Thursday, 21 November 2019

Wanted: Vision of Singapore based on values, not just economic value

The old narrative of material success and survival against the odds doesn't spur the young. To root young people to Singapore, we need a vision based on being a global city of opportunities, and being inclusive and embracing differences.
By Clarence Ching, Published The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2019

A recent casual chat with a friend turned to emigration, that old chestnut of an issue.

She is a 24-year-old law student, and is all set on a legal career when she finishes her studies. Asked if she would consider leaving Singapore to work one day, she responded starkly: "If Singapore doesn't serve your interest, why should you serve hers?"

Her bold statement and the way she framed nationality and identity in terms of serving individual interests jolted me.

The idealism of "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" clearly did not resonate with my friend.

But no one can fault ambitious young Singaporeans for being on the lookout for opportunities outside the Republic to advance their careers and improve their lives.

The way this friend saw it, heading back to Singapore meant that she was going to be another cog in the system, defined by her academic results without any real value and having her qualities overlooked. She reckoned a slower pace of life with less pressure in another country would suit her better and help her grow more holistically.

That conversation got me thinking about emigration, young Singaporeans and identity.

As it is, many Singaporeans are attractive global workers with skills well sought after around the world. An annual survey conducted by the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community in 2017 revealed that seven in 10 Singaporean youth aged 18 to 35 were looking to move overseas to pursue opportunities.

Similarly, a study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2016 showed that 29.2 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were actively examining the possibility of emigrating in the next five years, an increase from 26.4 per cent in 2010.

Already, 214,700 Singaporeans live overseas as of 2017, compared with 172,000 a decade before that, according to the Department of Statistics.


Why do Singaporeans emigrate?

Surveys point to issues such as the high cost of living, high stress of work life and the education system.

Being able to explore opportunities not available in Singapore and living in societies with greater degrees of freedom were also mentioned as pull factors by some friends I spoke with.

I think another important factor contributing to brain drain is the national psyche.

There is no denying that the "Third World to First" story built on pragmatism and meritocracy forms the bulk of Singapore's DNA. But this is the same narrative that can propel emigration.

Pragmatism means one should seek the best life for self and family regardless of obligations or cost and whichever country is offering that life. There is little place for patriotism in that narrative. Meritocracy rewards those who strive and succeed, regardless of those left behind. Such narratives do not emphasise solidarity or a sense of belonging.

As a friend doing his post-graduate studies in an Ivy League university noted, the world is too big and diverse to be stuck in one single place for the long term. "If life abroad is better, why head back?"

Without a strong sense of identity as Singaporean, talented young locals who set their sights on global ambitions and dreams can easily forsake the land of their birth.

Indeed, countries struggle to maintain a national identity amid the challenges Globalisation 4.0 poses. The Republic is no exception - with the Singapore identity in a constant flux, our sense of who we are as a nation evolves and moves so quickly that we become lost at times.


There are two general narratives of Singapore. One can be termed Rat Race Singapore, featuring a hungry, boxed-up country chasing after social statuses in a never-ending rat race.

The other can be called Global City of opportunities. In this vision, Singapore is a city brimming with promise, with a forward-looking government and people who continually innovate, ensuring that Singapore remains competitive and at the top of its game. The Government constantly encourages Singaporeans to venture overseas and seek opportunities to learn, taking the newfound knowledge and experiences back home.

Which vision will young Singaporeans take to?

Singapore as the Rat Race city drives competition and propels people to seek to be better than others.

Singapore as the Global City of opportunities offers a more rewarding vision of the future. Personally, I think this vision can be quite inspiring, especially for globalised young people who can work anywhere in developed cities.


But is there space in this city for those who are not at the top, but who are average, median or below average? Some Singaporeans may feel out of place in a society that is too hierarchical, with glass ceilings in certain industries that appear reserved for people from certain old boys' networks.

Many younger Singaporeans chafe under a work ethic that does not respect personal or family time, leading them to develop a sense of disconnect from Singapore, choosing to move away eventually.

The most worrying result is when young Singaporeans then treat the country as a transition point rather than as home. We cannot constantly turn to inflows to build our community - the Republic needs a Singaporean core. Without that, we are just a transit society with no roots.

Strengthening our Singapore spirit, among other factors, should be a key priority in an uncertain world. I feel that millennial Singaporeans have a more varied sense of identity and sense of belonging than older generations.

Younger Singaporeans are increasingly unpersuaded by the narrative that Singapore defied the odds of history and survived as an independent, sovereign state and find it overused and outdated, perhaps not as inspiring to us as to older generations.

To understand why, look at it from my generation's perspective.

An independent, successful Singapore is all we have known all our lives. We accept intellectually that this was an amazing achievement - but that was an achievement of past generations, and we need something more than sustaining the status quo to fire up our idealism.

The promise of material success may have been attractive for a generation used to poverty, but is not as alluring to a generation that grew up with plenty.

To be sure, economic prospects matter very much to us. Young Singaporeans are motivated to leave Singapore when there are better economic prospects - as well as social or values-based prospects - elsewhere.

A friend concluded that the brain drain is the result of disillusionment with the Singapore dream, when our identity and values as Singaporean are perceived as taking a backseat as a result of the push for excellence.

The key is values, not just economic value.

Value is no longer just material in nature, with young Singaporeans increasingly embracing a conception of life based on a set of values that differ from their parents'.

Singaporeans who choose to move overseas, especially the young generation, may not conform to the traditional viewpoint of a "comfortable" life, but may instead be choosing a lifestyle that allows them greater flexibility and inclusiveness in values and culture.

To tackle the diminishing sense of belonging, Singapore must find a balance between preserving its own national identity and embracing a global society.

We should start promoting a change in culture and an identity that isn't based on our economic worth but based on Singapore's heart ware.


We have the beginnings of a Singapore identity: we embrace the nation's core values such as meritocracy and multi-racialism; we are developing a deeper understanding of our history and our place in the region.

We have a nascent shared culture, with our love for food and sense of humour, our hawker culture, Singlish and pride in our multicultural, multilingual heritage.

A national identity should be one based on shared values that can empower and inspire, that can rally Singaporeans together with a sense of purpose and belonging.

The prospect of better things and the ancillary optimism must also be a big part of the Singapore spirit. A vision that offers opportunity, as well as inclusiveness, can appeal to young people.

What components of a national identity can we carve that will root my generation to this place? I think that is an issue that deserves more discussion. Here is a short list.

It should be inclusive and welcoming of diversity. We are a multi-racial society. Can we also be welcoming of newcomers?

Can we move out of our obsession with academic excellence and embrace Singaporean students who are currently under-served - those not as academically inclined or aspiring to join the Public Service's Administrative Service, who are doing their best in the education system?

A sense of identity that inspires has to be welcoming of Singaporeans with different sexual orientations, and Singaporeans pursuing a career not in the professions or business, but in sports or the arts.

We must accommodate the diverse aspirations of Singaporeans, so that everyone, regardless of their dream or aspiration, gets to play an important role in society.

A vision that offers opportunity, as well as inclusiveness, can appeal to young people. Singaporeans must embrace fellow countrymen of different identities, classes, beliefs and values.

The fourth-generation - or 4G - Government must be prepared to do what is right for society's emotional well-being and culture based on a new social compact, making space for differences, and building greater trust with all Singaporeans.

Nation-building is an iterative process. A sense of identity evolves as history unfolds and a people forge a common sense of nationhood. While the old narratives of Singapore's success have brought us so far, it is imperative to refresh mindsets and develop a narrative for Singapore that is more multi-faceted and inclusive and that embraces risks and idealism.

Without this, the country risks losing more people from my generation, especially those unpersuaded by material success but who may be moved to sink roots by a more holistic, inclusive and appealing sense of what being Singaporean means.

Clarence Ching, a student at Durham University in Britain, started Access, a social mobility ground-up organisation providing mentorship and work attachment opportunities to under-served secondary school students.

No comments:

Post a Comment