“I really like to code and build stuff, but unfortunately my parents’ wishes are to see me in medical school. Only then can I make them proud,” says JM, a 19-year-old Singaporean male, who shared this with me over coffee. He’d sought me out for career advice.

He was then performing National Service and had to make a decision on whether to pursue a course in computer science, and was conflicted as he had also been offered a place to join an overseas medical school.

As the only son in his family who had managed to get into an elite junior college, his parents had very high expectations of him to work in a traditional industry—one that was prestigious and provided a high income.

“Why be a programmer? It is a boring, blue collar, engineer job!” claimed his mother, whom I believe has not been exposed to the latest tech innovations that engineers have developed.

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The clash in opinions surrounding JM’s career path led to a conflicted heart. He wanted to honour his parents’ wishes, but also did not want to be a doctor. In the end, his parents issued an ultimatum: accept the offer from the overseas medical school or they would not pay for his education.

Thrown out of the house for being an entrepreneur

A number of years ago, JG, a then-recent graduate of NUS, confided in me. He told me of his desire to be his own boss and run education centres to eventually build a business empire. However, bowing to pressure from his parents, he applied to be a teacher with the Ministry of Education. Unsurprisingly, he was offered a job to teach at a secondary school.

By then, he had already started his first education centre and so decided to reject the job offer from MOE. His parents were upset. He came from a working class family, with his father a taxi driver and his mother a saleslady selling traditional Chinese medicine. They expected JG, as the eldest of his siblings, to get a stable income and aid in paying for his siblings’ education.

A heated argument ensued. JG teared as he shared his father’s harsh words, “You are no son of mine. Leave this house and don’t come back!” He left the house that very night, staying in his educational centre and in various friends’ houses. Although he later managed to reconcile with his parents, they continued to disagree about his choice to become an entrepreneur and upbraided him when he eventually failed in his education business.

Following the dull, old norms in life as a Singaporean

One might say that these students experienced something that is uniquely Singaporean, guided by rigid paths to success. The typical Singaporean goes through the education system, graded in little but academics. Once they graduate, it is time to join the rat race, some with student debts and family obligations to fulfil. As the big 3-0 approaches, their biological clock starts to tick and pressure to marry, accompanied by a 20-year housing loan looms in the background.

Success in this path is defined by obtaining a high-paying job as a banker, lawyer, doctor or if you are a scholar, pursuing whatever is offered to you.

This route brings home the dough and oh, does it help inflate your parents’ egos. “My child is now a doctor at so-and-so hospital and will be furthering his studies to be a surgeon soon,” they can say, much to the wows of their jealous friends.

Really, mom and dad still hold the cards to your career

My good friend who teaches in a polytechnic jokes about Open House day, where he often sees parents without their children. “Which course should my child enrol in, so that he gets paid the most?” is an oft-posed query. When he asks what their child is inclined to, these parents brush off the query, explaining that there is no need to bother with the child’s interests as the priority is finding a stable, high income career.

He encountered one potential applicant who wanted to focus on marketing, but her mom immediately rebuked her with the declaration, “I am paying, not you.”

Traditional mindsets on what makes a successful career remain, but Singapore is improving

In a recent SUSS-Alibaba open forum, my fellow speakers told Singaporean students to “go ahead and pursue whatever [they] want”. I struggled to concur. After having heard so many stories from youth about their career choices, it’s clear that family concerns still play a large part in the career decisions of young Singaporeans. It would be disingenuous to downplay the impact of family on how they make their choices.

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One might be surprised to hear this about the youth of Singaporean families today. Do they really still subscribe to such archaic mindsets? Upon reading this, some students might even exclaim, “We are the new generation! We should be entitled to do whatever we choose to do!”

Thankfully, times are changing and the situation is improving. KT, a recent recipient of TRIVE’s Startup SG Founder grant, shared his story of how his parents originally wanted him to find a stable job to help pay his own student loans. They wanted to be able to afford the fees for his younger brother, who was just entering university. When they heard that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, they were unhappy but relented to support him in his endeavours.

Luckily, KT isn’t alone. There are now more parents who are willing to support young Singaporeans in their aspirations to become entrepreneurs and their non-traditional career choices, but the numbers are still low.

Traditional jobs are being disrupted, and it’s time to welcome the rise of tech engineers

Let’s get real. A recent survey by the World Economic Forum found Singaporeans the most pessimistic in South-east Asia on the impact of tech disruptions on their employment prospects. And they have every right to do think that way.

Two years ago, I was invited to a private luncheon addressed by a high-ranked senior executive of a local bank. She shared how banks are being overrun by technology in China, “Alipay’s YueBao raised US$90 billion investment in a money market fund in just 10 months, without a single relationship manager. Most banks take decades and hundreds of bankers to achieve this. YiRenDai has about 6.7 million registered users and facilitated S$1.4 billion (or US$1 billion) of loans in the first nine months of 2015, up from S$56 million (or US$40.4 million) in 2013. And Tencent launched China’s first online-only bank, WeBank, in 2015.”

If YueBao arrived in Singapore today, would they need any relationship managers? Jobs that once required capable human talent are being undermined by the might of machine learning and data science. Soon, many back-end operations will either be outsourced as cheap labour or replaced by machines.

So if you’re thinking of walking down a traditional career path, even if it’s because your parents want you to, you might want to think again. Will the job you’re studying for still be around when you turn 40? If not, get ready to be retrenched.

Light at the end of the tunnel

But while everyone is freaking out, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. In a recent LinkedIn report, the amount of data science jobs grew 17 times between 2013 to 2017. This is why VCs like TRIVE acknowledge the urgent need to build up Singaporeans in data science skills. TRIVE has invested in Upcode Academy to aid Singaporeans in learning the necessary technical skills via coding courses.

The Singapore government has also recognised the importance of data science skills that will aid in analysing the great volumes of data produced when the country attains its vision of having 90-95% of government services transacted online. 20,000 civil servants also have to be trained in the fields of data science to ensure that the government is online-ready. (Hint: If you are gunning for a civil service job, it doesn’t hurt for you to start getting a few qualifications in data science now).

And in typical Singaporean style, once the government makes the lead, you can expect the private sector to follow in due course.

So for Singaporean youth out there choosing a career path now, here’s the advice I have: even if you do take up traditional career paths, ensure that data science training is a component of your tertiary education, because that will become a requirement for jobs of the future.

Final Thoughts

You may not be able to convince your parents to allow you to stray from the careers they have picked for you, but you can take up necessary part-time Data Science courses at UpCode.

You don’t have to let your parents’ outdated thinking affect your future career.


This is part of the Millennial Singaporean Career series. The next topic will be about how to work with your parents on your ideal career. Names of the interviewees were masked for privacy reasons. 

Featured image: chuttersnap via Unsplash