Derring-do by foreign influx

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 27 Apr 2003

By Seah Chiang Nee

TWO weeks ago, a husband-and-wife team launched a website to provide advice and the latest news on SARS round the clock. 

They are not Singapore-born or working with the government. The two permanent residents hail from India – and have hit on the right idea. 

SARS is fast moving and affects almost every person in Singapore and beyond. That makes timely information from a central source 24 hours a day an important matter for businesses and families. 

Captain Denis Menezes, 44, who lectures at the Singapore Maritime Academy, runs the website (www. He and his wife, a homemaker, spent S$700 and a lot of effort on it. 

On the same day, Atsuko Nishiguchi, a 19-year-old part-Japanese polytechnic business student, was reported in the Straits Times to have started her own live website, a rarity for Singaporeans. 

Atsuko, whose father is Japanese and mother Malay, logs on for about an hour twice a week in a self-designed site “to gain practical experience on web design.” 

The webcam girl, who wants to be an actress, operates on her own rules – no exposure of her body, no expletives and she ignores propositioning men and rude women who call her names. 

A day earlier, a woman from Hong Kong, Nanz Chong, who had established a chain of 14 $1.99-shops, went bust with debts of S$3mil. “I’ll bounce back one day,” said the former model with an indomitable business spirit. 

That became obvious when she was 17 and going to Sweden on a modelling assignment. She lugged along a porcelain vase she tried to sell for S$50 to help her father’s business. 

“But nobody wanted it. I wasn’t ashamed, I just wanted to help my father,” she explained.  

There are, of course, Singaporeans who are capable of doing all these things and even more, but in real life few actually do. 

This crop of foreign-born Singaporeans is beginning to make an impact on this city. They have brought in fresh ideas, helped stimulate business and made it a more interesting place. 

Very loosely termed “foreign talent” – a much-disliked description – the majority of permanent residents and professional visit pass-holders are, in fact, quite ordinary people. 

Not many have a university degree, let alone a straight A's record. Nanz Chong, for example, could hardly speak English when she came. 

The word “talent” is generally tagged on foreigners by accident and by inadequate official explanation that gives the impression they are all neurosurgeons, bank managers or people with academic achievements. 

The authorities have tended to over-rely on grades and a university degree to measure talent or define “a talented person.” 

From choosing a political candidate to hiring civil servants, the ruling People’s Action Party still assesses potential by educational achievements more than anything else. 

Judging a person’s “talent” or “capability” by his academic results has long been the cornerstone of the PAP from the 60s, a different era when competition was decided by data knowledge. 

It wasn’t wrong in the old days. As then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained: If there were a hundred candidates, all of them fresh entrants, how would an employer pick the best? 

Basing on grades was not fail-safe but, Lee added, it was the most tangible way a person’s intelligence could be measured. 

Today, the definition of “talent” has changed in a world that competes on ideas.  

Many foreigners who make Singapore their home have something the locals do not have. And that is a fresh, unfettered – even unpragmatic – mind that dares to put ideas into practice without fear of being laughed at when they fail or don’t make money. 

This foreign influx helps to level a lopsided Singaporean workforce that has, even today, been largely conformist, regulated by home and schools – almost all taking the same road. 

Several years ago, I was invited by one of Singapore’s elite secondary schools to give a talk to mark Racial Harmony Day on my reporting experience covering the 1964 race riots here. 

It wasn’t an academic subject. Before the 700-odd students from Secondary Three and Four filed into hall, the teacher-in-charge had warned me not to be surprised if no one asked any questions. 

How could that be? The children ranked among the best in Singapore. “They’re a bit shy speaking in public,” she told me. “Afraid of saying the wrong things.” 

It went according to expectation. At the end of the 20-minute talk, the teacher came on and asked if anyone had any questions. You could hear a pin drop. 

“If that’s the case, let’s go next door for some light refreshments. If anybody has anything to ask Mr Seah, he could approach him there.” 

While we were having coffee, two boys came over and one of them asked a series of very intelligent questions that could match the work of any experienced reporter. 

His friend listened quietly while I answered them. After they left I turned to the teacher to say, well, at least one student had proved her wrong. 

“Yeah,” she replied. “Except that student was from Taiwan.” 

Imagine 45,000 children emerging every year from our education system – technical school to university – with one large conformist mindset of what they want in life. 

It is a single-minded track. They are raised this way by parents and moulded by society at large: Go to school, study hard, get a degree or a diploma that helps get you a job. 

Of course, not everyone thinks this way; some are crazy enough to strike out on another road doing unconventional things. 

This minority is growing steadily, I’m happy to notice – thanks to rising unemployment, hardship and competitive foreigners forcing them to get off their butts. 

Sometimes I’m asked by parents about their children’s careers and my answer is: What’s important is not the degree or its prestige, but occupying the top 3% of anything they want to do – a chef, hairdresser or football player. 

To me, a top-rate bar tender or fashion designer, who can take on the region’s best, has a better chance than a mediocre engineer or an average accountant. 


  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website (e-mail: ) 

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