A letter penned by National University of Singapore (NUS) students addressed to the next Prime Minister of the nation has been trending since it was posted online this Tuesday (20 March).
The letter is actually a transcript of a speech delivered at an NUS Tembusu College forum titled “Singapore’s Fourth Prime Minister: Aspirations and Expectations” that was held on the same day. 23-year-old sociology undergraduate Tan Yang Long who delivered the speech, written by a group of students, uploaded the 2,207-word transcript to Facebook where it has since garnered almost 1,000 likes.
Sharing the concerns of the younger generation, NUS students asked the future Prime Minister three questions which they feel would provide clarity to young people like them. The three questions are: “How much do you trust us young people?”; “How will you unite Singapore?”; and “What is Singapore to you?”
“How much do you trust us young people?”
The first question dealt with the role young people will take in society. The students asked whether the next head of government will see young people as equal partners and called for the future leader to recognise that even if young citizens have differences with the government, there can still be unity:
“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.”
“How will you unite Singapore?”
The students also expressed their concerns for those who fall in between the cracks in society and touched on social inequality, social mobility and social identity. The students brought up how negative consequences of policy decisions made in the past is fragmenting society and said:
“…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.”
Touching on how more younger Singaporeans may feel disillusioned with meritocracy, the students added:
“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.”
The students then expressed concerns that Singapore’s technological advancements and movements like the Smart Nation initiative may “splinter” society instead of strengthen it as certain groups of society – such as the elderly – may be left behind. The students added:
“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.”
Explaining that their concerns stem from a yearning for unity, the students added: “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.”
“What is Singapore to you?”
The students also asked: “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?”
The students expressed their desire that Singapore becomes more inclusive, a place where the different segments of society embrace their differences and grow more united, instead of considering differences “sensitive” issues that cannot be discussed.<
The students ended their letter with a bonus question: “What was your dream for Singapore when you were younger?” and concluded:
“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.”
Read the letter in full here.