By Gerald Koh
For all the young Singaporeans out there, you’re probably accustomed to a certain path of how your life journey is supposed to unfold over the years. From childhood to adulthood, this is communicated to you by others in your life and what society tells you.
You do well in PSLE, get into a good secondary school (somewhere that can possibly pass as ‘elite’), ace your O-Levels and get into a junior college, sail through your A-Levels and conclude it all by getting a nice university degree — and then settling into a well-respected and comfy corporate or government job. Of course, for the young men, this traditionally will also include a stint in National Service between junior college and university, which results in a boys-to-men transformation, and thereby a de facto rite of passage.
In fairness, the caveat of a route through polytechnic is also commonly mentioned, but regardless, I’m sure you have basically heard a version of this life route at some point or another. It is something that is presented as the tried and true formula for succeeding in Singapore.
However, there have been people who did not fit into this mould and tried to carve out a different kind of livelihood for themselves. With that in mind, we should collectively ask whether it is possible to break the dichotomy of whether a young Singaporean should follow this school to office job pipeline or fall behind in the rat race and end up completely shattered.
One route that could be a very viable alternative is that of entrepreneurship. To be fair, this is a path that is strongly recognised and pursued by Singaporeans. Even our Government has been setting up more initiatives to push more people into pursuing entrepreneurship. In such an endeavour, you wouldn’t need to submit yourself to an institution or any kind of authority structure.
Despite these pros, the entrepreneurship route comes fraught with risk. It requires you to be goal-driven, adaptable and decisive amidst adversity and uncertainty. But aside from a strong mindset, the high capital required to startup and weather potential setbacks mean many who attempt entrepreneurship may not find long-term success.
That, perhaps, is why there aren’t more people attempting to be entrepreneurs and instead choose the cookie-cutter route, one that is perceived to be a less risky path. Nonetheless, it would be good if we continue to encourage people to at least consider this route.
What about finding a career based on other practical skills that aren’t necessarily associated with our classroom environment, which often focuses on just very basic reading, writing, mathematical calculations, and memorisation?
For example, we see the confluence of digital content, and how the digital sphere is so integral to the functioning of modern life; that is what fuels the increasing demand for skills such as graphic design and videography; things that are often taught at a tertiary level as a speciality.
It is fair to claim that the career paths of videographers, photographers, and graphic designers are very much in demand, and can even result in a hugely blooming career based on one of those singular skills. Entertainment sectors like Hollywood and big companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple will certainly require such roles to be fulfilled.
With such work that requires specific skill sets and creativity, another valuable way to pursue a career is through freelancing — where you provide your skill sets to companies on a project basis. This provides flexibility to determine your own workload, and can be profitable.
There is also the option to enter a profession where you can work with your hands. Jobs such as plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, and HVAC workers are essential workers, yet their jobs are often overlooked due to the seemingly low barrier to entry. However, a large obstacle to enticing others into these fields is its low wage ceiling, which makes it difficult to earn a high income compared to other career paths. Take HVAC for example — its average income is roughly the same as what recent graduates from university earn, and very far off from experienced professionals in typical university-graduate fields (doctors, bankers, IT heads etc.).
And, while many will instantaneously disregard this option, perhaps more people should consider whether they should enter an entertainment-related field — to become a singer, actor, screenwriter or the likes. The shame is that, similarly with entrepreneurship, pursuing such a path is overly fraught with risk (losing money, battling red tape etc.) and ultimately not worth taking the jump.
For those who have certain artistic or creative talents, and are willing to make the effort to develop them further, they can make valuable contributions to our society — such as bringing entertainment and joy to the public and growing the country’s art scene — and make a quality trajectory for themselves. Again, this is a path that is often not encouraged but can be fruitful.
We should remember that this specific cookie-cut route set before most Singaporean youths today was not the kind of path that the youths of previous generations took, lest we all get so consumed by the standards and expectations around us right now. The school-to-office pipeline is not as ‘normal’ as many of us are used to believing.
If you think about many different famous businessmen and tycoons around the world throughout many generations, most of them did not uncritically subscribe to the school-to-office pipeline which we are familiar with. They may have struggled with their grades as young kids in school, or not bothered to pay attention while in the classroom. Some did end up entering college only to drop out. This deviation from the typical route did not stop them from succeeding with their grand ambitions and making a name for themselves.
The problem for us living in Singapore is that we are surrounded by a culture that has so firmly institutionalised this particular route of schooling and the need for an office job, to the extent that it seems like any alternative routes are unthinkable. Because our country is very small, it’s inevitable that we won’t have many opportunities beyond the cookie-cutter route mentioned earlier. For example, we are bound to have a much tinier musical or entertainment industry, and a smaller market that will for such industries.
Nonetheless, I do not believe that youths, parents, and broader society alike should dispel the possibility of such alternative routes for young people growing up, nor attach any shame to those routes. In a society that can be so permeated by materialistic thinking, as I have discussed in a previous article, it can seem unnatural or even scary to pursue a life route that doesn’t contain an immediate financial upside. But is that more important than gaining inner fulfilment than what you do, or doing something in accordance with your authentic strengths?
So, the next time you talk to a young person — or if you are a young person yourself, trying to figure out your future — know that the typical life path that Singaporean society sets before you, or almost shoves in your face, is not the only way there is.