They tend to have attended polytechnics, universities, or the Institute of Technical Education.

Take Mr Amar Mahesh Kumar, 23, who is studying electrical engineering at the National University of Singapore. He says: "I'm really undecided about it. It's not something I've really thought about, I'm more concerned about things like my schooling and my future."

Those who do accept homosexuality tend to be younger and more educated, particularly those aged 15 to 34 and with post-graduate, polytechnic or university education. Those rejecting it are likely to be older and less educated, especially those aged 50 and above with little or no formal education.

It is within the neutral group where "contestation will occur for sure", and where the debate will be framed as one of basic rights and moral values, says Mr Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

Observers say it is too early to say for sure whether Singapore society will become more gay-friendly over time.

Dr Tan Ern Ser personally believes acceptance of homosexuality is a value that will not change with age, and with a significant number already accepting of gays, in time "most Singaporeans would come to see homosexuals as different in terms of their sexual orientation, rather than as deviants".

Some believe that once a tipping point is reached, society could move fast in granting gay people more rights.

Former nominated MP Siew Kum Hong points to the United States where in 2008, Californians voted in a piece of legislation called Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage.

Five years later, in June this year, the Supreme Court made decisions that effectively allowed gay marriage in California and allowed gay married couples to receive federal benefits.

But others such as Dr Benjamin Detenber, chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, believe acceptance here will be a gradual evolution.

Past studies led by Dr Detenber have shown that Singaporeans' attitudes to homosexuals are incrementally becoming more positive.


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