Yes, many S'poreans are leaving to work & live overseas. But so what?

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 29, 2019, 03:58 PM

PN Balji is a veteran journalist who has over 40 years' experience in journalism in Singapore spanning print, broadcast and digital journalism.

He has also provided communications advisory services to organisations in the public and private sector.

By PN Balji

S'pore is obsessed with trends

Trend spotting is part science, part art. The science bit is the easier part; organise the research, gather the statistics and crunch them to make some sense.

But I have always been interested in the art side of the equation as it involves adding flesh to the research, interpreting the data and making it meaningful and worthwhile for policy makers.

And, of course, it can help to identify if there is a trend which needs an organisation’s attention.

Singapore is obsessed with trends and statistics as the country believes it has to be ahead of the curve to prepare itself for a worse-case scenario. So much so that it has a Centre for Strategic Futures, an offshoot of the Scenario Planning Unit; its mission is to “create narratives and models to understand plausible future states.”

Although security and economic issues take prominence in such scenario planning, matters concerning inflow of foreigners, fertility and ageing are not missed.

Many S'poreans are going overseas to live or work

But one trend, that of Singaporeans going overseas to live and/or work, doesn’t seem to have cropped up in policy debates. It is high time that it happened.

One question I consistently ask my acquaintances, even strangers, is this: Are any members of your family overseas?

The answer is quite revealing. In eight of 10 people I spoke to, at least eight said their children live or work overseas.

They go away for various reasons: A less stressful environment, lower cost of living, a bigger living space, better chances of getting a degree, better job opportunities … Many, many years ago, Singapore lost its top swimmer, Junie Sng, to Australia because of the government’s Nazi-like approach to the study of Mandarin.

A straight A student who left for Canada

A friend’s daughter left for a very different reason. She was a straight A student but couldn’t get into the law faculty because of the intimidating atmosphere during an interview with three professors.

This is how the father describes what happened 15 years ago:

“They gave her a topic and asked her to debate it with them. She couldn’t sustain her arguments because the three poked holes in her points. To cut a long story short, she came out of the interview room tearing.”

“Without telling us, she applied to the University of Toronto. She was accepted with a partial scholarship and campus accommodation thrown in. She showed us the acceptance letter and said without missing a beat: See what a foreign country has offered me."

"At that moment I knew, she will not return to her country of birth. Fifteen years have passed since and she has become a PR of Canada, married a Canadian and loves the salubrious air of Toronto. She returns to her home country every year."

"Once I asked her: You don’t like Singapore? I don’t like Singaporeans. They are nosey, talk about inane issues, their service standards are horrible…”

My friend lost a daughter and Singapore lost a talent.

Older people are going overseas as well

It is not just the young who are leaving.

I am seeing people in their 60s and 70s setting up second homes in foreign lands like Malaysia and Thailand. They are not giving up their Singapore citizenship, live overseas for a couple of months and return home often to catch up with extended family members and friends.

The world has shrunk. Air travel is cheaper and more convenient and staying away from an overcrowded costly city has become very attractive.

My story is very reflective of this trend. I have a second home in the south-western coastal Indian state of Kerala and spend three months there every year. I have built up a strong network of friends and publishers, can speak the language and enjoy the food there.

Of course, I went in with my eyes open.

Their public infrastructure is far inferior to Singapore’s and things cannot be done in a jiffy and efficiently, like in Singapore.

The private hospitals in my city of choice, Calicut, are cheap and good. Last year, I went for a MRI scan which cost me S$400, a fraction of what it would have cost me in Singapore.

There are direct flights daily to Kerala from Singapore; very different from 20 years ago when we had to land in Chennai and take the 12-hour night train to Calicut.

Also, the offer of New Delhi’s version of the Green Card, which gives you all the perks that are given to Indians, except for voting rights and purchase of agricultural land, have made the country very attractive for Singaporeans like me.

These are all anecdotes.

Yes, S'poreans are leaving. But does it matter?

How much of a trend this is developing into can be determined only if surveys are done and interpreted.

Is Singapore a home or a hotel, former PM Goh Chok Tong asked with a wistful smile during a National Day Rally many years ago. The early alarm bell was rung but we don’t hear of this debate these days.

In the meantime, Singaporeans are continuing to leave.

The occasional mention of this issue has resulted in the government saying such a trend is impossible to stop in a porous world and has set up offices up in major cities to keep in touch with overseas Singaporeans. That is an enlightening approach and might be the best way to see this issue.

Still deeper issues are boiling.

What about the ageing their children leave behind? Who are there to take care of them? A young friend says that is why she lives in Bangkok; it is only 2 1/2 hours away from home.

Home or hotel? In a world where travel is cheap and easy, talent is received with open arms, and investments are rewarded with incentives, the outflow can be stopped.

So the question to ask is this: Does it really matter?

Top photo via Unsplash.