Singapore Dreaming

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Ronald Lim)

Is there more to life than the 5Cs?

Every Singaporean is no stranger to comparisons. The possibilities for comparisons in the education system alone are endless: students are shoved into different streams at an unripe age and there is a distinct divide between a “good” school and a “neighbourhood” school.

A classic example would be aunties pitting their children’s achievements against each other in the humdrum of Chinese New Year visitations, as if a ‘Best Mother’ prize were up for grabs. Their comparisons are made possible as the Singaporean student’s life is harrowingly linear — retaining a grade in school would mean that you spend the rest of your life making up for lost time.

Entrenched within Singapore’s elitist and hyper-competitive social landscape, comparing myself with the friends around me while growing up was quite like a reflex action. This comparison did not stop at the ambits of academia, as anything related to Singapore society’s template of success was measured and surely accounted for.

Somehow my friends all seemed certain of what they wanted and found their stride: from enrolling to dance school to performing for thousands on stage, from being mentored by distinguished professionals in their respective fields to flying the Singapore flag overseas in their sport. My situation appeared bleaker when set against my younger brother, who was chasing his badminton dream at the Singapore Sports School — the country’s premier institution for churning out champions. The last time I beat him at a game of badminton was ten years ago (tragic, I know).

In contrast to all these gifted individuals, I had achieved none of these and less. There were a host of things I could do, but there was nothing I particularly excelled in. My life was like the shelf in my room: vacant, with nothing to show. I was engulfed in a whirlwind of questions: What am I talented in? Why can’t I be like any of my friends? What exactly did God create me for?

Having grown up in the 1990s, I was well-acquainted with the “Singapore Dream,” which was very Singaporean-ly abbreviated as the 5Cs: Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium and Country club membership. This materiality of the “Singapore Dream” seemed to denote clearly what I should be living for. ‘Success’ was a neat checklist and a supposed panacea for modern drudgery.

I knew from young that this was a delusion (although I wasn’t sure why), as I had heard numerous stories from my parents about wealthy acquaintances running flourishing businesses yet they were far from content, let alone happy.

I tracked the typical Singaporean life trajectory: PSLE, O Levels, A Levels, University Degree, Decent Paying Job, Marriage, House, Kids. More questions surfaced as I thought about this definition of success: After striving to attain each and every C available, what is going to be next on the list? Wouldn’t my life still feel mindnumbingly empty?

In James 4:14, life takes on the amorphous nature of a mist — fleeting and faint. Surely the brevity of life should encompass something larger than the rigid 5Cs and society’s cursory benchmark of success? The material things shall dissipate as soon as the mist fades. Life should be rich with meaning and purpose, like the gripping stories of my friends choosing to travail the narrow road so as to realise their dreams. Maybe John Mayer was right all along; I ought to be bigger than what my body gives me credit for.

For many Singaporean youths today, another challenge (apart from desiring to transcend the 5Cs) stands in their way: we simply do not know what we want. I have asked countless of young Singaporeans about their dreams and more often than not, all I receive in return are blurlikesotong stares and furrowed brows. There is an inordinate number of students who are trapped in this eat-study-sleep-repeat cycle in the frantic pursuit of paper qualifications; youths who have not given an iota of thought into their passions.

Our lives assume a walk on eggshells, as many of us are simply afraid of lifting our heads to look beyond what has been tried and tested. Too often have we blindly submitted to this tunnel vision of Singaporean success, cowering to pragmatism.

This is clearly seen in the common aspirations of our young: lawyer, doctor, engineer. We have been socialised to think within the clearly demarcated blue lines in life’s exercise book. While this may not be entirely negative, we have become creatures content with mediocrity, settling for comfort and inadvertently, second-best.

As Christians, we are well-aware that God has promised us a “rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10, NLT); I believe that this is intimately connected to our dreams, passions and strengths. What he means for you is indubitably connected to how he made you; your call was thoughtfully tailored for your aspirations and talents. Sometimes finding God’s seemingly elusive will for our lives could mean pursuing our dreams with greater tenacity (unless He shows you otherwise).

Only in the valleys of chasing the visions of our future shall we uncover character and clarity. Only when we take the plunge into the deep and explore the very things we have always wanted to try and learn, shall we find purpose standing there waiting for your glorious entrance.

Too often has the Singaporean education system stitched our hearts and become a straitjacket for our dreams. Yet the possibility of rising above the raging tide lingers like the flicker of a flame, refusing to be snuffed out. Maybe the “Singapore Dream” is to have one after all.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


  1. rachel

    14 March

    hey joseph, I really liked this article of yours and the way you expressed what many of us feel nagging and niggling but couldn’t have put it in a better way than you’d done here. (:

  2. andrew

    31 March

    Wow love that last sentence. And totally agree that God grants us likes/abilities that may well factor into what He wants us to do with our lives. your blog is an inspiration for one my friends have planned! continue being a light

    • SELAH

      29 April

      Thank you, Andrew! This means a lot to us, especially since we’re just starting out.

      In His grip,
      Joseph + Team SELAH

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