Do young Singaporeans lack drive and willingness to venture out?

At a recent forum at the Singapore Management University, Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat expressed his concern about young Singaporeans’ perceived lack of drive and lack of willingness to venture out of their comfort zone. He was given this feedback earlier by a group of CEOs who owned their own companies.

A personal experience with driven young Singaporeans

Do young Singaporeans lack drive? While I think the CEOs that Mr Heng mentioned had their valid concerns, my experience has given me confidence that there are Singaporeans who can have drive, when given the opportunity to unleash it.

I used to run a local operations that had 140 employees at its peak, with Singaporeans and PRs forming the majority. They were mostly recent graduates from local polytechnics and universities. The nature of the business required many Infocomm Technology (ICT) diploma graduates to be posted to local schools to train students in ICT skills and to assist with e-learning deployment. Many stay less than 3 years in this line as they took it as a stepping stone to other ICT professions. It was the norm in the industry we operated in. Hence over the 9-year period that I ran the business, I had the opportunity to observe as employer, a few hundred young Singaporeans with at least a diploma qualification.

I encountered Singaporeans on both ends of the spectrum – highly motivated and driven ones as well as those wanting to do just the minimum required of the job. As a growing start-up, we constantly needed people to fill key positions, namely in sales and operation management as well as middle managers to oversee an expanding operation. Initially, we hired people with track record in their previous jobs not related to our industry. It didn’t quite work out because the school environment was very different from that of the corporate world. We changed our human resource policy to recruit our own outstanding ICT educators placed out in the schools to fill key positions in the corporate office.

We had limited vacancies each year, so we would only promote those who had done exceptionally well in their existing jobs. We kept our eyes and ears on our pool of ICT educators to determine who had the drive to succeed in a new and more challenging role. This internal hiring policy was made known to all staff.

We could find Singaporeans with the drive to succeed. We increased their challenge level and some rose above that. Qualifications didn’t matter. What mattered was Attitude. Those who could perform the tasks were given the opportunity. The one who eventually rose to lead the software development team had come through a vocation institute and the one who led the company after I exited the business was originally a non-ICT polytechnic graduate, though he later obtained his Bachelor degree and MBA while working for the company. I observed that a lot of what they knew were self taught. Many rose through our junior ranks to hold key positions. What set them apart was the drive to succeed. Those who impressed me the most with their positive attitudes were all Singaporeans.

Is the lack of drive and willingness to venture out real?

So young Singaporeans can have drive. I could find those I needed to fill my business needs when I threw open the challenge and empowered those we identified. However, I understand where these CEOs were coming from. I too had my fair share of young Singaporean staff who lacked drive and initiative. 

Twenty years ago, as a university teaching staff, I had many young researcher colleagues from China and India as NUS opened up its postgraduate programmes to foreigners. Most came as singles and worked hard. How hard we work is sometimes related to how much we have. Those who have little often aspire to have a better life. That aspiration can drive them to work hard.

I visited Vietnam frequently in the mid 1990s, both for work and for a university course which involved a case study of Vietnam. I observed young Vietnamese in their twenties working a day job and attending courses or working a second job in the evenings. Learning centres for English, IT or business skills were packed, sometimes with one instructor to 100 students in the low-cost learning centres. I thought to myself then that they would surely give their neighbouring economies a good run for their money, once good policies are in place. The population was young, hardworking and driven. I observed the same thing of China too, with people competing hard to rise above the rest.

However, in recent years, I noticed children of rich Vietnamese and Chinese less driven than those I saw a decade ago. They have the choice of enrolling in private and international schools and their needs are well taken care of. I could hardly see any overweight Vietnamese children or adults in the 1990s. You can find them quite easily now.

Too much good things can make a person less driven. I like Steve Jobs’ philosophy for life, which was to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” When we have this attitude, even when we have enough comforts for a good living, we should continue to find in us the hunger to do more. Doing more does not necessarily mean acquiring more material wealth, it can also be about finding fulfilment in achieving.

Singapore had prospered in recent decades. Our forefathers were definitely hungrier and many were driven by the need to find a livelihood. From this perspective, perhaps the CEOs were right in that they could find hungrier workers from China and India.

We have also been conditioned to follow a fixed path for success. Study hard, do well in your examinations and you will be able to get a stable job. Schools prefer to get students take subjects that have definite answers because we can drill students to get the correct answers in examinations. We shun subjects that have ambiguous answers. So it is not surprising that in our culture, the willingness to embrace ambiguity and get out of the comfort zone seems lacking compared to other societies where people are either forced by circumstances to venture out or because they have been conditioned from young to handle ambiguity.

Having said so, I would not make a generalisation and say that all young Singaporeans are risk averse. As an entrepreneur, I have met many young Singaporeans taking the unconventional and risky path of start-ups. In running my business, I found Singaporeans willing to thrust into new and more challenging roles. However overall, I agree that there is a worrying trend of more people becoming less willing to venture out into the unknown.

What can our education system do about this?

The important question is what we can do to increase students’ drive and their willingness to take on new challenges? We cannot re-create a situation of poverty to make people have more drive or force them to venture out for the sake of finding a livelihood. How can we use our education system to prepare students better for the 21st century economy?

I suggest we can explore a few areas:

1. Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty

Our curriculum should not be afraid of exposing students to subjects that are ambiguous. Subjects such as literature, art and political studies will open students’ minds to alternative viewpoints. We should encourage students to debate over different opinions. Debating is not easy to handle in schools but should not be shunned.

Ambiguity happens all the time in life. Steve Jobs in his 2005 speech at Stanford university, shared the story of connecting the dots in his life. Many events in life cannot be fully planned for. He recounted how random decisions he made earlier in life only connected in the future to become important influencers in his success. One was his decision to drop out of college but staying on to pursue courses that interest him. The course on calligraphy exposed him to what great typography was about. Ten years later, he introduced that in the Macintosh to create the first computer with beautiful typography.

Steve Jobs was learning, not studying for a course requirement. The assimilated knowledge became useful later on. We should not be afraid of exposing students to content outside of their core requirement. We should also encourage them to be adaptable to apply what they have learnt to different context. Being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty will prepare students better to take on new challenges.

2. Promote inquisitiveness

An Israeli Nobel prize winner was interviewed on Singapore radio some years back. He summarized the key difference between Israel and Singapore education with a story. He said when he was a young student, his mother would ask him when he returned from school, what good questions he had asked in school that day. The Singaporean mother would ask how the child did in spelling tests and examinations.

Would our teachers encourage children to ask curious questions in class, even those out of syllabus? Would parents be more interested to know if their children had asked good questions rather than to know their performance in a test? Kids are naturally curious. I hope the formal education our children go through will protect and nurture this inquisitiveness and not kill it with conformity to standards and expectations.

3. Celebrate innovation and creativity

Renowned education thinker Sir Ken Robinson observed from a longitudinal study of 1,500 children over 10 years that divergent (creative) thinking decreases with age. He observed that the current education system was invented during the industrial revolution but has not adapted to fit the fast changing dynamic world that bombards us with loads of instant information and is paved with uncertainty.

The ability to constantly innovate is important to survive in the 21st century. By exposing children to, as well as guiding them through tasks that require them to be innovative and creative at an early age, they can become more confident in taking on new challenges later in life. I believe the school curriculum can be redesigned to incorporate more opportunities for students to practice innovation and creativity. Give them the space to explore solutions to problems.

4. Learn resilience and other key life skills

Developing resilience will increase our ability to handle setbacks and provide greater drive to succeed. I read with interest the Straits Times report on 30 January 2012 that “SAF seeks to build mental toughness in recruits.” SAF found that recruits who went through its resilience-building programme outjumped, outran, outshot and outperformed those who did not.

Sounds wonderful. Why start only at National Service? The programme should be shared with MOE to see if it can be adapted and used in schools.

Resilience can best be learnt through life experiences. This is where I believe Co-Curricula Activities (CCAs) are important. CCA when implemented seriously, can build mental toughness and discipline. When CCAs involve competitions, it can bring out the experiences of the joy of victory and the pain of defeat. It can instil discipline and create the drive in students to win. Hence, I thought the 2010 Secondary Education Review and Implementation (SERI) committee report had a good recommendation to introduce more 2nd tier competitions to allow for greater participation of students. I hope this will be seriously carried out.

5. Deal with our examination culture

The most major factor driving our mindset of education is the heavy emphasis on examinations. Examinations are useful for determining how well students have learnt. However, by having many high stake examinations throughout the student’s journey, education becomes skewed towards delivering for examinations rather than on actual learning. It defines what schools will do to ensure good performance at examinations. Parents put children through hours of tuitions weekly out of fear that poor performance at any one of the key examinations will destroy the child’s future.

Students may end up being examination-smart but not really learning. They may become conditioned that the one way to succeed is drilling for examinations. Those who do well in their studies will tend to seek a secure and proven path in their career, as the risk of venturing out may be too high for them.

Tackling the examination culture will be very difficult because it has become so entrenched in our system and in the mindset of the population. But we will need to take a critical look at the issue and make changes where necessary, otherwise good initiatives will be killed in the process of implementation by the examination culture.


I believe that by adjusting our education approach, we can help improve the drive in Singaporeans and build up their willingness to accept new challenges. Having a can-do and resilient mindset will take Singapore forward into our next lap.

6 comments on “Do young Singaporeans lack drive and willingness to venture out?

  1. Well-written article! You more or less point out where the problem lies. A lot of people are unwilling to get out of the comfort zone. This is very ingrained in the culture of Singapore, as you can see people refusing to make any adjustments and only want to play safe by going according to books. Most of us like orderliness. If there is ambiguity, they feel very uncomfortable and refuse to budge an inch, unless given clearance from the top. This is probably in school, we’re taught to believe there is another ‘one perfect answer’ to each question and you have to memorize this answer in case the same question comes out in the next examination.

    To get rid of this kiasu culture and stick to comfort zone mentality, really needs some sort of ‘cultural revolution’ – a big change on the whole society’s mindset. This kind of change probably may need a generation to overcome this, because human nature is such that changes usually happen very slowly, and especially due to the aging population, we’re even more resistant to change.

    You have a nice weekend!

  2. Another reason could be the high education debt issue. same for housing issue. that’s why not many ppl are willing to step out of comfort zone.

    Check out obama’s speech at Michigan.

    I think he pointed out a very good point. Tuition costs cannot just keep forever increase, so do student education debt. Schools also need to cut costs and provide good value for the students.

  3. Just a thought about why Singaporeans think about failure when they are offered an opportunity to move out of their comfort zone.

    Could it be because most people do not feel much support from the general environment in which they find themselves?

    When children are not coping in school, how many feel they can turn to their teachers to ask for help? How many teachers are able to offer their time and effort to help a child manage his schoolwork or are asked to take the trouble to know their students’ family circumstances so that assistance can be provided?

    At work – it is not unusual for all to go nicely when something successful happens but when there is a failure, for finger pointing and the wonderful art of “tai-chi” to immediately come to the fore. Or for the quality of relationships to vary depending on the outcomes of actions – a boss told a new trainee in a bank – “I’ll support you if your idea is successful, if not I don’t want to know about it.”

    Perhaps in our culture, there is no space for mistakes, there is no time for the unsuccessful and there is no patience to help losers become winners.

    Coupled with other preoccupations like face and the (good) belief in self-reliance, perhaps we have learnt to calculate the risk of failure – the downside. And know that if we fail, we are for the most part, on our own.

    And so we don’t ask about support (like Europeans do) and we prefer the bird in hand to the two still in the bush.

  4. Hi JJ, trying the untrodden path takes courage. I agree with you that it is the attitude that counts. There are a small number who chose to pursue ideals like yourself:) But the majority probably goes with the “the bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” – as pointed out by Leslie. Thanks for the article and thots:) I’ve also shared a pix on the change in school culture over the years in the latest blog post – Can we create a Blame-Less culture in schools? (

  5. A rather insightful article except that I notice that you have used the example of Steve Jobs quite extensively. I read Jobs’ authorized biography written by the acclaimed author, Walter Isaacson. From the biography, his life is somewhat messy, full of wilful anecdotes of selfish behavioural patterns and foolish decisions. He has also frankly admitted to making many mistakes such as getting a young woman (whom he did not marry) pregnant and hiring people for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, Steve Jobs has made significant contribution to product innovation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s