Whatever happened to the coolies of Singapore, generations later?

Kevin Low
3 min readJan 5, 2021
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Most of the Chinese migrants who came to Singapore and whose descendents now form the majority of the population here were ‘coolies’ or manual labourers who came to Singapore to seek out employment opportunities and a better life. The mindset really was to find a boss to serve, and gain a good life through that loyalty. Life was basic and more about survival than really thriving. In fact, the term ‘coolie’ still mean ‘employee’ colloquially amongst the older folks.

Generations later, the bar for living standards have gone up, and so have expectations of how much you achieve and how much you need to live on. But has that coolie mindset changed? Are we still just trying to follow directions to a better life? Are we thinking independently and by ourselves? Are we looking to continue to use resources at our disposal just for ourselves or to make the future a better place?

We have been successful as a society that follows order to fulfill a clear-cut, straight-forward vision. For the longest time, it was almost a matter of survival that we fulfill the vision. Mediocrity was simply not an option and there was no worthwhile status quo to hang on to. Our forefathers worked hard to set up a path towards “better life”. And we’ve reached this stage of being a metropolis.

Question is where do we go from here? Given the chance to develop our own path and vision forward, do we take that chance? The ability to think independently does not have to be political, and it involves the smallest things such as identifying opportunities in the market where people see none. To architect a vision and actually commit to pursue it requires resilience that is based on a sense of purpose. How do you cultivate that? It is unlikely for the child of a soccer Mum, going through various enrichment and supplementary activities and busy with getting good grades in school to develop that. To the coolie, busyness might seem like excellence, but for a leader, it shouldn’t be.

As the next generation of Singaporeans to helm the leading positions of various parts of society, we will have to leave the inherited narratives of our parents and the boomers, to write our own story instead. The chance to do so comes at the point when we recognise that the hard work put in by our coolie forefathers was for us to break out of this. If we don’t know how to manage this kind of freedom of the mind, and mature, the social freedoms that are being fought for will not be able to serve the society well.

Meanwhile, you might like to check out some really amazing recoloured photos of historical Singaporeans here. Get a sense of the hardship they went through and what life really means for them.

An older version of this article was originally published at http://kevlow.com on January 5, 2021.

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Kevin Low

Alive, breathing, growing and sipping coffee in Singapore. Thinking | Writing | Career-coaching — kevlow.com