The US is one of the most popular countries among Singaporeans who want to study or work abroad. More than 200,000 Singaporeans currently live and work overseas, up significantly from 10 years ago. Previously seen as a worrying trend for Singapore’s leaders, new initiatives have been launched to tap on their international exposure and draw them back home. By Romesh Navaratnarajah The number of Singaporeans looking for greener pastures abroad continues to rise, with 212,500 overseas Singaporeans as of June 2015, up 23 percent from 163,000 in 2005, according to a Population in Brief 2015 report published by the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD).
A large majority of them went overseas to study and work, with the most popular destinations being Australia, the UK, the US and China. However, many Singaporeans living overseas have chosen not to return, raising concerns of a brain drain.
During his National Day Speech in 2002, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong controversially called young Singaporeans who chose to leave the country “quitters”.
Six years later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed that about a quarter of top A-level students who had gone overseas to study or work did not return. Less stress, more success 34-year-old Chloe Lim left Singapore almost 14 years ago to further her studies in London. She told PropertyGuru that the stressful and highly competitive education system here was a push factor.
“I felt that I would be stigmatised for being a Normal Academic student, even though I eventually went to Victoria Junior College,” she said. Also, the curriculum available at the National University of Singapore (NUS) didn’t appeal to her.
Lim has no regrets about moving to the UK, a decision she believes has enriched her life. “There are beautiful museums, art galleries and theatres, and these places are easily accessible.
“I am also more independent and it has made me realise how easy Singaporeans have it, especially the younger generation. A lot of people have maids to cook for them, wash their clothes and cars, and look after their children.
“In the UK, you have to do things on your own, especially if you’re single, because most people do not live with their parents and they cannot afford to have domestic helpers.”
Lim currently works as a Senior Tax Adviser in PwC London, a job she finds very fulfilling as she’s surrounded by a diverse group of colleagues who are less judgemental and competitive.
“People here are generally less judgemental about your lifestyle choices. I find that when I go back to Singapore, relatives and even strangers judge me on how I look, my weight, marital status, and the fact that I cannot speak Mandarin well.”
She noted that employees in the UK are also given rights that Singaporean companies lack. “I feel that workers in Singapore are treated quite badly and there is no one to protect their rights, whereas in the UK, there is statutory legislation in place to ensure employees are not unfairly treated or dismissed.”
Chloe Lim left Singapore many years ago to escape the country’s stressful education system. She has no plans to return anytime soon.
Chance of a lifetime Derrick Ho, 32, cited job prospects as the main reason for leaving Singapore. The product manager for a media company moved to Raleigh, North Carolina six months ago after accepting a job he felt would stretch his abilities.
“After studying in the US, I wanted to experience what it would be like to work there. I would also get the chance to work with people I could learn from,” he told PropertyGuru.
Aside from a better work-life balance, Ho feels that he’s achieved financial independence in the US. “I have a car and I’m able to rent a nice apartment which I have all to myself. These are things I’ve seriously considered while working in Singapore, but would have been a huge strain on my wallet.”
While there are advantages to living abroad, there are some drawbacks too, like being away from family and friends. Although Skype and FaceTime have made it easier to keep in touch with loved ones, it isn’t the same as having physical contact with them, noted Lim.
She also misses the local food. “Singapore cuisine is so diverse and cheap. In London, it can be hard to find good food that is cheap.”
For Ho, living overseas has made him keenly aware of Singapore’s efficient public transport system. “I’m in a city where the bus from my home to the office comes every 30 minutes. I wish there was a light rail system that would connect me to downtown Raleigh so that I don’t have to drive.” True cost of living According to several overseas Singaporeans, there is a misconception that the cost of living in Singapore is more expensive than other global cities.
Lim pointed out that public transport in London is expensive, with a single tube trip in central London costing £3 to £4 (S$5 to S$7) during peak hours. However, buying a car in London is much cheaper than in Singapore. “You can get a used Volkswagen Golf for £8,000 (S$14,257).”
She shared that a two-bedroom apartment in London costs about £345,000 to £600,000 (approx. S$616,309 to S$1.07 million), which is equivalent to the price of a condo unit in Singapore. However, she noted that Singaporeans have the ability to use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) and bank loans to finance their property purchase, making the process easier.
Meanwhile, Ho doesn’t think it is fair to compare house prices between the US and Singapore as they vary widely from city to city. “Housing in Raleigh is more affordable compared to bigger cities like New York or San Francisco. I pay about US$1,200 (S$1,623) in monthly rent for an 800 sq ft one-bedroom unit. I think an apartment in New York City would cost three to four times more.” Staying in contact Although the number of Singaporeans moving overseas continues to rise, the government hopes to keep this group rooted to Singapore and tap on their international exposure.
In 2008, Contact Singapore (www.contactsingapore.sg), an alliance of the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM), was formed to engage overseas Singaporeans through a variety of platforms, including professional networking sessions and career events.
Users of the portal can view a range of job listings in different industries such as biomedical sciences and financial services, and subscribe to receive emails featuring job opportunities in Singapore.
The website also features stories of fellow Singaporeans who have successfully returned home after living abroad.
Without sharing actual data, a spokesperson for Contact Singapore said it has observed a steady flow of overseas Singaporeans returning home because of career opportunities and family ties here.
“Singaporeans will continue to work overseas for international exposure and broaden their perspectives. These are important professional experiences for Singaporeans aspiring to lead in global operations and companies.
“It would be like a revolving door where they would return to continue with their career journey after a few years abroad, possibly followed by a few more stints,” added the spokesperson. Balik kampung Ivy Low, International Candidate Manager at Robert Walters (Singapore), said returning Singaporeans bring with them a level of savviness, ability to engage with global stakeholders, and fresh perspectives when analysing certain situations.
Following the implementation of the MOM’s Fair Consideration Framework in 2014 to ensure a core Singaporean workforce, the recruitment consultancy launched a Balik Kampung initiative to attract Singaporeans living and working abroad to come back.
Within a week of the first Balik Kampung email being sent out to Singaporeans registered in its database, the firm received an “encouraging response” from individuals who submitted their résumés, expressing their interest in returning home, said Low.
Since then, its database of overseas Singaporean candidates who fall into its specialised areas of recruitment has increased by 30 percent, with companies in the financial services and technology sectors in particular reaching out to this group.
“There are some newly-created roles that require candidates to have niche skillsets, and overseas exposure would be valuable,” she noted.
For example, as Singapore works towards building a Smart Nation, technology start-ups are keen to connect with returning Singaporeans from Silicon Valley who have gained overseas experience and would be able to develop the local ecosystem here, she said.
“Being a meritocratic market, niche skillsets would be highly valued by hiring managers, and enable these overseas Singaporeans to command higher pay.”
But while having international work exposure is good, in the end, it boils down to demand in the labour market, she stated. Mixed views Despite the slew of initiatives put in place to draw overseas Singaporeans back, Lim sees herself living in the UK long-term. “If I am still single in a decade, I might go back since I will not have strong ties in the UK, but for now, I’m happy living here.
“Perhaps if working conditions were better in Singapore with better employee rights, I might consider it.”
As for Ho, he sees himself moving back to Singapore as he considers it home. “I’d like to be close to my parents and friends,” he said.