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IN FOCUS: A reboot of the 5Cs – what do Singaporeans want?

As the notion of the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club membership – fades away, Singaporeans tell CNA their new Cs and definitions of success.

IN FOCUS: A reboot of the 5Cs – what do Singaporeans want?

Are the 5Cs – cash, credit card, condominium, car, and country club membership – dead? (Illustration: CNA/Rafa Estrada)

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  • Having emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, the 5Cs – once dubbed the Singapore Dream – have become less relevant
  • Career, community, and choice are among the new Cs that matter – these define success, say people who spoke to CNA
  • But is Singapore moving away completely from traditional material pursuits? Not really, says an observer

SINGAPORE: The notion of 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club membership – may have been around for decades, but Pamela Lee had not heard of them until last month.

The 23-year-old digital content creator recalled being “quite taken aback” by the unabashedly materialistic checklist and the stress that would have come with the endless chase to keep up or get ahead of others. The 5Cs also offered a “very superficial” take on success.

“Someone can have all the 5Cs but deep down, he may be unhappy or finding it difficult to maintain that lifestyle,” said Ms Lee.

“I can understand why the 5Cs can be a thing (to define success) because you need hard work to attain them … But I’m just glad that this is no longer relevant for my generation.”

This unfamiliarity and rejection of the 5Cs among young Singaporeans who spoke to CNA underscores how the checklist has receded in relevance since emerging about 50 years ago as the "Singapore dream".

People in Singapore now chase meaning and purpose, with the idea of a “good life” evolving beyond material success, according to the recently released Forward SG report.

Several key shifts – spanning education, jobs and support for families and seniors – will be needed for this new Singapore Dream, noted the report that surveyed more than 200,000 Singaporeans as part of a nationwide feedback exercise led by the government.

What is behind this change in the Singapore Dream and how are Singaporeans redefining success? 


The 5Cs likely emerged during the early 1970s when the Singapore economy was racing ahead with double-digit growth. As incomes went up, so did the aspirations of a young nation.

Back then, the buzzword among Singaporeans was “upgrading”, or upward social mobility, and the 5Cs came to be practical indicators of that, said National University of Singapore’s Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser. 

“Many Singaporeans, having risen from poor or low-income backgrounds, possess a strong desire to be able to rise up from circumstances of lack to doing better than their parents and achieving material comfort and security, and correspondingly higher social status,” he said. 

Television dramas, such as Channel 8’s Marriage Dollars and Sense in 1996, and movies like Singapore Dreaming in 2006, depicted how the 5Cs influenced major decisions in Singaporean life. 

As the country developed, subsequent generations of Singaporeans grew up enjoying better standards of living, attaining higher educational qualifications and were more well-travelled or exposed to the world beyond Singapore. 

Major crises like the COVID-19 pandemic also made people rethink their priorities in life, sociologists said. 

With aspirations being a product of time and environment, it was only natural that some of the 5Cs would become obsolete or less relevant, said Singapore Management University’s Professor Paulin Tay Straughan. 

A membership at a country club, for one, will likely be “written off”, Dr Straughan said. 

Country clubs, especially those with sprawling golf courses, used to be much coveted due to their prestige as the domain of the well-heeled, offering exclusivity and networking opportunities. 

At one point, club memberships also carried investment value, according to a TODAY article

But the appeal of country clubs has dipped over time. Business networking, for example, is no longer forged just over a game of golf, said Dr Straughan. 

Credit cards have also waned in prestige, as they are now commonplace and have become just another way to pay, said Assoc Prof Tan. 

Rather than status, getting a new card these days is more about making the most out of one’s spending by earning rewards points, cash rebates and air miles. 

For example, Nathan, a 33-year-old working in a technology firm, has designated cards for accumulating air miles and cashback for everyday spending. 

Some have done away with credit cards entirely. Ms Jasmine Tuan, 45, had as many as a dozen cards in her 20s. She cancelled all of them about a decade ago. These days, she goes about with just four plastics in her wallet – an EZ-link card, an ATM card and two debit cards for grocery shopping and travel.


Sociologists reckoned that only three out of the 5Cs remain relevant – cash, cars and condominiums.

Assoc Prof Tan described cash as “fundamental to achieving the trappings of success”, while it is not surprising for cars and private properties to still be seen as markers of social mobility. 

In property-hungry Singapore, a condominium is largely regarded as a desirable investment option. 

But sky-rocketing Certificate of Entitlement (COE) premiums are putting car ownership out of reach for many Singaporeans. With a reliable local public transport system and a variety of ride-hailing options, people will question the need to own a car, regardless of status symbol, said Dr Straughan. 

After hitting new highs in October’s second bidding exercise, COE premiums closed lower in all categories in the latest bidding exercise on Nov 8.

Nathan, who bought a used car last year, said his decision was not driven by prestige – instead, it was about having the freedom to head out until late. 

That said, sky-high COE premiums are giving him second thoughts about the need for a car.

When it comes to condominiums, the Singaporeans who spoke to CNA agreed that private properties make good assets, but they also wonder what counts as a home.

Mr Dinesh Dayani, 36, and Ms Lee said getting a condominium would not be ideal if it stretches one’s finances thin or involves having to work harder and sacrifice family time.

Mr Mohamad Shaifulbahri, 37, said his parents mulled over the option of moving to a condominium when he was younger but realised that what others saw as perks, like access to a gym and pool, did not appeal to them. 

The question of whether to sell their HDB flat in Tampines was back on the family’s mind. Property prices in the estate are at an all-time high, and it is getting harder for his parents to keep up with the maintenance of their maisonette home, said Mr Shaifulbahri. 

“The practical considerations are there but is a house just a house?” said the arts practitioner, who explored this question in his theatrical walking show called Tampines Boy. 

“There’s sentimental attachment too, to the house and the neighbourhood. For me, houses can’t be seen as just a way of profiting.” 

One thing that all five Singaporeans can agree on is that cash remains king.

They described money as a key enabler of financial security, which allows them to afford not just the necessities in life but an occasional treat or overseas holiday. 

It is also the safety cushion to fall back on in the event of an unexpected health crisis or job loss. 

Tech industry worker Nathan, who prefers to be known only by his first name, said he has come to accept the possibility of being retrenched in an increasingly volatile economy. 

“If I don’t have any backup plans for when that happens, I will be in a very bad situation. Having grown up in a family that struggled financially, I cannot let that happen to my own family.” 

But some things have changed. 

"I think the older generation feel that having a lot of cash on hand is reassuring – not just in their bank account, but in their wallet as well," said Mr Dayani, co-founder of personal finance site DollarsAndSense.

"I remember my dad always ensuring he had enough money whenever we went out for dinner during our younger years."

With easy access to information online and low-cost investment tools, younger Singaporeans are looking at different ways to hold and grow their money, from regular savings plans, government bonds that have seen rising yields, to riskier assets like stocks. 


While money matters, it is not everything. 

When asked what new Cs are important, career was a common answer – more specifically, a fulfilling career that offers a diversity of tasks and a healthy dose of challenges, serves a purpose, and is aligned with one’s character and strengths. 

Ms Tuan referred to the Japanese concept of “ikigai”. Formed by combining “iki” which means life and “gai” which means “to be worthwhile”, “ikigai” is essentially the reason that gets you up in the morning. 

A popular book exploring the concept – titled Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life – depicts “ikigai” in a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. 

Venn diagram of the Japanese concept ikigai. (Image: iStock)

Ms Tuan said she has found her “ikigai” in Cloop, the circular fashion enterprise she co-founded in 2020. Through clothes swaps and workshops on sustainable fashion, she hopes to raise awareness about circular fashion where clothes are reused, repurposed and recycled in a loop to minimise waste. 

“It’s true. When you love something, you won’t be able to stop talking about it,” she said, with a laugh. 

Gone are the days when a job is associated with an “iron rice bowl”, with company loyalty giving way to personal growth, experience and purpose, the interviewees said. 

Nathan started out in public relations before changing tracks a few years ago when he realised the former was not for him. 

Mr Dayani quit his full-time job to start DollarsAndSense in 2016, while Mr Shaifulbahri left teaching 11 years ago because he did not want to regret not pursuing his passion for the arts.

“Growth is important, not only in terms of work or your practice, but also as a person in terms of how you approach things, your values and mindset,” said Mr Shaifulbahri. 

Communities – forged through strong relationships with family and friends, co-workers and like-minded people in the wider society – also matter for a variety of reasons.

These can be for support, to inspire and be inspired, and as an avenue to give back to society. 

Ms Tuan described the people she met at Zero Waste Malaysia, a Kuala Lumpur-based non-profit organisation, as the ones who changed her life. 

Apart from introducing her to the world of sustainable living, the strong ground-up community spirit was what moved her and spurred her into change. She now hopes to do the same in Singapore with Cloop. 

Other Cs that the interviewees mentioned include choice – the freedom and ability to pick what you want and what is right for your life – and convenience, aided by the flourishing of e-payment and transportation options. 

Those who spoke to CNA noted the need for contentment. 

Learning how to be content and live within one’s means has been an important part of Mr Shaifulbahri’s life, partly to cope with the realities of being self-employed. 

However, instead of scrimping and saving, it is about deciding what is important. In his case, he still splurges on his “wants”, like theatre shows and books. 

“We can all aspire to have more, but when you have an understanding or acceptance about where you are and what you can have at that point in time, you won’t stretch yourself unnecessarily to attain something,” he said.

“You don’t get angry or envious.” 

Ms Tuan suggested two other Cs – character and consciousness – as things to think about. The latter is about taking a stand and being able to discern for ourselves what is right or wrong. 

“Basically, to not be a mindless individual and be swayed by those around you. But this feels like a luxury, because how many of us really have the time to sit down and reflect, wonder, and question?” 


Aspirations seem to have evolved into non-material markers which, in turn, re-shaped the idea of success. 

Happiness was top of the list for the individuals who spoke to CNA. 

“When I was younger, I thought money was very important and I wanted to accumulate as much as possible,” said Mr Dayani. 

But since becoming a father, he has come to realise that money cannot buy happiness.

“I’ve grown to realise the importance of many other things like having a fulfilling career, having a community, and spending more time with my parents,” he said. 

Happiness also stems from knowing that you have made an impact, no matter how small. 

Mr Shaifulbahri hopes that through his work in the arts, he can get people to come together and reflect on issues and the actions they take.

When he puts on his adjunct lecturer hat at the LASALLE College of the Arts, he hopes to do more than just “telling students what to do”. 

“I hope to be able to nudge our younger minds with ‘These are the realities of what’s going on, what do you think you can do?’ If I see people thinking about these things, then to me, that is success.” 

Perhaps the closest link to a material indicator is defining success as financial security. Both Ms Lee and Nathan stressed the need to be ready for rainy days and ensure their loved ones will be taken care of. 

For Ms Lee, one of her priorities now is to support her mother in pursuing her own passions in life.

“We stayed in a rental flat for a while and I saw how hard my mum worked … So, when I graduated from polytechnic, I told her I can go to work now and it’s time for her to do what she wants to do. 

“Now that I can, I am putting the needs of my parents first. To me, success is being able to meet the needs of those I love,” said the 23-year-old. 


A point that was raised consistently was the idea of privilege. 

All five Singaporeans, including those who grew up in financial hardship, acknowledged that they are now fortunate to be in a position of privilege.

They have supportive parents who worked hard to provide for them when they were young, attained a certain level of education and are now able to earn a living without needing to worry about bread-and-butter issues. 

“There is a bit of a privilege to be able to talk about some of these things like happiness,” said Mr Shaifulbahri. 

“This awareness is very important because my experience is not representative of my generation … Some people need to make ends meet and they would be thinking about different things.” 

Sociologists agreed, noting that the shift away from traditional material pursuits like the 5Cs happens for those who no longer live a life plagued by constant employment and income insecurity. 

“As a society, we have developed and matured quite a bit and by now, most Singaporeans’ basic needs have levelled up. So, that gives you the freedom to aspire towards different things,” said Dr Straughan. 

“If you grew up in developing Singapore in the 1970s, when your parents were still working towards some kind of stability, the idea of owning a private property, a credit card and other (things) would be attractive.

“But now, we are a first-world nation. Singaporeans have worked hard, with … intergenerational transfers being a lot more vibrant and that gives the younger generation a lot more freedom to dream, to aspire towards more intrinsic-valued things like relationships and mental health,” she added.

The Forward SG report found that Singaporeans increasingly want a society that is vibrant and inclusive, as well as where values of fairness, inclusiveness and “a shared sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility, where everyone gives back to society and helps those in need” are upheld.

The report outlined several key societal shifts that are needed. For example in education, the focus should move from an education arms race to a mentality that strives to learn and improve throughout life. 

Along the same vein, this means creating diverse career pathways for Singaporeans to be the "best version of themselves" and to make a difference in their own ways.

Interior of a mall in Singapore. (File photo: iStock)


But have Singaporeans moved away completely from material wants?

Ms Tuan acknowledged that her practice of non-attachment to material possessions and even relationships may be “less common” - a result of having gone through a series of life-changing events in her 30s. 

A failed relationship put her through a “wasted” period of non-stop partying. Cash flow problems later sank her retail business and she nearly drowned on a holiday in Krabi. 

“That was when I realised I can take none of my expensive clothes along with me when I die,” mused the former shopaholic who spent thousands on shopping each month. 

“They would be left behind in the walk-in wardrobe I was so proud of and what would that say of me? An accumulation of stuff? Would my tombstone say, ‘Jasmine was a great shopper’? Surely, life is more than that. So, why am I alive?” 

From then on, she has been keeping her material possessions to a minimum, partly as she works on practising a zero-waste lifestyle

“I still appreciate good designs, but I no longer have the desire to own it. Because it will never be enough to satisfy what is lacking inside – be it happiness or fulfilment – especially now that I know I will go with nothing,” said Ms Tuan, with a smile. 

For the broader society, this may not be the case yet.

The Forward SG report noted that while the 5Cs had fallen out of favour, there is still a tendency for society to measure success by old yardsticks, such as the size of one’s home or pay cheque.

Dr Mathew Mathews, principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), noted that Singaporeans still “care a lot” about material pursuits and experiences, going by demand for consumer goods, such as the latest smartphones, and travelling to exotic places.

“Some things have changed on the edges at least. Things like values, other aspirations have become as important now, though I will not say that material things have dropped out completely,” said Dr Mathews in a Heart of the Matter podcast. 


Last month, Ms Lee bought herself a branded bag – her first – as a reward for working hard over the past four years. “I don’t aim for branded goods, but I appreciate them,” she said.

Nathan calls his car purchase a “silly financial decision” but has no regrets splurging on convenience and a “coming-of-age experience”. 

For Mr Dayani, getting a five-digit lifetime membership at the Singapore Swimming Club was definitely “not for its status symbol”. 

It was about giving his family a “lifestyle upgrade”. His children attend swimming and badminton classes at the club, while he hangs out and plays sports with his friends who are also club members. 

“I decided on it more for the facilities and how it would be a social gathering point for me,” he said. 

“Certainly, it’s a chunk of savings that went into it, but I wasn’t breaking the bank for it. I felt that I could afford it and if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have done it, and certainly not for any status symbol.” 

As part of his work, Mr Dayani shares tips on how to manage one’s money and invest wisely. “It’s not a bad thing to aspire to be wealthier,” he noted.

A distinction can be drawn between planning one’s finances and blindly chasing after the 5Cs, noting that financial literacy helps people avoid potential issues and plan for a desired lifestyle. 

“Having more money doesn’t mean we need to aspire for the 5Cs of the past. Instead, we should ask what gives us the greatest fulfilment,” said Mr Dayani, adding that he would never stretch his finances thin for a purchase.

“Nevertheless, if we can afford the 5Cs, there’s no reason to avoid it just to avoid the label that we are chasing the 5Cs.”

Source: CNA/sk(mi)


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