4,500 – and still counting

Seah Chinag Nee
The Star Online

Even as Singapore continues to attract expatriates from all over the world, its home-grown skilled professionals and graduates are leaving for bigger nations at a worrying rate.

While Singapore is busy attracting talents from abroad, some 4,500 of its own better-educated citizens may be heading for New Zealand.

This is the other side of the immigration coin that is costing Singapore more dearly in skill losses than larger nations that are losing talents to it.

In a period of just six weeks, New Zealand has succeeded in luring this large number of Singaporeans to sign up to work or settle down there.

Such a large number has come as a surprise for two reasons. One is that the New Zealand is not even a top choice and, secondly, Singapore is said to be recovering from the economic crisis.

“Yet it has got 4,500 Singaporeans to sign up. Imagine what the response would have been had it been offered by Australia or Britain?” a company executive commented.

The under-populated Pacific country with more sheep than people had launched a global drive in January to attract more foreigners to work, study or settle down there.

Between end-January and mid-March, some 4,500 Singaporeans had registered – a whooping 78% of the total world responses. This is roughly 12% of the 39,000 babies born here annually.

It does not necessarily mean that all will go, let alone be given PR there, but even if the majority does, the loss to this small city will be substantial.

The outflow of people has long upset leaders like its founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, who once openly wept when he spoke about the subject.

Some 1,000 of Singapore’s highly-educated youths are giving up their citizenship every year to settle elsewhere.

In addition, about 1,000 Singaporeans a month have been applying for a Certificate of No Criminal Conviction, which is a prerequisite to getting PR overseas.

In 2002, Singapore was ranked as having the second highest migration rate in the world (next to East Timor) – 26.11 migrants per 1,000 citizens.

This would have meant that some 20,640 of its 3 million people were emigrating at the time, an informed source estimated.

(As a percentage this figure would have dropped significantly because of the large foreign intake pushing the population to five million.)

While hundreds of thousands of foreigners are making a beeline for Singapore – Southeast Asia’s richest city – an opposite flow is also happening.

It is losing its skilled professionals and graduates – a declining force that has undergone military training to defend the nation – to bigger nations at a worrying rate.

The New Zealand blow is particularly heavy because, until now, it has relatively limited appeal for Singaporeans compared with Australia, Britain, Canada or the US.

Its economic growth is lower and so are job opportunities, yet we are facing a possible deluge.

For example, only 114 Singaporeans went as permanent residency (PR), and 245 had permits to work in New Zealand last year. Total PRs in the past 10 years was 2,484.

For many years, the republic has been trumpeting its success in attracting skilled foreigners.

Less heralded compared to its immigration success is its own brain drain.

As I was writing this, a news headline read: “Singapore retains its top spot for Asian expats to live in.”

It is apparently a game others are playing just as effectively.

A New Zealand government message beamed here says: “We are looking for young Singaporeans interested in the challenge, experiences and fun of living in a country that offers you brilliant work and study experiences plus a relaxed lifestyle!”

It offers people a nine-to-five working day, four weeks of paid leave a year, and cheaper housing, things that are attractive to people here.

It is not alone. Canada has also been head-hunting Singaporeans with some success.

Some 26,100 Singaporeans have applied for economic visa, for skilled workers and business class, Canada announced. The family category is excluded, but is estimated to number another 40,000.

About 150,000 Singaporeans are today studying or living overseas, according to officials.

Last year, 2,703 Singaporeans emigrated to Australia, and about 1,000 each to Canada and the US, according to news reports. More than 10,000 Singaporeans are living in Hong Kong.

The future can expect no let-down. Almost one in four top students in Singapore end up working overseas, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

A recent survey of teenagers said 53% would want to move abroad if they had the chance.

There is hardly a middle class family that does not know someone who has emigrated.

One blogger wrote recently: “I have had friends leaving Singapore over the years but last week was the first time I had to say farewell to two who are going off for good – one for New Zealand, the other for Australia.”

Some Malaysians are puzzled by this phenomenon. “Singapore is one of the most competitive economies in the world and it strives constantly to be a great global city with gleaming towers …,” one said.

“It is a great city to work in and is attracting expatriates from all over the globe,” he said.

“Yet many of its own youths are abandoning it.”

Critics say there are several reasons for the exodus, including high stress level, a high cost of living (one of the world’s 10 most expensive cities), over-crowdedness and too much government control.

Singapore is losing the flower of its youth. Many who are seeking opportunities abroad are young people.

“Some of my young friends have left.”



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