Defining success in Singapore

In this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that there are many paths to success in Singapore, not just the academic route. He urged young people not to get too caught up with the paper chase and they should also consider alternative routes to career success. After watching the rally, my gut feeling is that people will not be convinced that there are many paths to success here and people will continue with the paper chase. But why? There are living examples of Singaporeans who do not have degrees but they somehow have managed to surpass their degree-bearing counterparts and achieve career success. Ideally, stories about these living examples should inspire fellow Singaporeans into believing that there are indeed many paths to success here. But judging from the reactions of the people online and offline, I don’t think Singaporeans have been convinced. Why?

I have been thinking about this issue and this is my two cents’ worth. I think the problem here is that career success or success is too narrowly defined. Success seems to have a very high positive correlation with salary here. In general, the more money you make, the more success you have. I guess people have this mindset because Singapore practises meritocracy and Singaporeans believe strongly in meritocracy. In order to attain success, you have to climb the career ladder and earn more money. What a degree does for you is that it puts you in a better starting position on the career ladder and you will be able to earn the money you desire in a shorter time frame. On a side note, that is why so many Singaporeans want to become doctors, lawyers and bankers. It is true that there are people without degrees who can earn that same amount of money in due time but they usually have to take a longer route. Given a choice, why would a person give up on his/ her better starting positions (degrees) to take a longer alternative route to get to the same position?

I agree that we need a culture shift – it is unhealthy if everyone wants to achieve success in the same way. I think that making known/ increasing the number of paths to success in Singapore may help the situation but it will not be able to bring about a culture shift. To start a culture shift, we need to first re-define success in Singapore. We need a broader definition of success. Success is not about the outcome (dollars and cents); success is about the effort. For example, a housewife keeps the house running well and gives all her time and energy to her children. As a nation, can we discredit her for the effort she puts in her family? In another scenario, an old lady lives on her own and works as a cleaner and she takes pride in ensuring that the office is cleaned. As a nation, can we discredit her for her self-sufficiency and pride in her work? Aren’t these people successful in their own ways?

Success can be recognized through many ways, for instance higher pay, awards or interviews. I think Humans of New York is a wonderful project – it shows how everyone has a story to tell and when you judge people by their covers/ stereotypes, you do not know how many great people you are surrounded with. But success does not have to be recognized or flaunted for it to be there. Success stems from within when an individual feels that you have given your all in your life. Success is about working hard and taking pride in what you are doing. I met up with my junior college (high school) friends last week who are lawyers, bankers, dentist. Surprisingly, as a teacher to-be, I did not feel any tinge of inferiority. I guess I have indeed grown up. I understand that I am successful and I will be successful in ways that are greatly different from theirs but not inferior in any ways. We are all different, why compare? I have worked hard to pave my own path and I hope to tell my stories to inspire others one day. 

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt


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