Singaporeans’ pragmatic shift in material aspirations for 5Cs amid new realities in Singapore

The recent shift in the aspirations of Singaporeans, as noted by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong at the launch of the Forward Singapore report, raises profound questions about the evolving nature of success in a rapidly changing society.

The government initiated the Forward Singapore (Forward SG) exercise in June 2022, soliciting input from diverse segments of Singaporean society to revitalize the nation’s social compact for the future.

Speaking at the launch of the Forward Singapore Festival at Gardens by the Bay, Mr Wong observed that Singaporeans today “no longer talk so much about the five Cs”.

“There are genuine concerns about issues like housing and the cost of living, which the government is focusing on, and we are addressing them,” Mr Wong said. “But from our engagements, it is also clear that the Singapore Dream is more than just material success. It is also about fulfilment, meaning, and purpose in what we do.”

While Mr Wong suggests a move towards intangible values like fulfilment and purpose, a closer examination of the social and economic landscape suggests this shift may be less a voluntary evolution and more a reluctant acceptance, spurred by increasingly unattainable traditional goals.

The long-cherished “5Cs” of the 20th century — symbolizing material attainment through cash, cars, credit cards, condominiums, and country club memberships — seem to be drifting out of reach for many Singaporeans.

What once stood as a testament to hard work and upward mobility has been eclipsed by soaring living costs and a widening wealth gap.

The government’s approach to financial security for its citizens also comes under scrutiny, particularly in the absence of a minimum wage structure.

Despite suggestions from research indicating that a couple with two children in Singapore would require S$6,693 per month to cover basic expenses, the government has refrained from introducing a standardized minimum wage.

They argue that such figures, influenced by factors like the desire for expenses such as jewellery, perfumes, and overseas holidays, might not accurately depict basic necessities and could inflate into luxury desires.

This perspective reveals a telling aspect of the government’s philosophy towards citizens’ aspirations: advocating for living within one’s means and dampening expectations for a more affluent lifestyle.

While initiatives like the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) and Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme have been implemented to bridge the income gap, they fall short of comprehensively addressing disparities.

The study highlights that these measures, despite gradual increments since 2020, primarily allow single elderly individuals to meet the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) budget. In contrast, working-age households often achieve less than 70% of their income requirements.

This shortfall, particularly in a society witnessing a gradual erosion of the traditional “5Cs” aspirations, underscores the pressing need for more robust mechanisms to alleviate economic strains on households.

For instance, the property market, a traditional indicator of financial stability and success, is under strain. A recent report from the Urban Land Institute in May indicated that Singapore’s private home prices are the highest in the Asia Pacific, a daunting prospect for first-time buyers and middle-class households alike.

The institute attributed the sharp rise in rents and home prices to a heavy influx of immigrants and a trend among young professionals to move out of multi-generational family homes.

Regulatory measures like the Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD) have been introduced to temper the market, but they also pose new barriers to homeownership.

In 2022, Dr Paulin Tay Straughan of Singapore Management University insightfully pointed out that aspirations like owning private homes persist, but the vocal expression of these dreams has subdued, likely due to these escalating costs.

The youth, once eyeing these milestones as achievable markers of success, now confront a market where hard work doesn’t necessarily equate to financial security.

Similarly, car ownership, another traditional facet of the “Singapore Dream,” has become prohibitively expensive, with Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices reaching record highs.

The last bidding exercise saw Category E COE prices soar to a staggering S$158,004. Considering that this cost is for a depreciating asset with just a ten-year lifespan, it’s no surprise that many Singaporeans feel priced out of their own aspirations.

Even the allure of country club memberships, symbolic of a certain social status, has grown fainter for the average Singaporean. With fees for prestigious clubs like Sentosa Golf Club climbing to S$500,000 for citizens and PRs — driven by an influx of wealthy expatriates and foreign investors — this aspect of the 5Cs seems reserved for a shrinking elite.

A 2022 report by Bloomberg highlighted how prime real estate has never been more expensive, luxury-car sales are at an all-time high, and country clubs are thriving in Singapore, noting the significant settlement of affluent mainland Chinese in the region.

Sentosa Golf Club membership prices have been quietly escalating since the pandemic’s onset in 2020, primarily propelled by mainland Chinese. “Many mainland Chinese also live near Sentosa,” the owner of Singolf Services, a broker of memberships, observed.

“These are the ultra-rich Chinese; for them, it could be a small sum,” commented Lip Ooi, an instructor at the public Marina Bay Golf Course.

Furthermore, the job market and immigration policies present additional complexities.

Recent labour figures indicate an unsettling trend: job creation primarily benefiting non-residents. The swelling population, now at 5.92 million, intensifies competition in various sectors, potentially to the detriment of local citizens.

This rapid demographic shift — including 23,082 new citizens and 34,493 new PR statuses in 2022 — and its impact on job opportunities for Singaporeans is a growing concern as Singapore continues its projection for a 6.9 million population in 2030.

In the second quarter of 2023, all the jobs created went to non-residents, while retrenchment has risen from 3,200 in the second quarter to 4,100 in the third.

The “Singapore Dream,” synonymous with the pursuit of material success, is undergoing a significant transformation.

However, this shift might not be a voluntary movement towards less materialistic values but rather a pragmatic adjustment to daunting new societal realities.

A recent report by Ipsos, a research and analytics firm, coinciding with World Mental Health Day 2023, highlights the troubling mental health status of Singaporeans, hinting at a profound impact of underlying economic and social strains.

The international survey, which encompassed responses from about 1,000 Singaporeans aged 21 to 74, found a disturbing prevalence of stress and its severe effects on daily living.

Most concerning was that one in four young adults under 35 had considered self-harm or suicide.

The report further underscores mental health as an escalating crisis, with 46% of respondents ranking it among Singapore’s most urgent health challenges, a concern that even eclipses cancer.

In this context, the evolving definition of the “Singapore Dream” appears less like a conscious communal enlightenment and more like a reluctant concession.

Singaporeans are facing mental and financial burdens exacerbated by a growing wealth gap, prompting a reassessment of what is realistically achievable.

This reinterpretation differs markedly from the government’s more optimistic narrative. It’s not merely an aspirational shift but a coping strategy necessitated by circumstances that continually redefine the bounds of success.

The dream, for many, is pivoting towards a society that equitably rewards effort, offers clear opportunities, and fosters a sense of attainable success within a genuine meritocracy. It’s a longing for stability and fairness in a landscape that seems to be perpetually shifting.

As such, the government’s approach needs a dual focus: besides tackling material concerns like housing affordability, it’s vital to address the psychological toll and growing disillusionment among citizens.

The challenge lies in restoring confidence in a system that seems to drift further from the ideals it once promised.

The renewed “Singapore Dream” is, at its core, a quest for reassurance that these aspirations remain viable.

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