Friday, March 30, 2007

Philip Yeo clarifies remark about present generation

From the ST forum today (31-Mar-2007):

"My comments were made in the context of the value of honouring obligations. It truly saddens me that bond breaking is taken lightly by some Singaporeans.

My point is this: If we cannot find enough qualified Singaporeans who are willing to serve their country upon the completion of their fully-funded studies, then we have little choice but to offer scholarships to non-Singaporeans in order to produce the critical mass of researchers that we need to support our R&D in the biomedical and physical sciences and engineering. When they take up our scholarships, they also take up Singapore citizenship, and this helps us to augment our human capital with foreign talent." - Phillip Yeo


I have no beef with Mr. Yeo's comment that it saddens him that 'bond breaking is taken lightly by some Singaporeans'. It's a respectable view that he holds.

What worries me is the second paragraph. It's not the part about giving away scholarships and citizenships to foreigners that gets my goat; it is the assumption that the critical mass of researchers to support R&D depends crucially on finding enough 'Singaporeans who are willing to serve their country upon the completion of their fully-funded studies'.

Does the good chairman mean to tell us that if we don't give our scholarships to bright A-level school-leavers, our entire strategy for developing the manpower for R&D in the biomedical sciences, physical sciences and engineering will fail and the only possible alternative is to count on non-Singaporean A-level school leavers?

I like to think that he is a lot smarter and knows better than that. And I worry for the ocular organs of many of the ST readers - too much rolling is bad for them.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Is the press a govt mouthpiece?

'We have no interest in having the press as a mouthpiece of the Government. I don't need The Straits Times to be a mouthpiece of the Government. We have officers who can do that for us.

What we need is a credible, respected, accurate press that ensures that Singaporeans remain among the most well-informed people in the world...Simply because we're so small and in order for Singapore to survive, we need to interact with the rest of the world.'



'Being a journalist in Singapore is not easy but they are no fools. And they haven't sold their souls and they are upright moral people who believe that, while they may not be the Fourth Estate, in their heart of hearts, they have a role to play in maintaining the survival and viability of our country...It's no point having a totally compliant press...because we are so small and Singaporeans are not stupid.'



'The most potent impact the new media will have on politics is that politicians will find it impossible to lie in the future. The truth will always be out there because somewhere, someone has the facts, or has seen something, and will publish it.'

But as he went on to note: 'Fortunately for us in Singapore, we have run a clean system, and hence have nothing to hide. That is the key reason we do not fear the new media.'


I wish had the opportunity to see Dr. Balakrishnan's face when he said that. And the expressions on the faces of everyone else in the room.

Dr. B, whom were you trying to convince that the local press in Singapore is not subservient and a team of cheerleaders for the government's policies? Still playing the race and religion Bogeyman in the 21st century?

Take our foreign talent labour policy for example. Suppose we had the Singaporean equivalent of the NY Times, you can bet your last dollar that reporters will be demanding the number of jobs created that went to Singapore citizens and not the fudged number of jobs that went to 'residents' which Singaporeans are told. Or take the Shin Corp fiasco for example. Notice how conveniently quiet our local press has been about the matter.

Why can't you just say that the local press is controlled by the government so that it is easier for the government to manipulate public opinions on their policies?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Leaking talent

There has been a couple of posts in the blogosphere, here, here and here, on SM Goh's statement that Singapore is leaking talent. During his visit to Iran, he said:

"The issue which we are most concerned with is the loss of our own people at the very top. These are bright young people, children of very well educated Singaporeans."

He went on to say that Singapore is losing the top 0.5 percent of its talents.

Apparently, this is causing some excitement amongst some Singaporean bloggers, with one saying that it has something to do with our lack of a sense of rootedness. Elia Diodati thinks that it is scare-mongering.

I have an opinion on this matter itself although it is going to sound rather trite and mundane.

This leaking of talent is not surprising and probably a real phenomenon. I frankly do not think it has very much to do with the sense of rootedness. There is some kind of angst here. Elsewhere, Elia Diodati is quite spot on in his observation that it is a part of globalisation. If anything, I would be surprised if there weren't any movement of significant numbers of highly skilled young people out of Singapore in the last ten years.

Allow me to explain why. Actually, it's commonsensical.

1. Most young Singaporeans are fluent in English. Many Singaporeans are bilingual especially in Chinese. Surprise, surprise. A large number of Singaporeans head to English-speaking countries like Australia, Britain and the US. Close to home, others go to India, Hong Kong, China, etc. Being English-speaking enables Singaporeans to assimilate more easily in English-speaking countries. Coming from a highly westernised society, Singaporeans have less trouble than other Asian emigrants in adapting. It is no wonder that Australia, Britain and the US receive most of our emigrants. This factor alone probably explains the increase in emigration and why Singaporeans are fairly happy to stay on.

2. More Singaporeans are acquiring tertiary education. Obviously, as the skill level of the average Singaporean rises, he/she qualifies for better-paying skilled jobs, many of which are found overseas.

3. Singaporeans are more affluent. As a result, more families can afford to send their kids to study overseas. Companies are also more willing to send their workers overseas for training and assignments.

4. Singapore is tiny relative to the rest of the world. The economic opportunities are just much more diverse outside of Singapore. What is so surprising about that? Furthermore, Singaporeans are better educated than before and they are better able to take advantages of those opportunities. If you want to be a master chef, do you stay in Singapore or do you go to Paris to attain your dreams? We have to acknowledge that there are individuals who simply cannot fulfil their ambitions in Singapore - master chefs, top programmers, artists, ballet dancers, astrophysicists, etc.

5. Entry-level positions are low-paying in Singapore, even for skilled jobs. This forces many young people to look for economic opportunities outside of Singapore. This, in general, has to do with Singapore's rather liberal foreign labour policy which has a wage-suppressing effect. For example, internship opportunities in Singapore are generally limited and very low-paying compared to the EU and the US.

6. National service. Need I say more? It's become more of a drag in Singapore given the influx of foreign labour.

7. The standard of living can be better elsewhere and the conservative cultural climate in Singapore can be rather repressive to many people. For example, you just can't grab hold legally the DVD of 'American History X' or 'The Life of Brian'. Periodicals are banned because they offend the power-that-be. There are some people in Singapore who believe that allowing Playboy to be distributed in Singapore will tear apart our social fabric and ruin our traditional values. This is stupid. Even HK and Taiwan have Playboy. This is where Singapore actually shoots itself in the foot. Now, some people are even talking about criminalising lesbianism.

8. Singaporeans are city-dwellers. Fortunately, highly developed big cities are found everywhere in the world - London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and so on. A living environment similar to Singapore can be easily replicated elsewhere.

The list goes on and on.

Sorry, I do not find the argument that people don't feel rooted particularly compelling. Neither do I think that the repressive political climate to be any more persuasive. The fact is Singapore has become a much more porous society. Hence, more people will come in and go out of Singapore.

Singapore is not the only country that experiences the movement of young people overseas. New Zealand itself also faces the same problem - it is struggling to contain the movement of its young people to Australia. NZ has more established traditions than Singapore and is certainly not a poor country. Its people probably feel a greater sense of identity and the country has a far more open political climate. Yet, it still faces a tremendous problem of retaining its young people.

Ironically, Iran has one of the worst problem of brain drain in the world. For SM Goh to tell his hosts that he worries about losing Singaporean talents, it might have been a little rich.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Science in Singapore by Essential Science Indicators

About three weeks ago, there was an update on 'Science in Singapore' by in-cites. The previous update was in 2005. As the university where I am does not provide the full package of services by ESI, I am unable to study the details of the ranking exercise. I have summarised the results in a table.

The new ranking shows a broad general trend of improvement. In the previous ranking, nearly all of the research fields were in negative territory in terms of their relative impact compared to the world, apart from mathematics and the agricultural sciences. In the recent ranking, there is significant improvement with several fields actually having above average impact (materials science, mathematics, plant & animal sciences, pharmacology and agricultural sciences).

In the physical sciences and engineering, most fields showed improvement except for computer science.

In the biological sciences, on average, there was improvement although the results are stagnant for microbiology, molecular biology and biology & biochemistry.

In the medical sciences, on average, there was good improvement, especially pharmacology which improved by a whopping 45 percent to garner an above average score. Not surprising considering the amount of research support pharmacological research has received in recent years. Again, there is obvious room for improvement since most of the fields are still deep in negative territory.