Emigration
Worsening numbers
But problem may not be that bad; New Singapore requires a lot more youths to gain experience worldwide. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Jan 30, 2005

I ATTENDED a private reunion dinner with a dozen families recently and left with a first-hand insight into one of Singapore's foremost problems.

It set me thinking. This year, the republic celebrates its 40th National Day; what will it be like in another 40 years?

How much of today's Singapore and Singaporeans will remain?

The ladies that evening had gone to the same school in the late 60s and were now mothers (and a few grandmothers) with children aged 20 to 28.

As the night wore on, I found out that the majority of their offspring were graduates or studying in universities, half of them overseas.

I soon learned that most had every intention of remaining abroad. The parents, mostly conservative people, had spoken of it matter-of-factly, as if it was a natural thing to do.
From a handful, the number of Singaporean emigrants has turned into a torrent as globalisation intensified and jobs became harder to come by in Singapore.

Some are looking for more space, a freer lifestyle and bigger opportunities - what they think smallish Singapore cannot give.

All this - rising migration and a low birth rate - has become Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's biggest challenge, totally different problems his father encountered.

It will change Singapore's demography and its future.

Consider this: every year, 6,000 to 7,000 Singaporeans leave to settle down overseas, including many professionals. This is 15% of today's annual births, probably the highest proportion in the world.

One website survey, which is unverified, has put Singapore's average outflow at 26.11 migrants per 1,000 citizens, the second highest in the world - next only to East Timor (51.07).

Fortunately, the loss is replaced by the influx of foreigners, numerically speaking. For every one who leaves, three or four outsiders flock in to take his place.

For Singapore, it will mean a larger population and a weaker national cohesion. The "foreign" content will steadily increase as the "local" portion declines.

These recent developments offer little hope for improvement:
* Nearly half of all Singaporeans do not think they need to be a resident to be emotionally rooted to the country.

* Six out of 10 undergraduates said they wanted to go abroad to live or work mostly for better economic and job prospects, and enjoy a higher quality of life with less stress. About 7% attributed it to a lack of sense of belonging.

* An ACNielsen poll showed 21% of Singaporeans, mainly professionals, were considering emigration, half opting for Australia and New Zealand.

* Between 100,000 and 150,000 Singaporeans are studying, working or in business in foreign countries; leaders fear that many of them will not return.

This failure to build a strong-enough sense of belonging is ironic considering the state's rapid growth.

In 40 years, it has shot from a backwater to one of Asia's richest economies, with living standards envied by many.

The dilemma has led to calls for a redefinition of the word "citizen" to include Singaporeans who have become foreign citizens or PRs, if they retain a strong emotional home link. This is short of dual citizenship which is rejected by the government.

In recent years, I have detected a steady shift away from an inflexible attitude that condemned all Singaporeans who leave to improve their fortunes abroad as "quitters" or, worse still, "disloyal" citizens.

It is now accepted that they are not the same as people (a much smaller number) who have abandoned Singapore for good.

In fact, the opposite may be taking place.

Instead of condemning them, many conservative parents and some younger political leaders now believe that having its new generation working long periods overseas, without losing their loyalty, should be encouraged.

What is making it a necessary evil is the rapid change in the global - and Singapore's own uncertain - economy, rather than any domestic argument of right and wrong.

Singapore's future lies beyond its shores and Singaporeans can best serve their homeland if they are able to seize opportunities abroad.

Anyway, unlike before, the country can no longer provide jobs for every qualified youth.
The change in official attitude is evident. It wasn't too long ago that it set a cap on university places for doctors and lawyers for fear of unemployment.

Today, with the wider horizon in mind, the goal is to provide top education to meet a global demand.

"While loyalty to one's own nation is a virtue, the search for a better life elsewhere is not, in itself, a moral sin," Hansen Yeong wrote in a letter to the press.

Older leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong may not have changed their strong feelings about "quitters" but they have stopped criticising them in public.

Theirs is one of acceptance of the inevitable and moving to derive some benefits from it.
A result has been organising ex-Singaporeans in committees in several world cities to contribute ideas and promote business ties with Singapore.

Some critics blame the ruling party in part and say unless it frees more of its control on society, things will worsen.

Sinapan Samydorai, president of civil rights group Think Centre, said: "It's the failure of the government to understand the will of the people that leads them to move overseas."

There are, however, other reasons for optimism that the situation will eventually right itself.

Firstly, the state has set a birthrate target of 50,000 compared to the present 35,000. It is providing fresh incentives worth more than half a billion dollars a year, a powerful nudge to reluctant couples.

Some of those who take up foreign PRs are likely to return home eventually with a more rounded view of life.

Fong, a woman who had spent five years in Amsterdam, said online that she now had a better understanding of the good and bad, both of Singapore (she once disliked) and the West.

Sharing the view was university student Tyco who had lived in the UK for 15 years since eight. He found it hard to understand people who say the grass is always greener elsewhere.

He said he was ready to return and rough it out even if a job is hard to get. "It's home and I miss my chicken rice."

(This was first published in The Sunday Star on Jan 30, 2005)