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Saturday March 24, 2012

Talent buy becomes sore point

Virtually an entire populace has been imported in the past 20 years as Singapore aspires to become an international city to attract the top brains and the wealthy.

IF you don’t have enough local talent, buy it from abroad whether in sports or research science, be­­ginning with schools and universities. This attitude is reflected in Singapore’s oft-expressed fears that declining birthrates will threaten its long-term survival.

In addition, Singapore aspires to be an international city to attract the top brains and the wealthy.

Its solution to prevent a falling po­­pulation has been dramatic.

Virtually an entire populace has been imported in the past 20 years, raising the dense population by two-thirds, from three million to five million.

It begins from pre-teens and secondary schools. But it is at university level, where thousands of foreigners are given scholarships, that the controversy is upsetting locals, particularly those who can’t afford it.

To the government, expanding the talent pool is crucial for the economy.

Since the birthrate is declining, why not import youngsters from the region by the thousands, especially from China and Asean, to come and study here free of charge.

The issue is developing into another controversy, with critics labelling it as a short-cut development of hu­­man resources through imports ra­­­ther than focusing on home talents.

It is not only pursued in sports, where young foreign winners are brought in to win gold medals, but also extends to bio-medical research scientists.

The issue took to the media last month when the government re­­vealed in Parliament that at least 2,000 scholarships worth S$36mil (RM87.8mil) were awarded each year to overseas students.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Sim Ann said that most of these scholars served out their bonds and the few who defaulted were made to pay liquidated damages. No numbers were given.

It is not known if the total included a large number of scholarships by companies linked to the government, like Singapore Airlines, Nep­tune Orient Lines and Singapore Press Holdings.

But dishing out so many pre-tertiary and university scholarships to fo­­reigners is becoming a sensitive issue.

Getting a degree has always been a life-long dream of most Singaporean parents and youngsters, many of whom spend thousands of dollars in private tuition every month.

However, to the government, it is crucially important for Singapore’s future.

The (then) Minister for Education, Tharman Shanmugaratnam (now DPM and Finance Minister), said several years ago:

“We must continue to take in foreign students from all over Asia, and the world. Each of them brings a different bit of the world into our schools, and into Singapore.”

They are required to serve a three-year bond after graduation, but to locals this is a double blow since they’ll have to compete also on the job front.

For years, the idea had been knocked into our heads that our low birthrates – not unusual in develop­ed countries – are a threat to our fu­­ture survival.

Actually, the government is not wrong in saying that the world is witnessing a sharp contest for foreign skilled personnel; every country big and small (including China) wants an infusion.

Most countries, big or small want to lure in skilled foreigners or weal­­thy investors to generate prosperity, but few do it to Singapore’s extent.

As far back as 25 years ago, I met a professional Canadian recruiter in one of Hong Kong’s posh hotels.

The competition for global talent was then already rising.

The gentleman’s job was to “persuade” residents to migrate to some of Canada’s less developed regions.

The timing was good, he thought, since many Hong Kongers were worried about China’s takeover.

“We wanted professionals and en­­­tre­­preneurs, not the Li Ka Shing level, but the poorer mil­­lionai­­res. We’re sure they can make our sleepy provinces come alive,” he said.

If it is so crucial, why are Singapo­reans objecting so vehemently?

Mainly, people are annoyed over the loss of opportunities and salary undercutting by these newcomers from poorer countries.

Besides, as former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once admitted, the majority came to enjoy the scholarships, not to settle down.

They use Singapore as a jumping-off point for the West.

Lee once remarked that if only 20% settled here, the government would be satisfied. As a general rule, taking in foreign students adds value to tertiary studies.

“Besides, some scholarship students return home to assume top posts in the government or private companies, which can help smooth bilateral relations with Singapore.

Critics point out that a limited number of top foreign students is generally an asset to any university, but few are subsidised the way they are in Singapore.

In the United States, the premium institutions set very strict entry re­­quirements and charge foreigners higher fees than locals.

“Compared with other countries, Singapore likely has a larger proportion of scholarships taken up by foreign students as compared to locals,” said David Loong.

Opposition Reform Party politician Lim Zi Rui criticised the government for treating Singaporeans as se­­­­cond, and even third, class citizens when it comes to education.

He said: “Our local students lose out, lose the chance, even though they are of the same calibre.”

The rapid intake of foreign students and professors, many of whom are poor in English, may have been one cause for the drop in rankings of Singapore’s two top universities.

The National University of Singa­­pore had fallen from 18th in the world in 2004 to 34th in 2010, ac­­cording to Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. And Nanyang Technological University dropped from 50th to 174th position.

There are other reasons, for Singa­pore’s decline. One is the fast improvements of other universities in Asia, including China.

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