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.


kwayteowman said...

Well said. :-)

Fox said...

I thought this explanation behind leaking talents was pretty clear - like smoking causes cancer or eating oranges gives you vitamin C.

Alas, many people, in trying to explain why Singaporeans don't come back, just don't see the simplest explanation behind it. For example, I think that the high level of westernisation and English literacy with the plethora of opportunities outside of Singapore would explain the high level of emigration.

Fox said...

Test test

wang said...

Well stated

LuckySingaporean said...

I think the people leaking away are seriously out of the minds. How can they ever stand staying in a country without the wisdom of PAP leadership?! Where else in the world you can find a govt whose heart is so filled with socialist compassion and mind brilliant with capitalistic idea.

All these people leaving are going to miss out on our march to top 1st world standard of living. They are going to miss out on all the opportunities created by the 2.5M extra people imported to beef up the population to 6.5M. ....most important of all they will miss out on high quality media such as the Straits Times that will help them work their way towards a higher level of happiness.

They will also miss out on work opportunities when they get to age 80 and in other countries you end up doing useless things like walking around in the parks and pushing strollers. ...instead of keeping tables clean for the many new Singaporeans who will be here.

I addressed this issue "leaking" away in my blog many moons ago. I'm surprise the mainstream took so long to catch up on this issue:

Anonymous said...

*wonders if 'wang' is not in fact, a former MP, more specifically, Dr. Wang Kai Yuen*

kiddy gloves doesn't know for sure, of course.

he's just, guessing.

Fox said...


I don't think Singapore's welfare policy has anything to do with the movement of educated young Singaporeans overseas even though I think that Singapore stinges a lot on social welfare (our welfare spending is lower than the other East Asian Tigers - HK, ROK, ROC and Japan). The people I know who moved overseas usually did it because of job opportunities, studies and the better lifestyles they can enjoy elsewhere given their educational background and English fluency.

As for press freedom, I agree that the press restrictions affect the quality of life. A greater liberalisation of the media will certain improve the quality of life in Singapore.

I also agree with you that the high urban density in Singapore and the planned increase in population are push factors in Singaporean emigration.

However, the most probable reasons for the outflow of people are the high level of education and English literacy in our young people coupled with the booming economies in Australia, UK and US. The Kiwis neither poor nor politically repressed but they still lose a lot of their young university graduates to Australia every year.

Jimmy Mun said...


you are right to say that our language competency makes it easy for Singaporeans to leave. I just returned from China, and not only did I fit in perfectly, it almost felt nostalgic; parts of China today feels more like Singapore in the 70s and 80s. It makes me feel like a child in Singapore again, whereas the Singapore today, bears minimal resemblance to the one I grew up in. In fact, given my poor mastery of dialects and Malay, there are parts of Singapore I have trouble being understood, including the neighbourhood I grew up in. No such problem in China.

And I think it is wrong to say that pragmatism is driving Singaporeans to leave and stay away. Singapore is driven heavily by many conservative ideals:

Consider how many of the top talents who left are gay for example. Consider the media censorship you mentioned. Consider the length of NS for an island this small. Consider the volume and nature of our new immigrants, just to keep the racial ratio in check.

These are ideologies not shared by Singaporeans, especially the younger ones.

The modern state of Israel is a very powerful idea: a safe sanctuary for a race that was abused by others for thousands of years. For many Israelis, no sacrifice is too great. An Israeli reservist working overseas will drop their million dollar deals and rush home if the homeland calls for help.

What is the idea that drives Singapore? Is Singapore a safe sanctuary for Singaporeans? Is Singapore even a place that treats Singaporeans fairly? If the answer is anything less than a resounding "YES", then one need not feel surprised that Singapore has no "stickiness" for Singaporeans.

Fox said...

Jimmy Mun:

And I think it is wrong to say that pragmatism is driving Singaporeans to leave and stay away.

I disagree.

Singapore is driven heavily by many conservative ideals.

Sure. I don't like many of these conservative ideals myself.

Consider how many of the top talents who left are gay for example. Consider the media censorship you mentioned. Consider the length of NS for an island this small. Consider the volume and nature of our new immigrants, just to keep the racial ratio in check.

Singapore is more gay-friendly than before although there is room for it to catch up with the developed countries. But I doubt that it is a significant factor.

Consider this: Suppose the government legalises homosexuality, liberalises the media laws, abolish es NS and restricts immigration tomorrow. Do you think overseas Singaporeans working in the US and the UK will start flooding back into Singapore?

What is the idea that drives Singapore?

I don't know if there is some collective idea that drives Singaporeans. I suppose everyone is driven by different ideas.

Is Singapore a safe sanctuary for Singaporeans?

Well, no one gets lynched in Singapore for being Singaporean.

Is Singapore even a place that treats Singaporeans fairly?

Well... that's controversial. I think the answer is no. I personally have considerable reservation about Singapore's FT policy.

If the answer is anything less than a resounding "YES", then one need not feel surprised that Singapore has no "stickiness" for Singaporeans.

Does that really explain why many Singaporeans go overseas and don't come back?