I never understood the chase for the 5Cs. So I asked my elders
By Lauren Ong
ILLUSTRATION: LAUREN ONG
A shiny car, a luxurious condo, spending my Saturdays at the country club and paying for meals with my credit card. If you were to ask me to picture my wildest dreams, this would not be it.
But for my family members who are in their 50s, the 5Cs (cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership) were something they aspired towards when they were younger.
I discovered this over lunch with my relatives as we talked about their ambitions when they were younger. Now retired, my 58-year-old uncle reminisced about the times when he would envy his classmates whose families owned a car.
At a time when cars were an uncommon sight, he had a primary school friend whose mother drove her to school everyday.
“You must be really rich for a parent to be sending you to school,” he said. “I wanted that too.’’
And when he finally got his first car, a second-hand 1300 CC Toyota Corolla, at age 25, he said that he felt “very high up in the air.”
The Singaporean Dream of owning the 5Cs was so far off from the desires of my generation I’d always thought it was just a myth.
In a survey by Class Notes of 50 students and 50 working adults aged 21 to 26, respondents ranked the ability to afford a car as least important among a list of other concerns.
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I would have ranked it the same. I get around just fine with public transport.
Instead, what seemed to be most important to them were career prospects, job security and a fair and efficient government.
What about the other Cs?
Credit cards were highly sought after back in the 80s, my uncle said. “It was as hard as applying for a bank loan today,” he said, adding that some banks required a company sponsor in order to approve the card.
I was a little taken aback when I first heard about this. I’m embarrassed to say that I have four credit cards, although all under my parents’ name. Two were “in case of emergency” supplementary cards given to me. I had to get the other two because I was going on a foreign exchange programme, but the banks for the cards that I already had were inaccessible there. All I had to do was to fill in a form.
Before you ask, I live in a condominium with my parents — so that’s one C I already have. I don’t have a country club membership but as for cash, I get enough pocket money from my parents and some part-time work.
Speaking to my relatives got me thinking about how the whole mindset of young adults can shift so much over one or two generations. What contributes to the disparity?
The Government’s efforts to develop the city, like making public transport more convenient and affordable, might be a reason, said my aunt who is in her 60s and also a retiree.
According to my elders, buses back in the day had long queues of waiting passengers. Seats were squeezy and the buses were not air-conditioned. You would reach your destination drenched in perspiration.
“Going to Orchard Road was a luxury,” said my uncle, who used to live in Woodlands. The only time he would go there was during the school holidays, and when he got older, to entertain clients for work.
Convenience aside, cars were also seen as a status symbol and a way to flaunt their wealth.
“Singaporeans, the first thing they go for is the car and not the home. They can spend a lot of money on the car but they don’t spend a lot of money on the home because with a car you can show off, show your status,” my uncle said. “But HDB... who follows you home to go where you stay? Only your close friends know where you stay.”
My uncle and aunt now own two cars and change them every five years.
But if the 5Cs don’t get my heart racing like they do for the older generation, what does?
I have a vision board at home where I pin images of goals I want to realise. It has pictures of places I wanted to go, places I wanted to work at and things I wanted to experience and see.
Covering the Hong Kong protests as a journalist? Attending a fashion show? Riding a scenic train that connected the two coasts of the United States? These are the things that would get my heart pumping. I cannot say the same for cars and condos, and it is probably the same for my peers.
I realised that the things I aspired for were things I wanted to do, whereas for the generation before me, they were things they wanted to have.
One student I interviewed after analysing the survey results said that her “emotional happiness” was more important to her than any personal satisfaction she gets from material goods.
But can the wedge between the aspirations of young people today and the past be explained by emotional happiness versus materialism?
I asked my uncle, who replied: “How can you have emotional happiness when you cannot settle your bread and butter? I always believed that when you are young you can suffer, and when you are old you enjoy the fruits of your hard work.’’
He had worried that my aspirations might not be practical enough for me to survive hard times should they come my way.
But I don’t think young people are that passive. I believe I can work as hard as my elders did. I feel the drive in the people around me and it stresses me out sometimes.
Perhaps, we don’t fret over bread-and-butter issues and attaining the 5Cs because we’ve witnessed the previous generation do it. So the yardsticks with which we measure success have shifted.
I don’t have to think about getting a credit card because I already have one (or four), and can easily fill in a form for another one in the future. I don’t think about getting a car because I can get around on the train just fine. And as for houses, they seem pretty accessible to me with all the government subsidies.
Instead, I think about the things that I want to experience, which might seem like a stretch from my current reality. And this, I think, is what makes us not all that different. We all just want to make our lives better than what we have or experience now.
The previous generation who came from a background of swimming in canals and catching spiders in Singapore’s developing years wanted to leave their Tat Sing slippers behind.
My generation who grew up against a backdrop of skyscrapers and air-conditioned buses want more.
And that’s not such a bad thing.