Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Times: Making S'pore a 'brain gain' city

From the Sunday Times on 18 May 2008:

Making S'pore a 'brain gain' city
To stay ahead globally, Singapore - like many other countries - is trying to attract talent, but efforts will be hampered if locals don't welcome them
By Warren Fernandez, Deputy Editor

Imagine if you could read the minds of people around the world to fathom what they were thinking about most.

What do you think it would it be? Global warming and the dangers climate change poses for their children?

Rising oil prices? Rising food costs?

Democracy? Human rights? Freedom?

Family? Relationships? Sex?

Well, the international polling organisation Gallup sought to find out with its first World Poll. It bills this as a 'window into the minds of six billion people in over 140 countries', or 95 per cent of the world's adult population.

And the answer?

'What the whole world wants is a good job,' Gallup chairman and chief executive officer Jim Clifton wrote in an article titled 'Global Migration Patterns and Job Creation', published last October.

'That is one of the single biggest discoveries Gallup has ever made...

'If you and I were walking down the street in Khartoum, Teheran, Berlin, Lima, Los Angeles, Baghdad, Kolkata or Istanbul, we would discover that on most days the single most dominant thought carried around the heads of most people you and I see is, 'I want a good job'.

'It is the new current state of mind, and it establishes our relationship with our city, our country and the whole world around us.'

Now this might well seem blindingly obvious, hardly something you need to poll six billion people to discover. After all, didn't then prime minister Goh Chok Tong declare in 2001 that the election then was all about 'jobs, jobs, jobs'?

Gallup's Mr Clifton, however, believes the discovery is 'game changing', to borrow one of Mrs Hillary Clinton's pet phrases.

Writing in the Gallup Management Journal, he argues: 'Humans used to desire love, money, food, shelter, safety and/or peace of mind more than anything else. The last 25 years have changed us. Now we want to have a good job.

'This changes everything for world leaders. Everything they do - from waging war to building societies - will need to be done within the new context of the human need for 'good jobs'...

'Everything leaders do must consider this new global state of mind, lest they put their cities and countries at risk.'

This too will sound familiar in Singapore, where the economic imperative has always been primary. Only in recent years have other concerns such as the need to boost creativity and enterprise, encourage environmental sustainability and strike a work-life balance gained in importance, without quite displacing economic priorities.

But the significance of the Clifton thesis lies in his view that in the face of the new global state of mind, countries and cities will have to compete for what he calls 'brain gain' to stay ahead.

'Brain gain is the 'big-bang' theory of economic development. The challenge leaders face is how to trigger brain gain in their cities,'' he adds, referring to a society's ability to draw talented people, whose exceptional abilities and knowledge have a sort of multiplier effect on its economy.

He calls such people 'stars'. By this he does not just mean intellectually bright people, but includes innovators, entrepreneurs, superstars (like brand-name chefs, architects, musicians, actors and artists) and super-mentors (political leaders, philanthropists and others who take on the challenge of developing their communities).

The more of these stars a city or country can attract and keep, the better its prospects.

The United States, he notes, has streaked ahead of Japan and Germany - which many pundits said in the 1980s would soon rule the world - because it has been singularly successful at drawing such stars from around the world.

Similarly, those predicting that China's economic juggernaut would edge past the US before long might be 'colossally wrong' as they fail to factor in the big unknown - whether China is politically and socially prepared to be a talent magnet like the US.

Singapore, with its long history of immigration, going back right to its founding in 1819, is the quintessential 'brain gain' city. It has always drawn in people from the region with the wit and the will to create a better life for themselves and their families, and in the process, for the wider community too.

In recent years, Singapore has been experiencing another wave of 'brain gain' with many more stars heading here, giving the place an even more cosmopolitan feel.

This point was brought home to me last Sunday evening, as I watched a video of a recent trip by my wife and her father to his ancestral village in Chaozhou, in southern China.

It was his first visit since he had journeyed to Singapore in the 1930s as a seven-year-old boy. Taking in the scenes of the village, reminiscent of Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s, you could not help but be struck by how very differently life would have turned out for him and his family had he not made that fateful boat trip.

Later, he met and married a fellow Teochew here, and they had five children. My mother-in-law often recounts how she climbed over the school gates in the wee hours of the morning just to make sure that her daughters got a place in a good English-speaking mission school, which laid the foundation for their successful careers today.

Yet, their story is by no means unique. Just about every family in Singapore has a similar tale. It is the Singapore story, of migrants heading to this island with big dreams, just as they continue to do to this day.

Given this backdrop, it never ceases to amaze me how strong the antipathy towards foreigners is among some Singaporeans. The issue continues to simmer and sour the ground, and is easily whipped up.

The latest incarnation of this is the angst over sweet young China waitresses giving beer-lady aunties in heartland kopitiams a run for their money.

Then, there is also the endless carping about the latest wave of immigrants filling service sector jobs although they struggle to speak English.

Let me ask a pointed question: Just what sets the Singaporean Chinese woman today apart from the 'China girls' some speak so condescendingly about other than the fact that the forebears of one got here earlier than the other?

And are those language snobs who lament in their choice Singlish that new immigrants cannot speak 'proper English' very different from the old colonialists who turned up their noses at the 'uncultured and uncouth' early immigrants - in other words, your parents and mine - to these shores?

Given our immigrant history, Singaporeans should really be more gracious, and show more compassion and understanding towards newcomers to the island, to help them settle in.

They don't speak English? Well, they will soon learn, as their children surely will.

Being open and embracing towards newcomers is not only the decent thing to do, but it might also be in our own self-interest.

As Mr Clifton puts it: 'Today's explorers migrate to the cities that are most likely to maximise innovation and entrepreneurial talents and skills. Wherever they can freely migrate is where the next economic empires will rise. San Francisco, Mumbai and Dublin have become hotbeds of job creation. This phenomenon has occurred in other hot cities from Austin to Boston and Seoul to Singapore.'

The Government will have to do its part to woo talent here, adding that critical buzz to the city, and tackling issues such as rising housing costs, lack of office space or school places. But these efforts alone will not be enough, unless Singaporeans make those drawn here feel welcome.

So the next time you feel like letting fly against the growing number of foreigners here, remember this - you and I are the products of an earlier wave of immigration and 'brain gain'.

warren@sph.com.sg
This is such a blatant one-sided piece of propaganda from one of the Straits Times' finest. I don't know where to start but as the Fox will be out of the house for the rest of the day, he shall postpone his comments on this article to a later time. There is certainly one thing we are sure of: someone knows which side his bread is buttered...

1 comment:

Singapore_spur said...

I'm not sure what your take is on this article, but having lived and worked in the Uk for a year now, I have to agree with what is essentially a blindingly obvious proposition :- that the more talent you attract, the better you are.

But where I disagree with the current Singapore approach, and one which Clifton advocates, is that we should only attract stars. The problem with attracting stars is that most stars coast on the back of their previous successes. Very few of them have that drive to become the next star.

Of course, when opening up the doors to attract talent for potential rather than track record, you run the risk of getting many of these decisions wrong and exacerbating the social tensions between locals and foreigners. But I think that the way to get around it is to level the playing field, ie not to "punish" the locals through things like shaming local bond breakers, or onerous CPF requirements.