Singapore: A Home Called Singapore


Dr Chee Soon Juan

Can Singapore get Singaporeans who are studying overseas to return to live and work in their home country?

This question – raised by Matthew Burke in ASIAN ANALYSIS, February 2000 - seems a trifle odd especially when one considers that Singapore has been touted variously (unfortunately much of it by the ruling People's Action Party or PAP) as a ‘garden city’, an ‘intelligent island’, a ‘Boston of the East’, and a ‘hub’ for everything from the liberal arts to the life sciences It seems foolish, then, that any Singaporean should want to forsake this paradisal city-state for another country.

And yet, a full 20 per cent of Singaporeans indicated in a recent survey by Mastercard that they had thought of emigrating. The problem had become so acute that by the late 1980s Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore's Prime Minister, was moaning over the seemingly incomprehensible exodus. More than a decade later, Mr Goh Chok Tong continued the lamentation: ‘If our best who qualify to work for world-class institutions are not prepared to come back, how can we make our institutions world-class?’

Taiwan may have some answers. When asked by Singaporeans how Taiwan managed to get its overseas people to return, Taiwanese Nobel laureate for chemistry, Professor Lee Yuan Tseh, dead-panned that it was because of the ‘democratisation and political transformation’ of society. Another Nobel prize-winner, Economics Professor Amartya Sen, underscored this point: ‘Economic incentives, important as they are, are no substitute for political incentives…[the absence of which] cannot be filled by the operation of economic inducement’.

This lesson, it seemed, was not lost on the Singapore regime. There has been talk that the PAP is encouraging the development of civil society. Two instances, however, show that such notions are as substantial as parfait. Earlier this year, the government reiterated its objective ‘to strengthen local media so that they can hold the attention of local audiences’ - PAP-speak for the continued suppression of information flow in the country. In May, Parliament passed a bill to restrict political parties from receiving anonymous donations, knowing full well that such contributions were the lifeblood of opposition parties, as Singaporeans are afraid to openly support the Opposition financially. The Act also prohibits NGOs from receiving overseas funding. This further emaciates an already wretched civil society as many of these organisations rely on the support of international bodies for their work.

As Dr Garry Rodan rightly observed: ‘This vision of “civil society”, it seems, has quite instrumentalist objectives and should not be confused with an enhancement of citizenship rights”.

As long as democracy remains out of reach for Singaporeans, many will continue to stay away because home is not only where the heart is, it is also where the mind works and plays.

WATCHPOINT: Without greater democracy, will Singapore be able to stem the brain drain?


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