ST April 23, 2007
MM: My job to look after those who built nation
He pays tribute to S'poreans who did the 'hard and dirty work' for country By Sue-Ann Chia
MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had this message for Singaporeans who did the hard and dirty work to build the nation: I am here to look after you.
'I do not believe 50 per cent of Singaporeans can emigrate,' he said at the Young People's Action Party dialogue at the St James Power Station nightspot.
'So as a government, and personally for me and my colleagues, my responsibility is to look after those who cannot migrate.' ..........
He said that while most Singaporeans could not leave, he is aware that the better-educated and talented ones could do so.
He noted that the top 20 to 30 per cent of educated Singaporeans have the skills and abilities to emigrate to anywhere in the world.
And many do, with about 150,000 Singaporeans working in companies, setting up businesses or living abroad.
'We are now into a globalised world where people who are well-educated, well-trained and especially English-educated have enormous options,' he said.
But his point to them was this: 'Can you leave with a clear conscience? I cannot.'
He urged them to think hard about what they owe the country. 'If we lose our top talent, then we will decline as a nation,' he said.
The key, he believed, was to inculcate a particular message in the young - especially those doing well in schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities.
'You are here, you are getting this education, you are getting these opportunities that make you mobile, that make you desirable because this mass of people had discipline, (were) hardworking, provided the stability, the base on which you mounted your career.
'Can you in good conscience say, 'Goodbye! Thank you very much'?'
In Lee's version of the tale of emigration, it is the well-educated, the well-trained and the talented who get to leave. They leave because they have better career opportunities and can earn more money elsewhere. They leave because they are ungrateful and irresponsible and do not care about their less-advantaged fellow citizens.
The tale has other versions. To know the full story, you must not rely on Lee Kuan Yew's version alone. You should listen to individual Singaporeans tell their own stories in their own words, and then you may begin to piece together the complete picture.
Here are some Singaporeans' stories then. I reproduce only excerpts. Here is the story of one Singaporean, SS, who did eventually emigrate to Australia:
I love Singapore.
Singapore is where I grew up. Singapore is where my family and friends are. Singapore is where I have called home for over three decades.
I am not emigrating to avoid my citizenship responsibilities. I have served and completed my full time National Service. I pay both my income and consumption taxes to the full extent required by the law. I have obeyed the laws of Singapore. I am not under persecution and enjoy many freedoms.
I am considering emigration for economic reasons. I am emigrating because I wish economic security. Because I believe that the welfare of citizens should not be sacrificed on the altar of rapid economic growth. Because I believe age discrimination is wrong. Because I fear economic non-viability above the age of forty. Because I fear dying old, sick and destitute when I am unable to afford medical care in a society with no social safety net. Because I actually want to be a property owner and not a technical leaseholder. I am considering emigration because I ignore the mass media propaganda and try to actually understand the economic viability of immobile citizens in a topdown-managed tiny nation state in a rapidly changing world.
I am considering emigration for political reasons. I am emigrating because I wish to participate in civil society without having to register a political party. Because I reject the idea of political OB markers. Because I believe citizens (not PRs or foreigners) should have the primary influence in the running of the country. Because I believe a government should serve the citizen, and not rule the citizen. Because I want to live in a democracy, not a oligarchy. Because I believe a free press having their hidden agendas but that agenda should never blindly echo that of the ruling party in government. I am considering emigration because I want to be able to express my love and affection for my country without immediately being scrutinised for a political agenda.
I am considering emigration for personal reasons. I am emigrating because I love long roadtrips, even though I have no interest in cars. Because mountains and cliffs and wide open beaches stir my soul. Because I want to see sparkly stars at night and fluffy clouds in the day right on the horizon. Because every place I hold close to my heart in Singapore is rapidly being torn down, redeveloped and upgraded into glitzy souless tourist attractions. I am considering emigration because I want to be where being a little offbeat, weird, odd or downright quirky is acceptable.
I am considering emigration because I am not wanted in Singapore. Because when a government acts like a utilitarian corporation, the citizens will act like pragmatic consumers. Because I believe in the power economic choice of "taking your dollar elsewhere if you don't like the service".
The government asks us why we leave. They calls us quitters and deserters, for leaving our country, our homeland, for some other place that we perceive to be greener pastures. Why leave Singapore, where we rank tops for good governance (save for voice and accountability, where we scored a low of 38.2% this year), where we are so clean and safe and secure, and where we are so efficient?
The fact of the matter is, that there are people who will give up all of the above, for more freedom.
I was happy in Canada. Sure, it was expensive, and taxes were a killer. With a 14% combination of GST and PST on all consumer items, and income taxes hitting a high of 40%; it was definitely difficult to make ends meet for someone who did not work there. And of course, on days where the buses went on strike, I’d be stuck in campus and not be able to go to town. Also, we did have a bit of a furor when Parliament was dissolved late last year, only to have the Conservatives voted in after 13 years under the Liberals. Oh and before I forget, yes it was definitely more inefficient. Expect to wait when you queue up to pay for something; the cashier will inevitably engage everyone before you as to how their day was (and their kids, and their parents, and what they think of the weather; etc). Expect to wait for the buses because the bus driver might have stopped somewhere to grab a cup of Starbucks while doing his rounds (yes, with passengers in the bus). Oh, and how can I forget the drug problem: you can get drugs anywhere off the street if you know where to look; marijuana is about as commonplace as cigarettes and alcohol.
But for all the possible gripes that I might have about that place, the benefits far outweighed all the detriments (if you even saw them as that) combined. Firstly, we were really free. I’m not just talking about freedom with regard to political freedom to vote, to protest, to strike, to demonstrate, or to have a point of view; but also real freedom of the mind and the body. You can think differently, dress differently, live differently. Society is inclusive.
The city that I lived in had a whole mix of races and nationalities. I’ve met everyone from locals to the Koreans, Japs and Chinese, Iranians, Iraqis, Philippinos, Latin Americans, French, Africans, Indians etc etc etc. It’s as much a cultural mix, if not more so, than Singapore. And the best part is: everyone more or less gets along. There is no need for the implementation of “Racial Harmony Day” or racial quotas for HDB flats. Everyone just does – because prejudice just does not exist there.
DL's story represents the Conventional Singapore Success Story. In fact it's so conventionally successful that it's stereotypical. DL went to a top junior college, bagged his straight A's, obtained a PSC scholarship, went to NS, became an SAF officer in a "prestigious" combat unit, disrupted his NS, went to a brand-name UK university, bagged his 1st Class honours, came back to Singapore, completed his NS, joined the civil service as a teacher, rose meteorically through the ranks (as government scholars do), and at an early age, became a vice-principal.
In other words, DL typified the kind of Singaporean that the Singapore government would love all Singaporeans to be, or at least aspire to be.
I didn't hear anything from or about DL for a couple of years. Then I heard from a mutual acquaintance that he'd left Singapore for good. Emigrated to somewhere in the United States.
To me, this seemed to be a slightly odd case at that time because DL's profile didn't fit any of the typical profiles of Singaporeans who emigrate (another time, I may elaborate on the typical profiles). But I didn't give it much thought.
As chance would have it, a series of recent coincidences led me to discover his blog in the US. Where he writes freely about his new life in his new country.
Turns out that DL is gay.
And didn't think that it was feasible in Singapore to be gay. So he left.
And won't be coming back.
Well, I know that there are plenty of Singaporeans in our society who would say, "Good riddance." We're pretty backward that way. Still, what a pity, what a waste - thinking of DL from the government perspective.
Why was he going to China, when tens of thousands of Chinese were coming here to earn a living, I asked. He merely replied: "Tang Jiak kang kor" which means "It is hard to earn a living in Singapore".
Besides, he added. "Everything is expensive. In China things are cheaper."
This was my introduction to a new phenomenon. Singapore is worried about a rising exodus of educated youths abroad, seduced by opportunities in a new global economy, but few are talking about older, lower-skilled people who are slowly facing the squeeze.
Despite HDB and relatively cheap HDB hawker centre food, Singapore - relatively speaking - is one of Asia's most expensive places to retired in.
Cashing in on their HDB flats, cars or other assets, a new type of Singaporean emigrants, many of them older, less-educated, are sprouting "a second pair of wings" to settle down in neighbouring countries - but with a difference.
Unlike the younger, better-educated, they are finding it hard to cope with the rapid move towards higher technology or to fit into this high-cost modern world despite a host of free training opportunities and other help dish out by the government.
They are leaving - not for Australia, Canada, the US - but for poorer neighbouring countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand and India, where their relatively stronger Singapore dollars can stretch a long way.
These emigrants are mostly small-time businessmen, hawkers, taxi-drivers and lower-scale replaced low-income workers unable to find new jobs.
They are leaving because they are reluctant to go for retraining. "We're too old to learn," one said. Some in their 40s. Others have reached 55 years old, so their relocation abroad is financed by their CPF savings.
Because of their advancing age, they are unlikely to return.
There is one thing which by now you will notice about Lee Kuan Yew's version. Singaporeans always emigrate because the Singapore government has been too successful in doing good things. In Lee's version, the world-class, top-talented, best-of-the-best PAP government has provided excellent education opportunities, political stability and a booming economy - Singaporeans have exploited all of those good things to develop their talent, and now they are leaving.
In the emigrating Singaporeans' own versions, you often hear different angles. They leave because they feared for their economic survival in this country. Because they suffered from its lack of freedoms. Because they were tired of living in a company, Singapore Inc.. These are aspects which Lee Kuan Yew won't tell you. Because these aspects do not reflect very well on the PAP government.
Far better for Lee Kuan Yew, if you simply believed his version - that the Singaporeans who emigrated, did so because they were ungrateful, irresponsible, lacking in conscience and uncaring about their less advantaged fellow citizens.