A letter to our 4th Prime Minister

By Students From Tembusu College, NUS

Dear 4th Prime Minister of Singapore,

How are you feeling? We can only wonder how it is like on your first day in the office, knowing that you have the responsibility of leading this little red dot that probably seems really big right now.

We are young people from Tembusu College and we are reaching out to you because we want only the best for our country. In fact, by this point, it matters less to us who you are than that you make the best decisions for Singapore. Your success in the upcoming years will be Singapore’s success.

We grew up in the early to late 2000s, in the days when our PSLE results were still counted to a few decimal places; when a cup of Kopi in our hawker centres was always less than a dollar; when we could never imagine using a phone application to try to get into strangers’ cars; when globalization was a holy grail and tariffs on trade were taboo; when the powers that be in our region were less assertive. Since then, we’ve seen our world and Singapore change rapidly.

Amid these changes, we’ve also been growing up – perhaps too quickly – and we’re on the verge of a new phase of life which we call ‘adulting’. We’re on the cusp of being that generation whose actions are synonymous with our country’s future. We’re at the point where we will be stepping up in different ways, big and small, to take ownership of Singapore’s future. Yet for us, this path ahead is unclear because a good part of it depends on you as well. We have three pressing questions to which your answers will provide us with much-needed clarity. These questions are: How much do you trust us? How will you unite Singapore? What is Singapore to you?

Firstly, how much do you trust us young people?

It’s a little confusing right now because we’re not always treated consistently. Do you see us as equal partners – leaders you want to empower – or as citizens you need to govern? What kind of role do you trust us to play?

We are prompted in school to think critically and voice our opinions, but we see some naysayers being treated negatively. We are encouraged to push boundaries in some sectors, yet those of us who write articles online are reminded to respect existing boundaries. We are taught that it is important to learn our history, but are certain narratives preferred over others? You might answer that it all depends - perhaps in specific areas, you will treat us like leaders, and in other domains, we’re better off being governed. Yet, that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? We can tell how much you trust us by looking at what freedoms you entrust us with. And, we want an answer because this will partly determine how far we will go for Singapore. We want you to trust that we do not disagree for dissent’s sake, and that we can find unity even in the face of our differences with you - differences of ideologies, opinions, beliefs or values. Disagreement is not weakness and your appointment is a chance for a new way for our differences to be received. We truly believe that it is only in facing our differences together openly, honestly and fearlessly that our discourse can be strengthened, outcomes can be sharpened, and our relationship can be deepened. Secondly, how will you unite Singapore?

We are all familiar with the story of how Singapore transformed from third world to first. Through the last 50 years, many crucial policies were put in place to achieve this transformation. Even when these policies have led to negative consequences, the government would mitigate them with follow-up policies.

However, we are now increasingly worried because Singapore has reached a point where some of these negative consequences are ballooning. We are most concerned with social inequality, social mobility, and social identity. We see these consequences surface in our day to day lives, even if, occasionally, the statistics you show us in Parliament indicate otherwise.

Within Tembusu, we feel social inequality most viscerally when some of us ask our friends if they’ve completed their essay and we find out that our friends spent the weekend working to ease their families’ financial pressures; or when our project group democratically votes to take a Grab or Uber, and we can only bite our tongue; when we are ‘jio-ed’ to eat out for dinner because our friends do not feel like eating in the dining hall, and it begins to look like a choice between making friends or saving money; when some of us are enthusiastically encouraged to go for ‘exchange’ because it will change our lives, but we can only stay put, and not for the lack of enthusiasm.

These moments cause a deep dissonance. We feel it as well, or even more intensely, with our friends, neighbours, relatives from outside of our college. We are very worried that social inequality is becoming an issue that is dividing Singaporeans faster than we can mitigate it. Unequal financial backgrounds, social networks, family upbringing, availability of opportunities are beginning to smile maliciously on this precious cohesion we have built over the years.

Relatedly, social mobility is something that matters a lot to us as well. We have always been told that Singapore is a meritocracy and that everyone can chase their dreams. Yet, we have also seen that some dreams are more difficult to chase than others for some people - much, much more difficult.

We feel this sense of longing at times, when we see some of our peers attain jobs upon graduation because of a family connection, or when some of our batch mates can afford to attend top universities abroad or to study without a loan. We feel discouraged when we see the rising cost of living because it’s now going to be more difficult to take care of our parents or have children at an earlier age. We feel inadequate when we’ve never learnt to conduct ourselves well at interviews because the schools we went to did not expose us to it, or, when our siblings are not going for 3 tuition classes a week because our parents can only afford one after cutting back on other expenses.

These experiences make us worried that our meritocracy is one with strings attached, and one that is increasingly narrow. We’re scared that we cannot aspire as high, as wide and as far as we could before.

Next, social identity is also an issue that is very close to our hearts. Many tectonic shifts globally and regionally are reshaping our social identities. It’s getting harder to decide what Singapore is and being Singaporean means. This cuts to the core of whether Singapore will continue to be a national project that all Singaporeans want to be part of.

A lot of us are worried for our parents and grandparents as we embark on our charge to become a Smart Nation. Going cashless, using high-tech phone applications, relying on artificial intelligence, are not activities we can expect our Ah Gong or Ah Ma, our Nenek or Datuk, our Paatti or Thatha to get used to over a few years. In time to come, technological disruptions will become even more pervasive, perhaps to the point where basic services might be denied to those without technological know-how. Even as you continue to portray a utopian vision of a Smart future, we are troubled by the likelihood of the 4th Industrial Revolution displacing older Singaporeans. Some of our peers, too, struggle to live up to the discourse that a Singaporean must not stop upgrading, upskilling, and increasing productivity. Technology does not always strengthen; sometimes it splinters.

And it’s not just technology. As our world continues to get more interconnected, other centres of gravity will become stronger. Stronger expectations will arise for Singaporeans to reconsider, or even replace, their existing Singaporean identity. Some of these identities will be, and perhaps are already becoming, alluring alternatives to the Singaporean identity. As regional countries try to elevate their stature, we will be increasingly pressured to give up our sovereign spaces. We will be pushed to lean towards some sides over others, or risk certain consequences. Sometimes, things can also get difficult and involve a display of might or even a multi-faceted attempt to tear our social fabric apart. You will have the unenviable job to stand firm and fly our flag high even in the face of foreign pressure. Through it all, our resolve on what it means to be Singaporean and Singapore will be severely questioned.

We’ve shared our concerns about social inequality, social mobility and social identity. These concerns, if you reframe them, stem from an ideal of Singapore we all share – one characterised by cohesion, aspiration, and belonging. Ultimately, we yearn for unity in a time when many internal and external factors threaten to tear us apart.

Finally, what is Singapore to you?

Some of us in the college attend a Senior Seminar titled, “Singapore as a “model” city?”. As the title suggests, we have been asking ourselves what makes Singapore a model city or not. Recently, we were reading an article by Steven Poole and at the end of his article, Poole quotes Shakespeare, saying: “What is the city but the people?” Or, if you are not a Shakespeare fan, and you prefer superheroes, Thor said this in the recent movie: “Asgard is not a place, it's a people” Indeed, who are the people who make up Singapore?

We all have different identities. Some of us have big families, while some of us come from single-parent homes; some of us are straight, while some of us are LGBT; some of us are religious, while some of us are agnostic; many of us are Chinese, while some of us are from a minority ethnicity; some of us work for global MNCs, some of us for local SMEs; some of us want to pursue fine arts, while some of us are doing computing.

And while these identities mean the world to all of us, it is also the case that some of us have it easier and better than others. We see this very clearly in some sections of the law, from your policies, in the types of opportunities available or denied to different people and the way these laws and policies are shaping the attitudes of our fellow Singaporeans. We know that acceptance and change is not going to happen overnight, and we’ve heard the message many times about the need to maintain an uneasy harmony because these things are too sensitive. Yet at the very least, all we want to have is an affirmation that it is okay to be who we are; that we are not any less Singaporean because of our family background, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, age, passion, occupation or interest.

We agree that our harmony is critical and our differences potentially sensitive. Yet, surely, there must be a stage where we need to begin to have more real, open and civil interactions about these topics. Your appointment is the time for us to stop being cautious around diversity, to begin to embrace it courageously, and to trust us that we can handle this conversation. In a decade where we will face many threats to our Singaporean identity, there are few better avenues to forge a deeper unity than to embrace our diversity.

In some years' time, you will lead your party in the elections. We're quite certain you will include something along the lines of "for the people", "for Singapore" or "for us" in your manifesto. You must know that we do not doubt your commitment. But we hope that when you say, "for the people", "for Singapore", or "for us", you include those amongst us who are trapped in the cracks we create, silenced by the lines we draw, or rendered invisible by the walls we build. After all, what is the city, but the people? We end this letter by sneaking in one final question. What was your dream for Singapore when you were younger?

Perhaps over the years, that youthful and idealistic self has since been moderated by the realities of the world; by the severity of geopolitics; by the complexities of governance.

But dear Prime Minister, do you recall these familiar lyrics?

This is home truly, where I know I must be // Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows Singapore today is the culmination of our dreams. We occasionally have our youthful ideals counteracted too when we begin to worry about many things – from trying to raise our CAPs, searching for a job, finding that special partner, to figuring out what we love. But, what keeps us going is that this dream – this Singapore that we have come to know in our lives – is a precious one that we can continue holding tightly on to.

We hope that you will never forget what you dreamt of when you were younger, even if sometimes these ideals seem harder to achieve. A country only becomes a home because of her people’s dreams.

From Tembusu with love

This letter addressed to the future fourth prime minister of Singapore was read out by sociology undergraduate Tan Yang Long in a forum titled “Singapore’s Fourth Prime Minister: Aspirations and Expectations” on 20 March 2018 and subsequently shared on Facebook. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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