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Brain Drain


Brain Drain

by Kenneth Lyen

In the past few years, a number of my friends have emigrated from Singapore. Many of them are young gifted individuals on the upward swing of their careers. They have difficulties getting attractive jobs here, and they are aware of the exodus of manufacturing and consultation jobs out of Singapore. In addition my friends had become increasingly uncomfortable with the stifling nature of our bureaucracy, which prompted them to seek greener pastures overseas.

Ngiam Tong Dow wrote in the Straits Times of 14 August 2004 that Singapore’s future economic survival depends on the number of talented and creative individuals that we can cultivate and retain. Competition is now global, and we need to create new products and innovate old ones regularly. We are competing with the brightest and most creative brains in the world.

Each year we send large numbers of students overseas for study and research. Not all will return to Singapore, and we are suffering from a small but significant brain drain. Those who do return, will only remain for a while, and ultimately they will emigrate.

Top companies worldwide recognise the importance of talent, and they scour the world in search of gifted people, whom they will grab. How do we reduce the number of our brightest individuals being drawn overseas?

Ngiam suggested that one of the reasons why our talent leave is that they do not have enough creative space. Expanding this space can be achieved by giving greater freedom of expression, developing greater tolerance of divergent views and pushing out-of-bound markers. He also suggested that we make an emotional appeal to these people to return to Singapore, although he does not say how.

However he misses out on a couple of important points. Why do our young talent forsake Singapore? Yes, some find our academic and intellectual climate and our excessive government regulation, quite suffocating. Yes, we do not treat our own citizens as well as we treat our overseas visitors, and indeed we tend to look down on our own and do not accord them the recognition they deserve.

But there are a few other important factors that push our people away. First is the difficulty in getting financing for new businesses. Our financiers and venture capitalists tend to be very conservative, and do not like to take risks. They tend to underfund projects, so that there is no chance for them to succeed. Indeed, it is relatively easier to find funding overseas.

Secondly, the high cost of living in Singapore has become a handicap in doing business. We are the 46th most expensive city to live in, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s report for 2004. Our businesses are no longer competitive.

Thirdly, we have a highly rigid atherosclerotic educational system. A significant number of emigrants cite this as the main reason why they are leaving. Their children are not coping with the excessively competitive and uncreative educational system. We may win international competitions that test convergent thinking, but we would most surely lose out on divergent thinking competitions if they were to exist.

And the last straw that pushes our creative people away is that we have a quiet, skeletal arts scene that has inadequate government and public support.

They have noted that Singapore agencies likes to "throw" money at overseas companies. For example, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board is giving $10 million to lure overseas film companies to make part of their film in Singapore. The Singapore Film Commission gives 50% of film production costs to overseas companies on joint ventures, which in reality fail to afford any real benefits to Singapore filmmakers. Such behaviour sends the wrong message to Singaporeans.

Unless we redress these and other complaints, and take effective remedial action, we will continue to lose our best and brightest minds.

The former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, accused such people as being "quitters". Well, instead of regarding this as a shameful label, the emigrants pride themselves in being "quitters". They send me photographs of their children enjoying the benefits of a more imaginative educational system overseas, and they tell me about the more self-fulfilling lifestyle they live.

No, I’m not envious of them. I have other priorities in life. I made my decision to return to Singapore after a stint in England and in the United States, with my eyes open. Yes the climate here is oppressively hot and humid. But I’ve learnt to acclimatize. Not everyone can do this.