IN an increasingly “borderless” world, Singapore is finding it harder to shake off the image that it is more “a hotel” than a nation.
The term was coined by its citizens who are increasingly working or migrating abroad, coming home only occasionally while top foreign talents being courted to settle here are doing so only to use it as transit to the West. In short, it is like a hotel.
Nation building is, of course, a long process even for larger countries, and smallish Singapore has only had 40 years of it, but its extraordinary speed of development had given hope that it could have a faster momentum than others.
This now seems unlikely. Two global trends coupled with its top-down policies are slowing its people-bonding evolution.
The first is a changed mindset of Singapore’s new generation, which sees the world as one without frontiers to work in, which dilutes its sense of belonging.
For mature nations, the movement of people in and out causes few ripples, but for a small state with a migrant background, it is serious.
In January, Lee Kuan Yew voiced his concerns when he met Singaporeans working in Qatar.
“If more Singaporeans worked abroad and their children forgot their roots, there will be no Singapore node to send them out ... They dissolve and disappear and there is no Singapore,” the minister mentor said.
“They become citizens of the world. What does that mean? Lost!”
Singapore-born Prof Shirley Lim Geok-lin, who taught English at University of California, said Lee’s concern was over the loss of the fourth generation of young citizens.
This preoccupation, she added, had taken over from his perceived threats of regional military hostility or global isolation. Lee was concerned that Singaporean parents, in becoming international workers, had “opened to them a different identity”.
Official statistics are not updated, but the number of overseas Singaporeans is put at 150,000, most of them temporarily.
What he did not mention was the problem of growing emigration of Singaporeans who settle down elsewhere and do not come back.
Some foreign NGOs have placed Singapore as one of the world’s highest “outflow” countries on a per capita basis.
Nevertheless, Singapore remains a healthy “surplus” country, meaning it gets more foreign migrants than it “loses” through emigration and it is allowing its population to rise strongly.
It is on a good wicket because of its developed economy. Hordes of educated professionals from poorer Asian nations flock here to seek better salaries or a higher education, so in terms of numbers future expansion seems assured.
But in terms of quality or committed long-term immigrants, it is doing less well.
Many of the specially sought talents, especially from China and India, being offered scholarships here take them up but only as a stepping stone to migrate to the West.
Singapore’s Linda Lim, a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan who has taught in the US for 20 years, in a recent lecture to Singaporean students said that in the past decade, she had got to know many Chinese and Indian nationals here.
They had come to study in schools and universities, often with government scholarships and later worked for a few years before applying for an MBA programme in America.
“To my knowledge, none has ever returned to Singapore after graduating with MBAs, their goal all along having been to use the place as a stepping stone to the US job market,” she said.
To them, Singapore was just a place to study and work – like Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York, San Francisco or London – whereas their nation remained China or India or, for some, eventually the US.
“This is only to be expected of a place which is not a nation, at least not for those passing through,” said Dr Lim.
They had opted to come because it offered a good job, lifestyle or good education for the children, and were only interested in Singapore as a place, not as a permanent home.
This twin force of domestic outflow and its transient nature makes it difficult for the people here to deepen roots in Singapore and strengthen their national identity.
Some believe that the evolution may take another one or two generations.
In recognition of its transition character, the government is defining its population as “residential” – which includes citizens and permanent residents – and “foreign”.
This “residential” population totals about 3.5 million while foreign workers (about 750,000) are grouped separately.
Its workforce is similarly classified, so when the government talks about jobs for Singaporeans, it actually means citizens and permanent residents, which are, of course, technically different.
Permanent residents (PR) do not vote or do compulsory national service – although their children need to do both – but they enjoy cheaper public housing.
Previously, they had separate listings for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. Lumping them together recognises the growing importance of PRs in Singapore’s future role.
The birth rate here has fallen below what is needed to replace the population, and its ageing process is one of the region’s fastest. Both put the republic’s future at risk without the foreign influx.
Yet it is precisely this “foreign talent” policy that has upset Singaporeans, who see it as a threat to their livelihood.
Another obstacle towards deepening roots is the government’s control of society and the public’s resentment against it.
“People just feel they’ve lost ownership of their country and want it back,” said a critic.
Dr Linda Lim agreed. “What is the way forward? Promote active civic and political participation and inculcate the ‘sense of ownership’,” she suggested.
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