Singapore Inc. and the brain drain

If you could leave Singapore, would you? For many Singaporeans, especially from the younger generations, the answer apparently is yes, in large numbers. This doesn’t seem sustainable, not least because the brightest individuals with the most to contribute will inevitably find emigration overseas easiest. While the negative effects of a so-called brain drain on Singapore’s economic strength will take years to manifest, the bad news is that this trend has already been going on for years. We may be suffering the results already.

There is plenty of evidence pointing to Singapore suffering from a brain drain, in fact it has been reported on quite a few times over the years. In 2009 Goh Chok Tong expressed concern on the matter, noting that more than one-fifth of top students from 1996 to 1999 were no longer working in Singapore a decade later. In 2010 over half of teenagers responded that they would move abroad if they had the chance. In fact as long ago as 2002 Singapore was reported as having the second highest emigration rate in the world (after poverty-stricken East Timor). Clearly this is a big problem and has been for many years, and for whatever reason, it seems to affect Singapore particularly badly.

The interesting thing about a brain drain is that the negative effects would not be felt straight away. Even if all the brightest students left Singapore one day, nothing much would change overnight. The civil service would continue to operate, with significant projects still being run by the same experienced staff that had been there for years, even decades before. In the sort term, standards would be maintained at the same high level as ever. The problem comes in the medium to long-term. When the best and brightest civil servants of previous generations move on or retire, and the best and brightest of the next generation have emigrated, who will be left in charge? It seems inevitable that standards will slip. The slip may be gradually, almost imperceptible at first, but it will be inexorable. Projects will start to come in late and over budget. Deliveries will be marred by glitches and confusion. Policy changes will appear muddled and defy explanation. Once a brain drain has taken hold, the results will be painful, but due to the time lag involved, the root cause may not be obvious.

But isn’t this what we are seeing already? Projects are delayed and over budget. Deliveries are marred by glitches and confusion. Policy changes are muddled and inexplicable. The recent meltdown of the Marina Coastal Expressway on its first day of operation was just the latest example that one could cite of a flagship project apparently botched up. The fact that a partial solution came within hours – with the LTA rushing to redirect traffic flow along Central Boulevard – just points to the fact that the original plan was not thought through or stress tested properly.

Many have opined that government ministers of today are not up to the standards of previous generations. More than ten years after Singapore had the second highest emigration rate in the world, it seems likely that the same is true behind the scenes at the civil service. For comparison, while Lee Kuan Yew’s press secretary James Fu could hold his own in a war of words with almost any foreign editor, the Singapore government’s most vocal supporter today is apparently Calvin Cheng. The inescapable conclusion is that standards have slipped. It seems that the slippage has been gradual, taken place over some years, and has been across the board rather than focussed specifically on one or two companies or ministries. It looks exactly like what I suppose we should expect if a brain drain were a significant contributing factor.

At the top I asked “If you could leave Singapore, would you”? The second question is “Why”? Even those who answered no to the first question can likely guess at popular answers to the second. High cost of living and stagnant wages. Stressful lifestyles. Out of control immigration policies. Disenfranchisement with a system that is designed to entrench government power rather than listen to citizens. An economic model with little space for creativity and much centralised government control. It would probably be a mistake to underestimate the effect of national service, a policy ostensibly in defence of the nation, but which actually breeds resentment for many of those who have to endure it for two years. Much of this is ultimately attributable to government policies. In theory unpopular government policies can be changed by engaged citizens, but in Singapore, the government doesn’t exactly have a reputation for listening. For many the only feasible way to solve the problem of living under an unpleasant government is to find a new government, in a new country.

There are no easy fixes for this problem, not least because the situation does not lend itself well to objective detection. The Dunning-Kruger effect implies that less capable staff are not likely to realise their own weaknesses. For example, whoever has been responsible the MDA’s latest regulatory blunders is unlikely to wake up one day and realise they are incompetent. Declining standards could also be easily attributable to other factors such as cost cutting, corruption and even nepotism. Yet despite the alternatives, it seems unlikely that an inability to keep Singapore’s brightest from emigrating has had no negative effect. In the short-term money could be thrown at the problem, paying high salaries should be a reliable way to attract talent, but yet it doesn’t seem to have worked too well in parliament. If the perception that poor government policies drive people away is correct, then a bit more democracy would probably help solve the problem. If people believe that they can make a better home for themselves by engaging with the government, or even forming a new government, they are more likely to stay and engage rather than disengage and leave. But is the government ever going to start listening? All signs point to no.

Alex Au wrote recently that he fears Singapore is beginning to fail. I wouldn’t go that far, but I fear we are circling the plug hole, in danger of disappearing down the brain drain.

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