Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Singapore’s Pioneer Generation, work ethics and accountability

How soon will the phrase 'Pioneer Generation' join Singapore's popular lexicon? The answer may reflect upon the values held by Singapore's younger generation. The 'Pioneer Generation' phrase was aptly used by Prime Minister Lee to describe the generation of senior Singaporeans' responsible for propelling Singapore into the developed world's ranks in one generation.

Undoubtedly, Singapore owes a great debt to those who built Singapore into the prosperous city-state of today. The debt becomes greater if one remembers the realities of life during the 1960 – 1980s.

Jobs were not as plentiful – perhaps not plentiful at all; no Medishield program to pay for medical expenses; public transportation was in its infancy: the subway system was inaugurated as recently as 1987. That too with a single train line between Toa Payoh and Yio Chu Kang. Education was about learning survival skills – not a means to actualize creative potential in 'abstract' artistic or creative fields. The transition from kampong attap huts to Housing Development Board (HDB) flats – with all its associated implications for piped water, sanitation, etc. - only began in earnest in the late 1960s.

A glimpse of traditional 'kampong' or village life of yesteryears
Today, in 2013, the quality of public infrastructure is world class. Singaporeans' need not be quite as anxious about basic necessities such as housing, medical care and education. Worries have shifted to questions about quantum of disposable income (how to pay for the next vacation, latest phone, new car, etc.); getting one's child into a secondary school of choice; or the desire to maintain a better work-life balance ... and so on.

I am a newcomer to Singapore. I did not witness the transformation of marshy swamplands into concrete towers leave alone the shift from kampongs to community centers. However, I get the impression the urban landscape is not the only characteristic which has changed in the city-state.

Many Singaporeans' have lost the all-pervasive sense of ownership and accountability held so deeply by the Pioneer Generation. If something needed to happen, the community got together and did it – with the encouragement of local community leaders. The reflex action was not to complain and subsequently expect the government to address the problem by throwing taxpayer money at it.

The changes appear to have permeated the political elite too.

Sure, members of parliament are available to constituents at regular 'meet the people' sessions. However, the 'real' connection between the political elite and the population has weakened. A leadership living in landed properties or condominiums driving expensive cars to work is less able to relate to a population still overwhelmingly living in public housing and using public transport to commute to work. (Something reflected by the SMRT CEO's comments a few years ago about people having a choice to board trains?)

Additionally, many public servants (bureaucrats) seem content to keep their 'iron rice bowl' secure at the expense of delivering quality public services. The incessant 'outsourcing' of tasks to foreign workers, often supervised by more 'skilled' foreign workers, means accountability and quality of work suffers. Perhaps the 'non-Pioneer Generation' is more interested in sitting in an air conditioned office and less inclined to pull up their sleeves and make things happen?

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com


  1. You have lapped up the incessant drumming of the myth that Singapore was a marshland when LKY became the PM. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please read the real history of Singapore. There was free medical services for all Singaporeans and education cost only $2.50 per month right up to 1963 and could be waived for students who could not afford the fee.Go to the National Library and read the Annual Singapore reports from the 1950s onwards. Singapore was a vibrant and modern state even then.

  2. Hello ... Singapore certainly has been a vibrant island for many centuries - but not always with world class public infrastructure.

    Thank you for your suggestion to re-educate myself about Singapore's history and 'cleanse' myself from imbibing popular myths. However, do note a major point of my post was to highlight the change in attitude between the 'Entitled Generation' and the 'Pioneer Generation.'

    Kind regards,


  3. "The reflex action was not to complain and subsequently expect the government to address the problem by throwing taxpayer money at it."

    Inaccurate on 2 counts. Go figure what they are.

    Typical misdirection and generalization.

  4. Hello Wu Du,

    Thank you for taking the time to post a comment. I will spend my weekend trying to decipher your words.

    Kind regards,