Published on 01 Jul 2022

Are the five Cs still relevant today?

TREK back 20 years to February 2002, when the Remaking Singapore committee – the brainchild of then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong – was set up to pry Singaporeans away from traditional material pursuits. Then, the 5Cs loomed large in the nation's consciousness. Today, talk around them has dissipated – but does that mean that the committee achieved its objectives?

The 5Cs of careers, condos, country clubs, credit cards, and cars – once seen as the "Singapore Dream" – were, for much of the 20th century, an aspiration for many. Tick all those boxes and you would have reached the proverbial holy grail.

But as lifestyles change and standards of living rise, aspirations are no longer as straightforward.

The evolving Singaporean dream

Ideas around the "C"s have shifted with Singapore's evolution, says Dr Paulin Tay Straughan, professor of sociology and Dean of Students at Singapore Management University (SMU).

"The 5Cs – we can archive most of them. For our current generation of youth, they are dreaming a lot bigger than that," she says.

Young Singaporeans dream of more abstract values than material success, say student leaders.

Compared to their parents, youths today have grown up in a more comfortable environment that provides space for exploration and self-actualisation, says Ethan Ong, council chairperson of Nanyang Technological University Students Union (NTUSU) and president of NTU Accountancy and Business Club.

That is why their dreams can no longer be encapsulated within the 5Cs, he says: "Each individual has goals and desires which often differ greatly from our peers."

Youths' dreams can no longer be encapsulated within the 5Cs, says NTU's Ethan Ong, as each individual has unique goals and desires.

The Singapore Dream will evolve as the country develops and progresses, says Lee Yat Bun, president of National University of Singapore Students' Union (NUSSU).

"I cannot speak for all Singaporeans youths today, but the general direction seems to be that they dream of things that would allow them to better express themselves and be more in line with their personal beliefs and values," Lee adds.

Sara Tan, SMU Students' Association (SMUSA) president, sees today's Singapore dream as preserving and valuing "what we have now" while advancing purposefully, keeping in mind the effect on others and the external environment.

Career: From loyalty to meaning

These changing attitudes are perhaps most noticeable when it comes to careers.

"In my parents' generation, many viewed employment as a means to an end," Lee notes. "Contrastingly, many of the current youths see employment as an end in itself. They like to have their work align with their own life purposes and have it represent some of their personal ideals."

The share of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in Singapore's resident workforce has increased steadily to reach 62.1 per cent in 2021, up from 52.7 per cent in 2011 and 42 per cent in 2001, according to Ministry of Manpower figures. In other words, white-collar careers are now the norm, rather than something to be coveted.

Granted, the majority may still aspire towards high-paying mainstream careers – but more are also going into less traditionally desired areas like social entrepreneurship, Dr Straughan says.

"We do see more who have slightly different aspirations, because they can afford to, they have sufficient knowledge," she says. "It really is about curating alternative pathways for success."

There is also practicality in taking the path less travelled, Dr Straughan notes. Intense competition makes it tough to be recognised as a good banker, for instance; but it may be easier to make a name in a newer type of job, such as being an environmentalist.

"What else is relevant? What should I be striving for? How do I make an impact in the space that I am in?" are some questions guiding the next generation of employees, she adds.

As SMUSA's Tan sees it, company loyalty and pride, as well as earning enough to survive and give their children a better life, may have been prominent factors 20 years ago – but now careers are about personal growth, exposure and experience.

"There is a greater emphasis on mental wellness and room for creativity to map a career that reflects (youths') aspirations, rather than just focusing on making ends meet for the family," she adds.

SMU's Tan, notes careers are now about personal growth, exposure and experience rather than just earning enough to survive. Condo: Content with HDBs?

A good career is still valued, though the definition of "good" may have broadened. Similarly, home ownership remains important, but the question is what counts as a dream home.

SMUSA's Tan says that Housing and Development Board (HDB) build-to-order (BTO) flats remain the default choice due to their affordability, given the subsidies for young couples.

"With greater access to information and ideas, youths can customise and furnish their homes the exact way they like it to be, and with e-commerce platforms such as Taobao, there are several affordable options to furnish the home," she says. "I think it will be more practical to be able to 'design my home' and live in a HDB flat."

A condominium is a "want" and not a "need", as a regular HDB flat is satisfactory for most Singaporeans, says 30-year-old Daniel Phang, a Republic Polytechnic graduate who now works as an intellectual property manager. "Getting a condo is not ideal for me now, as housing prices have gone up drastically as compared to the past."

HDB flats may also have become more attractive as the government tries to bridge the gap between public and private housing, notes Dr Straughan.

Christine Sun, senior vice-president of research and analytics at OrangeTee & Tie, agrees: "For some people, they are satisfied with buying a BTO flat especially since there are now more HDB flat options in the market, such as Prime Location Public Housing model flats that offer well-designed flats in prime locations."

But Dr Straughan suspects that owning a condo or "private home" is still an aspiration – just one that the youth do not articulate as much because of the high costs.

The ambition to own and live in a private condominium is still very much intact among Singaporeans, including younger couples, says Ismail Gafoor, chief executive officer (CEO) of PropNex Realty.

"Generally, we think many Singaporean families still aspire to own and live in a private residential property – our sense is that has not changed significantly over the past 20 years, looking at the robust private home sales last year," Gafoor says.

PropNex research and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) figures show that private home sales have been increasing since 2019, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Total private home sales excluding executive condominiums (EC) rose 59.3 per cent year on year in 2021 to 32,989.

HDB flats are a good way for young people to get on the property ladder, especially for those who are cash-strapped or lack financial support from their families – and some then see it as a "stepping stone" to purchasing a private property, notes Sun.

"Given the attractive rental yield, investment potential and prestige of owning private properties, condos are still an ideal property option for many people," Sun says. "As HDB flats are highly subsidised, many people do make a handsome profit when they sell their flats… many use the profit earned from their flats to pay the downpayment for a new condominium."

Even while noting the attractiveness of BTO flats, SMUSA's Tan acknowledges "the consideration of profiting from the house", saying: "Would this be a permanent home or one for profit? It really depends on the couple's financial situation and their priorities."

Credit cards: Popular but commonplace

Perhaps the pursuit of material gain continues, and it is just the form that has evolved. If credit cards have lost any of their shine, it is not because today's youth are less materialistic, but because cards are now just another way to pay.

"Strictly speaking, credit cards are not a necessity. Especially now, given the ability to split up payment for big-ticket items through alternative payment options," says NUSSU's Lee.

Credit cards are not a necessity, but still provide a form of financing that is distinct and time-proven, says NUS's Lee.

Credit cards used to convey a sense of financial prestige when they were relatively harder to procure, but now that they are easy to obtain, ownership has become normalised, Dr Straughan notes.

Billing sales in 2021 rose about 15 per cent year on year for credit cards and 25 per cent for debit cards, indicating continued strong adoption of both, says Jacquelyn Tan, head of group personal financial services at UOB.

According to year-to-date statistics from UOB, customers in their 20s comprise 40 and 35 per cent of new-to-bank sign-ups for credit and debit cards respectively, while those in their 30s account for 35 and 30 per cent of total sign-ups respectively.

Credit cards are still important, with a growing number of options, while physical cash is being displaced instead. "We also saw, aside from the rise in credit and debit payment, the rise in contactless payments," says UOB's Tan, with the bank's contactless payment sales up 40 per cent year on year in 2021.

Today, digital payment solutions offer greater convenience and easier transnational transactions, even when using credit or debit cards. For instance, accessing cash back rewards information or tracking travel miles can all be done digitally, she adds.

"Credit cards still provide a form of financing that is distinct and time-proven," NUSSU's Lee says. "Recent 'Buy Now Pay Later' products have been on the rise that offer similar options to defer payment in the form of instalments. However, they are essentially still different in nature and offer their own respective benefits."

Cars: More on the road, but a lesser need

Cars are a time-proven aspiration with prestige being part of the equation. According to the Department of Statistics, there were 579,369 private and company cars on the road in 2021, up from 398,787 in 2001.

This rise is roughly in line with the increase of Singapore's total population from 4.1 million in 2001 to 5.4 million in 2021. The percentage of cars against the Singapore population was 9.6 per cent in 2001 and 10.6 per cent in 2021.

But the rising price of car ownership may change things. While owning a car offers flexibility in transport, buying one is not ideal if that stretches one's finances thin, Phang notes.

In June 2022, category B and open category Certificate of Entitlement (COE) premiums were S$106,001 and S$104,400 respectively – more than triple what they were in June 2002, at S$32,499 and $32,511.

"In this current climate where the price of the COE is almost the same as the cost of the car, it really does make one wonder if owning a car is a necessity as it is an additional burden on your finances," Phang adds.

Furthermore, with ride-hailing options coming to one's doorstep and rise in vehicle rental options – together with a continually improving public transport network – there is less need to own a car, Dr Straughan notes.

"With road tax, fuel, parking, maintenance and COE, it may be easier and cheaper to take private hire services," says SMUSA's Tan. "I would buy a car, however, if it saves me time. If not, there is no need especially if the transport infrastructure improves continually."

Country clubs: Going out of fashion

With improved communications technology and the rise of social media, youth today can maintain social connections conveniently, meaning less of a need for the communal feelings and social gatherings that formed part of the allure of country clubs, notes NUSSU's Lee.

"Country club memberships are not so relevant to youth. The facilities offered in country clubs can easily be accessed through much more affordable options and the appeal of country clubs is not as strong nowadays," says NTUSU's Ong.

Youth today have access to a wide range of gym and retail membership offerings, substituting country club offerings at a much lower cost, Phang says.

Country clubs appealed to a certain generation because they signified prestige and exclusiveness, but that is not the case for the younger generation, Dr Straughan notes.

"The notion of prestige is very subjective. What is deemed prestigious today may not be prestigious 10 years or 5 years from now, and country clubs have become one of them," she adds.

New Cs to think about

As some of the original 5Cs recede, perhaps new ones could take their place. 'Conscious consumption' is a pertinent C today as consumers increasingly seek cars, homes and other material needs that promote environmental and social consciousness – deviating away dollars and cents as the primary concern, says UOB's Tan.

"People are more interested in sustainability-linked solutions," she says, citing the rise of green loans and electric vehicles as examples.

More youths are being more conscious about their consumption behaviour by educating themselves on where and who their economic contributions support in the long run, notes SMUSA's Tan.

"We have come a long way from developing an economy to managing a developed one. Now, it is shifting towards societal equity, bringing people together and helping those in need," she adds.

Condominiums could be replaced by 'Contentment', as not only do HDB resale and BTO options provide affordable housing, some also come with the similar prestige to owning a condominium, notes Dr Straughan.

'Convenience' is another C to think about, says Phang, citing the growth of e-payment solutions and transportation options in Singapore.

Other possibilities are 'consumer-friendly payment solutions' instead of credit cards, and 'communal feeling' instead of country club memberships, he adds.

In short, the new 5Cs could be less about material indicators of success, and more about underlying aims.

Source: The Business Times