In keeping with this quarterly’s theme of millennials, we set out to share the perspective of an organization that delves deep into issues of youth engagement here in Singapore – The Thought Collective. Starting out as an initiative to tackle youth apathy through education, The Thought Collective has evolved into an umbrella of social businesses whose mission is to collectively transform and strengthen social and emotional capital in Singapore.

Having spent last summer as an intern at The Thought Collective, it was a great opportunity for me to catch up with co-founder Ms. Kuik Shiao Yin over some iced teh (Singlish term for tea originating in Malay) to find out how the company has evolved in the past year. We also asked to hear her thoughts on the current narrative surrounding millennials; particularly within the context of her work and the burgeoning entrepreneurial scene in Singapore.

“The past few years have been some of the toughest years we have been through”, said Ms. Kuik.

“As we approach our fifteenth year, we have managed to reach a certain life cycle in the company where we see both rise and fall. It’s not something you think about when you are young and first starting out, but what we have recognized is that we as founders are changing. Who we are and what we could offer in our twenties, is different from what we can offer now that we are reaching our forties. While a lot of the narrative about us is still talking about School of Thought and Food for Thought, which we still do, where we are moving towards is using the expertise that we have built up in empathy training in various other contexts,” she explained.

“We work with Alexandra Health Care to figure out how we can help hospitals achieve better patient outcomes by training healthcare professionals in connecting with deep empathy. We also train senior civil servants through the Civil Service College to achieve greater policy outcomes by helping them to develop empathy with their stakeholders.”

“So despite the past five tough years for us, recognizing our rise and falls really makes us see things differently – it gives us a sense of what it means to build for longevity.”

THE MILLENNIAL DREAM?

Coming back to Singapore this summer, I learned that millennials already account for 40% of the workforce here. As young professionals, millennials seek meaningful and purposeful work – and I, for one, would definitely count myself in this camp. Increasingly, millennials are ditching coveted jobs in the banking, finance and consultancy to venture into entrepreneurship. And, many are looking to create social impact through businesses. we asked Ms. Kuik what she thinks about this trend.

“The millennial generation is very future oriented, they have had a lot of big pictures painted for them. They have a very strong belief in a certain future they would like to see, Ms. Kuik said, before taking a deep breath.

thoughtPhoto Credit: Singaporefoodie.com

Inside the restaurant Food for Thought, which has been running in Singapore for 9 years
and empowering low-income families through training and employment.

“Millennials are also be a bit too impatient for success, impatient for satisfaction. They have been reared on stories of supernova successes – which are the exception, not the norm. There is a great deal of personal pressure, which may be what we Gen X-ers are not privy to,” she continued.

When asked what advice she would offer to millennials seeking to go into the social start-up space she answered,

“The narrative that millennials might have to learn to appreciate is the ancient narrative of, ‘Are you building for legacy?’ I don’t think that question will ever go out of fashion for any impact entrepreneur. There is something that age will always bring – age teaches you patience – and this is vital when thinking about what the end game for an organization is.”

HERO VS. GUIDE

Aside from being co-founder of The Thought Collective, Ms. Kuik is also creative director of the firm and two-term Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP). As she adds more titles to her name, her stakeholder engagement has broadened beyond the millennials she works with under School of Thought.

When asked about how she accommodates her values to guide these different stakeholders in the direction she envisions, she responded by saying, “I’m going to first distinguish between the words guide and steer. When you steer someone, you want to lead them you to an end goal you think is best for them. I don’t think this is sustainable. But the word guide is different. Guides are interesting because if we take the example of literary narratives, within every story, there’s always a hero, who has a problem, who meets a guide, who will then give you a plan that calls you into action, allowing the hero to overcome challenges and achieve success. The greatest mistake made in the social sector is when we start to believe we are the heroes, and not the stakeholders in our story – be they the beneficiary or the funder.”

“Once you position yourself as the hero, then it’s about how the hero has a problem. You’d ask yourself? What is my problem here – the society; and the guide – maybe a mentor or a value. And it’s all about you, and your vision that you want to steer people towards. It’s not the best way to communicate to stakeholders, it doesn’t bring people alongside you. They might listen, and it sounds like a wonderful story – they could be put off or super inspired – but the point is, the person who is listening is unfortunately not in this version of the story.”

“But if you hold yourself as a guide, the only thing a guide needs to establish is empathy with the hero, and a position of authority to guide the hero to her potential. There is a certain humility in that position, and a pride in calling out the hero’s potential. So yes, how I engage young people in dialogue about where they want their society to be will be different from how I engage a CEO or a person in parliament, because they are different heroes! You have to see them as heroes. They are not the problem, or the non-hero you might otherwise see.”

“Every one of us is likely to fall into this trap. Especially in the change-making and social business sector, where it’s so much about achieving positive change. It’s very easy to start believing that you are the hero. But once that happens, you would have lost the plot!”

“If we in the social sector can say, we are nothing but guides coming from our body of experience, we come from a certain perspective of empathy or authority, but we are not the hero. Then we can better start to ask the question, ‘What does a hero want?’ ‘What are the biggest barriers they are facing?’ ‘How can we as a guide help them?’ ‘I affirm and I see how you are a hero in this story’. That’s collaboration to me.”

Keeping to the literary allusion Ms. Kuik developed, we posed her a scenario. We asked, “If you see yourself as a guide, and Singapore as the hero, what are the underlying challenges for us to overcome?”

“I think, we have a national habit of fear, that is very much embedded, partly because we see ourselves as small and vulnerable. Well, the truth is we are small and vulnerable – that is a fact; it’s not going to go away,” Ms. Kuik began.

“We joke about being kiasu and kiasi (Singlish terms for fear of losing out, and fear of failing respectively) as a cultural phenomenon. They can be very dysfunctional. Kiasu-ism in its most dysfunctional form I think, is very destructive to innovation, because kiasu-ism is myopic, it is essentially all about myself and not anyone else; and kiasi-ism at its worst dysfunction is when you say ‘I’m not going to try anything’. I fail to see why we should celebrate these habits. I do laugh about it, but after a while it stops becoming funny. It is something we need to address. There is deep anxiety in there.”

Being Singaporean, I couldn’t help but agree. I wanted to know how she would call Singapore into action, towards a future that millennials are empowered to create.

“We have forgotten that the emotion that brought Singapore from zero to 50 was not fear – it is ambition and enthusiasm. It is acknowledging that we are small and vulnerable but asking boldly ‘So what?’.”

“This ambition is meaningful, purposeful, driven. There is so much more to lose now. But if you look at what made Singapore great, it was a lot of very, very innovative, brave risks that all the early pioneers took. It was asking those big, ambitious questions! Can we be water independent? Can we go for 90% home ownership?”

Singapore has been moving towards water self-sufficiency since 2002, and aims to be water independent by 2060. and has achieved 90% home ownership.

“We are not asking these huge questions anymore. We should be asking ourselves questions such as, ‘Do you think we can thrive to 100 , and what does it take to get there?’. Then we would be prepared to break a lot more rules, and take a few more risks.

 

Ruth Abraham
Summer Associate, Advocacy and Impact Assessments