Sunday, July 12, 2009

Of Migrant and Stayers

The Kent Ridge Commons (KRC) has a new article Migrants and Stayers. Well, it is not exactly new because the article was written more than two years ago after Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (GCT) had said that Singapore was 'leaking talent'. Around the same time, I also offered my own perspective [link] on why Singapore was 'leaking talent'. There is a subtle but important difference between what I wrote and the KRC article. The latter concentrates on why some young Singaporeans want to leave while the former tries to explain why some Singaporeans are leaving or have left.

I'm just going to repeat myself again in this post. This is an issue that I have given much thought about over these years. After all, I left Singapore to pursue my postgraduate studies in the US and the issue is very close to my heart.

There are many reasons - social, economic and political - why many Singaporeans want to emigrate. Some people wish to leave because of the lack of political and social freedom in Singapore. Homosexuals enjoy no legal protection and we have close to no press freedom. And I can go on and on. But that's unlikely to be the main reason why people leave. Make no mistake about it: I support gay rights and I value press freedom but I am not going to say that these things are why people are leaving.

Let us consider another small country with a similar population size and a English-speaking population - New Zealand. New Zealand undeniably offers more political and social freedoms than Singapore. Nevertheless, a large proportion of their university undergraduates choose to leave NZ for Australia for sheer availability of economic opportunities. It can't be that Australia fares much better in terms of human right, can it?

Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why many Singaporeans are emigrating. In the pursuit of economic developement, we have become very much westernized over the past decades. This very high level of westernization is a result of a deliberate government policy to attract western MNCs. After all, well-trained English-speaking workers make a perfect fit to the labour needs of investors from Australia/UK/USA, much like the workers in their own countries but cheaper. The government built an English-medium education system, emphasized engineering and technical training and developed the use of information technology. Mind you, it did and still does not do this out of pure altruism or familial love for its people. Let's be clear about it: the purpose is to attract investors.

A consequence, intended or unintended, is that many young Singaporeans have become a good fit to the labour needs of MNCs... and of their home countries. That engineering diploma, which was good enough for the American MNC, has become good enough for an American company operating out of California. This means that Singaporeans have better prospects to emigrate. Singaporeans have become a much better fit to the world or to see it another way, the world has become a better fit to Singaporeans. The rest of the world has become much more comfortable - economically, socially and culturally - for Singaporeans. The catchword is 'globalization'.

Many people underestimate the difficulties of emigration. First of all, emigration involves cultural uprooting. The US, which is one of the most welcoming socities, can be difficult for an immigrant to assimilate into, especially for an Asian. I have met Koreans, Malaysians, Thai, Chinese and Japanese students who have told me that they feel out of place in the wider American society and desire to return to their home countries after spending a few years in the US. Indians don't seem to have that problem - their home country is already highly westernized (for different reasons) and they are accustomed to living in a messy complex democratic society. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Singapore's Asian culture has been drastically blanched to westernize our work force. (I confess to being one of the highly westernized.) The loss of the inclination towards cultural protectionism has led to the increased propensity of Singaporeans to emigrate.

In summary, Singaporeans are showing a greater wilingness and ability to emigrate because of the socio-cultural transformation triggered by our economic development policy. By making Singaporeans into workers more desirable for MNCs, the government has also inadvertently moulded them into better emigrants.

I hope that what I have written has shed some light on Singaporean emigration. I welcome all comments. In particular, I will like to know how Singapore should respond to the trend of increasing emigration.


Ponder Stibbons said...

Do you think that Singaporeans are less inclined to return to Singapore after studying/working overseas, than Chinese or Indian nationals are to return to China or India?

I have a vague impression that Chinese and Indian nationals feel more valued as talents by their respective countries, than Singaporeans do by theirs, and hence the former are more likely to have some sort of desire to return to contribute to the societies they came from.

Fox said...

I'm not sure. There are push and pull factors for Singaporeans to return to Singapore. I think that the most important reason is actually social. Most people go back because of friends and family even if they feel attached to their host country.

Most Singaporeans can assimilate very well into the US because of their English skills. I can't really speak for other countries.

If anything, Singapore seems to value its overseas citizens quite highly. Contact Singapore sends me emails regularly about opportunities in Singapore.

Ponder Stibbons said...

Yes, I am aware of Contact Singapore's activities. But Singaporean employers tend to value, ahem, white-skinned employees over locals, even if they're doing exactly the same job.

My impression (again, wholly anecdotal) is that Contact Singapore is very sweet with its promises but the reality of returning as a Singaporean is very different. Of course, Contact Singapore is not responsible for how other entities in Singapore treat their employees.

I always tell people that if I ever do return to Singapore to work, it will only be after I have gained foreign citizenship (of some 'Western' country). Then I can be classified as an 'expatriate' and get all the perks expatriates get that locals don't, for exactly the same job.

Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fox said...

I don't deny that there is racism in Singapore. More specifically, we are still beset with colonial worship. Bur I don't think that is a major factor in peoples' decision to emigrate.

The racism bit might influence their decision not to return but that is not what I was trying to explain. Many people wouldn't even be in a position to make that decision if not for the fact that they have a respectable education, speak English and can assimilate into their host countries.

Anonymous said...

it can be said that US is very embracing to immigration, but the process is not only super lengthy but also expensive (compared to what it will take in SG).

the US society, despite its language being english, can be difficult to assimilate into. the academic (degree studies) environment can be different, since it's generally more co-operative, but if you just fly there to work (which i did), you would really start from scratch and face many barriers (culture, skin colour, ignorance).

i couldn't find a job in SG that pays me reasonably (i had 3 years of exp before leaving SG. when i tried applying for jobs, they tried to pay me below my starting pay *rolleyes*) so i had no choice but to flee the country.

this is the reality of SG. contactsingapore didn't contact me, i have this feeling that since i'm not valued as a citizen living in SG, why would they care when i'm out of SG anyways?

Fox said...

You have to sign up with Contact Singapore in order for them to spam you.

Chee Wai Lee said...

I avoided/ignored Contact Singapore like the plague. I do not know why, but I just wanted to be left alone than be constantly reminded of home and "official speak".

One thing I would like to warn you guys though. After being here for 10 years, I have come to understand that there is no "wider American society" other than that which helps ease people into what I call the "day-to-day interface with life" in various parts of the country.

My advice is to take the time to understand the local culture of each town you become resident to and allow people to ask about and understand your own culture. Though I've been in the same town all these years, I've had long-term interactions with Americans coming from everywhere else. The way they view things can be very different depending on where they grew up. The US is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than Singapore can ever hope to be. One has to get used to this or you're doomed to exist in an isolated ethnic ghetto (like many have formed here in the US).

Kevin Jang said...

Talking about racism in Singapore as one reason for motivating immigration, I wonder how it would apply to those in the majority race(Chinese) though. My feelings about migrating and leaving Singapore is pretty much similar to what Ponder Stibbons and Fox have said about job opportunities for Singaporeans on their own home grounds. I came back recently with a PHD but none of the places which I did send some resumes to even bothered to reply or say no. I have not given up on working towards a residency somewhere else for the most part, and either way, when overseas, I rarely or almost never really stuck around with Singaporeans to begin with. When overseas in a country like Canada, which is diverse, I think it really defeats the whole purpose of one's experience there to stick around exclusively with people of one's country or skin color. I recall some mainland Chinese students whom I was staying temporarily in the same house as trying to befriend me and to join their "coterie" of Chinese-only friends, but it probably did not work out on me(despite my being multilingual in English, Chinese and French) maybe because I valued the experience of befriending people from different backgrounds other than mine.

As for starting 'low' in another country, yes, I imagine that it has and can happen in a lot of cases. I used to joke to my mother about being a construction worker in Canada or Australia, since it is good hard work and anyway, there is really no shame for doing menial work for the most part over in western and developed countries, unlike what we have been drilled into with mindset-wise and media-wise about such jobs being lowly. I do believe though that somehow, even despite economic gaps in western countries, even construction workers can indeed make decent livings to pay off and feed their whole families. A construction worker up in northern Alberta who was flying back to Vancouver Island to meet his fiancee and baby son, who was seated next to me when I flew to Vancouver for the holidays in December, told me that he learnt to accept that work as a means of earning money for upkeeping of his family back there, although he was separated for long periods of months when he worked up north there.

Kevin Jang said...

As for what Anonymous says about companies paying one below one's starting pay, that sounds so deja vu.....
I came back, and one day, a tuition agent who used to spam me with a lot of assignments which I would not take up anyway, constantly bugged me about taking up his assignments. Obviously, he has no idea of what I can be capable of, and assumed that I would even be so poor to rely on his recommendations to get anything. For the most part, I am happily seeking employment in my field and even while such "funemployment" is still around for now till I get employed, I don't need to actually bear with the crap he puts up. I placed his number in a call reject section for the most part. But I think I would be more likely to end up like Anonymous "fleeing" Singapore and getting back to either Canada , or to another country just to work my guts out and to find my own calling in life.