What a very narrow subset of 18-year-olds tell us about Singapore’s future

Every year, the chairman of the Public Service Commission, Mr. Eddie Teo, interviews 350 top students. There’s no quota, but on average about 70 of them get awarded PSC scholarships.

According to Mr. Teo, there are four flaws that these top students have:

  1. They have a poor knowledge of Singapore’s history.
  2. Only a few are knowledgeable about, or interested in, current and foreign affairs.
  3. They are too risk-averse.
  4. They lack imagination and creativity.

Mr. Teo then asks,

“Why are our best students fearful of taking the less trodden paths? Why do so many choose to be public servants, lawyers and doctors, and go to the same universities in the US and UK? Why do they apply for government scholarships and not launch into business like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg?”

I think the question has it backwards.

The people who are most fearful of less trodden paths are likely to be those who walk the furthest along the well-trodden one.

Let’s do a simple thought experiment. Let’s construct a hypothetical individual who has the opposite characteristics:

  • She has a rich knowledge of Singapore’s history
  • She’s very knowledgeable, and interested in, current and foreign affairs
  • She’s very comfortable with risk
  • She’s very imaginative and creative


Why would she want to do a PSC scholarship?

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.” – Steve Jobs

It suggests to me, then, that the PSC gets the applicants that it deserves– or at least the ones that it asks for, intentionally or otherwise.

“Despite the fact that our students nowadays travel quite frequently, and much more than students in the past, many lack knowledge about, or interest in, current and foreign affairs. This apathy will not breed active citizens. Perhaps the Internet has produced a generation of young people more interested in bite-size news than deeper analysis found in books and magazines?”

The hypothesis that modern forms of communication have dulled young people’s interest in depth has been put forward for hundreds of years. Before the Internet, it was TV, before that, it was novels. (See: The Information by Adam Gopnik, and The Pace Of Modern Life, by Randall Munroe)

Were people reading deep analysis in books and magazines until the Internet showed up? I doubt it.

The reality, I think, is that young people are politically apathetic because of learned helplessness. They learn very early on that activism is naive, that you can’t really change very much about the world around you.

Think about it. If you told your teachers and parents that you wanted to change the world, start an activist group, fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, what sort of response do you typically get?

Singapore’s continued survival will require a lot of active hard work from a lot of its citizens. I think it would be a good idea to examine our assumptions about what “best and brightest” means, and the underlying sources of Singaporeans’ motivations and interests.