‘Foreigner, go home ... But I am home; this is where I live, where I started my company, where my wife and our two children were born.’ – Permanent resident Norwegian Peter Borup Jakobsen.
“If I have it so tough, I can’t imagine how things will be for my children.” – Unemployed (three years) Singaporean computer technician, who plans to migrate to Australia.
“I don’t share any of these pessimistic views about the country. There are problems but things are changing. In 10 years’ time, Singapore will be a very different place; I foresee some political change five years from now.” – Online forum
These views cover a phenomenon that is reshaping this state’s history, an influx of foreign settlers here and Singaporeans leaving for greener pastures abroad.
In recent months, both have been generating a lot of emotions. They are inter-connected with one affecting the other.
It is ironic. At a time when foreigners see an exciting future in Singapore’s new economic direction, more of its own people are losing heart and moving out.
Migrating Singaporeans are not new, but in good times the number was a trickle.
Singapore is affluent, successful, but it is also small, overcrowded and highly competitive. It is itself a migrant society with a short history.
Better-educated citizens, whose forefathers had emigrated here to escape poverty, had been leaving for greater security and a less stressful lifestyle. During the past three years of declining employment opportunities, the number rose significantly, especially among 40-plus professionals leaving with their families.
The brain drain is adding to its crisis of low birth rates and rapid ageing. The gap can be filled by a systematic input of young, qualified foreigners.
As a result, the population has increased – instead of declined – by more than one million since 1990 to reach 4.2 million.
Some 800,000 are foreigners. Roughly one in seven are professionals, businessmen or white-collar workers.
For every one Singaporean who leaves, however, some six or more foreigners become PRs here. The trends are changing the demographic history of the country.
But the large inflow is causing resentment among Singaporeans who see the pie getting smaller with outsiders coming to eat it and leaving.
What is worrying of late is the rise in the number of trained, middle-aged Singaporeans and their families who leave to become PRs elsewhere.
During the past three years, the four top host countries – Australia, Canada, US and New Zealand – reported an upsurge of Singaporean permanent residents.
2001 – 1,786
2002 - 2,064 (up 15.5%)
2003 - 2,656 (up 28.6%)
2001 - 666
2003 - 991 (up 49%)
2000 - 671
2002 - 1,036 (up 54.4%)
2001 - 437
2002 – 278 (down 30%)
2003 – 369 (up 32.7%)
Most are the “desirable” graduates that large, under-populated countries like Australia and Canada prefer.
The majority worries about the long-term prospects of living in a city, however developed, whose small size restricts opportunities and ambitions with a hectic pace of life.
Some are concerned about job security and their children’s future. Other push factors are strong government control and a relative lack of personal liberties.
Population shift is not unique to Singapore, but outward migration poses a special problem because of national service (NS). It depends on its “people’s” army to defend itself. In any war, these reservists who have served 2½ years’ training, become frontline soldiers. Foreigners don’t undergo NS and, it is feared, lack the commitment and training to defend Singapore.
For most, a complete uprooting is not the objective. They want a foreign PR but without abandoning their citizenship. Few are ready to burn bridges
Some 60% select Australia because of its nearness to home. It serves as job insurance. It is unclear how many who are given these PRs actually migrate.
The government has moved to try to draw benefits from a bad situation. It has formed “Singapore clubs” in many receiving cities to tap these people to help develop the business ties.
The desire to leave appears to be growing. One migration consultant told the Straits Times that he was receiving at least 20 enquiries a day, twice the number in 2001. They included Singaporeans who held high-paying jobs.
“We get people in their 30s, holding good jobs but terribly worried about restructuring and retrenchment,” said the manager.
Others are 40-plus professionals who find it hard to get meaningful jobs.
A former lawyer who moved to Sydney to do his masters in public health said he wanted to get out of the rat race. “In Singapore, you have to work so hard to save up a retirement sum. By the time you manage to save that amount, will you be in any shape to enjoy it?”
The government finds itself caught in a bind. The more Singaporeans leave, the more foreigners it has to bring in to close the gap, which in turn contributes to the exodus.
The newspapers and Internet are reflecting some of the resentment and worry about foreign workers. A few are lashing out in blind fury at foreign PRs, ranging from medal-winning sportsmen to students.
One frequent complaint is the giving of perks to foreign PRs at the expense of locals, including exemption from national service, scholarship and housing subsidy.
Some Singaporeans want the government to distinguish between naturalised citizens (with full rights) and PRs, who should have no more than residential rights until they become citizens.
The authorities reject this. They want more, not less, foreign talent because it fills skills that Singapore’s new high-tech investors need.
Last week, Singapore’s economy shed a strong ray of light in a long dark tunnel. The first quarter GDP grew by a strong 7.3%, three times the previous rate, catching even the government by surprise. It augurs well for next year or two.
What will happen from now? It is hoped it will resemble what happened to Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1990s, when large numbers who had fled to the West out of worries about China, flocked back when their economies took off.
Lee Hsien Loong is expected to become Prime Minister within months. It now rests on him to restore public confidence in Singapore and provide the lifestyle that the youths want.
Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
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