Singapore's growing generation gap: Divide between young and old along social and political lines

29 Jan 2020

Straits Times, 29 Jan 2020, Singapore's growing generation gap: Divide between young and old along social and political lines

"What is your response to the older generation? Do you just ignore us?"

In posing this question to a panel of young academics and activists at an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) forum last week, former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed said the inter-generational gap is now an issue in Singapore.

Young people are taking up causes and using social media to promote them. This was not the case when he was in his 20s and 30s, noted the 71-year-old, who is Singapore's Ambassador to Kuwait.

Surveys and experts say Mr Zainul is right in pointing out the gap between his baby-boomer generation (born between 1944 and 1964) and younger millennials (1980-1995), as well as those in Generation, or "Gen", Z (1996-2000s).

Recent studies suggest that on some sociopolitical issues, the gap is unprecedented - not only in terms of how wide it is, but how rapidly it is widening.

Whether it is climate change, race and religion, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights, chances are, one will find people of the younger generation at the forefront of the cause.

For example, the Singapore Climate Rally, held at Hong Lim Park last September and attended by about 2,000 people, was organised by a group of millennials. One invited speaker was only 11 years old.

Nowhere else, perhaps, is the divide more evident than with LGBTQ issues. In a 2018 IPS survey, half of those between the ages of 18 and 25 did not frown upon sex between adults of the same sex. But only 10 per cent of those above 65 said it was not wrong.

The gap on LGBTQ issues also seems to be growing.

In 2013, 24.1 per cent of respondents aged 20 to 24 felt that gay marriage was not wrong, while only 11.4 per cent aged between 55 and 59 thought so.

Five years later in 2018, the figure for the younger cohort, aged 25 to 29, had doubled to 49 per cent. But the corresponding figure for the older cohort (60 to 64 years old) only inched up three percentage points to 14.7 per cent.

This means that millennials became more liberal in their views over time, while older people stayed largely the same, widening the gap.


Young people today are more likely to use new methods to champion issues of social justice, Mr Zainul noted.

An example is Ms Monica Baey, 23, who started a national debate on sexual harassment on campuses in April last year after she criticised the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Instagram for how it handled an incident where she was filmed while showering.

Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) president Margaret Thomas, whose organisation presented Ms Baey with an award to laud her courage, said social media has given survivors of sexual violence a platform and various causes a global reach.

"A Greta Thunberg could not have happened when I was growing up," said Ms Thomas, a member of the baby-boomer generation, referring to the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist who has made headlines this past year.

IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews noted that physical interconnectivity, such as the availability and frequency of overseas travel, has helped expose younger generations to global ideas.

"Mobility and access, now at their peak, combined with much higher levels of tertiary education among millennials, could account for more liberal attitudes," he said.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, who teaches communications and technology at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, agreed.

She said young people are exposed to a wider range of ideas from more diverse sources because of social media and the Internet.

A case in point - "OK, boomer", a young person's retort to members of its namesake generation, which has come to symbolise the generational divide.

The phrase went viral online in January last year, and last month, a Facebook group in Singapore titled "A group we all pretend to be Kiasu boomers" was created. As its name suggests, members parody mannerisms idiosyncratic to Singaporeans of that generation. It now has more than 5,600 members.

But the term "baby boomer" carries with it connotations specific to a mainly Western context, of a generation that enjoyed post-war wealth and consumed excessively, perhaps justifying the ire of younger generations who now have to shoulder the consequences of those actions.

Yet, in Singapore, baby boomers helped build the nation to its current affluence while not being born into the same conditions.

As Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh told The Straits Times (ST), he and his wife grew up at a time when Singapore was poor, and thus remain frugal even though the country has prospered.

In fact, this difference in shifting social contexts could account for the different attitudes, said Professor Koh, who interacts regularly with about 600 students as rector of Tembusu College at NUS.

According to World Bank data, Singapore's gross domestic product per capita has grown over 10 times since 1980, when most baby boomers were about as old as today's millennials.

"My children's generation did not experience poverty and hardship. As a result, they are more willing to spend and are less thrifty and frugal," said Prof Koh, who is 82.

He also said the affluence and comfort that younger Singaporeans today generally enjoy may also increase their capacity to engage with "higher order" issues of social justice.


With the next general election on the horizon - it has to be held by April next year but is widely expected to take place this year - one question is how these differences may affect the politics of younger generations.

Generalising broadly, if a person in his mid-50s was asked about issues at the top of his mind, one would generally expect bread-and-butter issues like cost of living, rise in electricity tariffs or the Central Provident Fund balance. A 19-year-old may be more concerned about social justice issues, including climate change, rights and inequality.

In an Opinion piece for ST in November last year, fresh graduate Jarel Tang, 24, wrote that "business as usual" no longer works.

"To strengthen this trust (between the Government and people), especially among younger Singaporeans, it is no longer enough to promise future performance based on (the Government's) past track record, but requires additionally convincing Singaporeans that their views will be heard," he argued.

More explicitly, more than 81 per cent of the 1,056 19-year-olds surveyed by ST and the Singapore University of Social Sciences wanted a more consultative over a paternalistic government. Results from the survey released in May last year also showed that 77 per cent wanted alternative voices in Parliament.

Students who spoke to ST then said building consensus between the Government and the people would help make policies more acceptable to the public.

The country's fourth-generation political leaders seem aware of the shift in the political landscape, with many making public speeches in the past few months that emphasise the Government's willingness to partner Singaporeans in decision-making - especially young people.

These are more than just platitudes, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng, adding that it reflects the Government's recognition of growing diverse views in the national conversation.

"As with any government, the role of Singapore's Government is to let policies evolve with time. In some cases, of course the Government will take the lead, and in others, the Government will reflect society. There is no one formula."

To encourage youth involvement in a more targeted manner, Mr Baey's ministry has been spearheading initiatives like the SG Youth Action Plan, which has engaged more than 40,000 young people since May last year to help articulate a vision for Singapore in 2025.

Mr Leonard Lim, Singapore country director at political consultancy Vriens & Partners, reckons the 4G leadership has been doing enough to balance the interests of different generations - for now.

"Whether it is enough, or if young people will feel it is enough, is another thing. Apart from government-appointed panels and efforts, the question is how a ground-up proposal for change will be engaged."

Similarly, Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam said paying "lip service" will not be enough and that real platforms and opportunities for engagement and change are needed.

"The older generation sometimes needs to catch up to the vision and ideas of the young. I'm glad that many in our leadership are very open to hearing ideas and change."

Differences in politics extend also to the race of who should lead Singapore, with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat himself noting last March that the older generation was not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.

A 2016 CNA-IPS survey found that 63 per cent of Singaporean Chinese below 30 years old said they were willing to accept a Malay PM, compared with only 42 per cent of those aged 60 and older. The numbers were 70 per cent and 45 per cent respectively, for an Indian prime minister.

Mr Lim said although the Government understands the preferences of younger people on various issues, realistically speaking, those 30 and below will not have much sway for one simple reason: They form only a fraction of the voting bloc.

"So for now, I think they are still doing enough to balance the different generations," he added.


But while "majority wins" may work for politics, this may not be the case for society as a whole.

The rift in views about issues like same-sex marriage, for example, seems like it will only widen.

Mr Kyle Malinda-White, 27, an advocate of LGBTQ issues for several years, said the needle on such issues is moving, but slowly.

It is understandable that older generations who grew up in a society where LGBTQ people were associated primarily with promiscuity, disease and other negative qualities would have certain views, he said.

"But this has changed, and we can see that queer people are leaders in their own industries, and have normal concerns and worries like everyone else," he added.

One challenge is that the use of social media by younger people can widen the gap on such issues, creating online "echo chambers", as Ms Thomas pointed out.

Similarly, Mr Baey said social media can amplify selective views and sentiments. "People can get trapped within certain ways of thinking," he added.

An obvious solution is to go offline and have different generations spend more time with each other in real life, as several panellists at last week's IPS forum suggested.

But this cannot be done in a way where people, old and young, are just "thrown into a room" and expected to bond, said Dr Crystal Abidin, one of the panellists.

"I think if you want to groom empathy and understanding, you naturally have to spend time with people," said the senior research fellow at Australia's Curtin University.

Differences in opinion and political attitudes are not necessarily a bad thing either, observers said.

Prof Koh said he is not worried that this gap may have a negative impact on social cohesion.

"It is normal to have a generation gap. Why? Because each generation is moulded by its circumstances, challenges and values," he said.

In fact, this diversity of opinion is a good thing for a global city striving to be a smart nation, said Ms Thomas, whether across or within generations.

"We need new ways of looking at issues, challenges to the status quo, the desire to discuss and debate and to shape bold new approaches. If it is younger Singaporeans who are leading the way in this, then it augurs well for our future."