200 years ago, the British East India Company established a trading post on a small riverside settlement, and traders from all across Asia flocked to the land of Singapore. Merchants from abroad became settlers as they started businesses, and workers plied a different trade – trading time with their families for a better reward after a hard day’s work.
Our history books tell the story well: Pioneers like Seah Eu Chin, an educated son of a provincial official in China who came to work as a clerk. Like Hajjah Fatimah, the wife of a Bugis prince who followed her husband’s business to Singapore, and continued it after his passing. Like Naraina Pillai, Singapore’s first building contractor who saw a vision of the island and stayed here after many of his peers left. Pioneers who came from their homeland, saw the potential of a better future in Singapore, and decided to uproot their old lives to build new ones here.
Fast forward to today as we put ourselves in the viewfinder: Singaporeans are descendants of early settlers who decided to call a new place home. In the same way our pioneers uprooted to settle on an island with attractive prospects as a free port, would we uproot from Singapore to settle somewhere else with perceivably more attractive prospects? “We are descendants of economic sojourners,” I once heard a speaker at a dialogue session lay out the stark reality, “and for our generation, the concept of being Singaporeans is in question. Do we want to be Singaporeans, no matter what?”
As a country with no natural resources, we have been reliant on our ability to attract and retain talent as we blaze forward with the aim of being an industry leader. And so we have, turning ourselves into a manufacturing powerhouse, a financial hub, and now laying the foundations to be a nation transformed by the technological advancements of the fourth industrial revolution.
We’ve also moved towards building talent instead of merely inviting it from abroad, investing heavily in education and youth development. But the question remains: Will they stay? Or will our young talent seek greener grass elsewhere?
I pose this question to many of the young people I come into contact with almost every day as part of my work at the Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation. The opinion is split. Two-thirds of them aim to stay and build the country for the rest of their lives. One-third would leave in a heartbeat. Out of the two-thirds who wish to stay, only one in ten would stay no matter what. Some of the cited reasons for leaving:
“Opportunities elsewhere far outweigh those of Singapore’s.”
“There is a vacuum of thoughts and ideas here.”
“The salary range is lower and the job market is too competitive.”
“I have no sense of belonging to Singapore.”
A reason most often cited to leave was the highly competitive education system, perhaps still ringing fresh in the youth memory, and their intent to not put their children through the same experience. On the other hand, those who aim to stay give reasons like:
“Singapore is safe and great for my family.”
“There is a lot of potential for growth in the Singapore future.”
“I want to play a part to make life here better.”
“Singapore is home, and it is where I belong.”
There is no question that our generation, and the youth who come after us, face a choice in an era of unprecedented globalisation. There are economic sojourners among us, just as there are people who will remain Singaporeans no matter what. As borders and walls blur, social media removing veils of life abroad, and families taking a more liberal stance of upbringing, it seems almost inevitable that more young people begin to seriously consider moving for good.
But instead of leaving it to chance, or to each family unit’s upbringing, I believe we have a responsibility to take charge of the situation and create in every young person a connectedness; a record of contribution; a fair understanding of opportunity; and a sense of belonging.
This is the essence of what I believe education and youth development is meant to do. Each day at the Halogen Foundation, we engage with youth and youth stakeholders, inspiring them through leadership and entrepreneurship training, with the long view of inspiring ground-up positive social change and a calling to serve the community with an entrepreneurial mindset.
But we cannot do this alone. It is up to all of us; and we need to create in young people a sense of connectedness to the larger Singaporean narrative. No man is an island, and just as we have received, we give. The recognition of our privilege as Singaporeans or as residents of Singapore should not be taken for granted, and should be seen as part of the bigger woven tapestry of every citizen.
We need to allow for contribution, and involve young people to have a hand at building their home – in legislation, in initiatives, in commerce. We can make opportunities available for them because we have a responsibility to share the spotlight and blessing given by those who came before us, and let young people recognise this as fair and within their control to seize. And through all this, given time and experiencing the tribulations that come with life, we hope they never forget the community they grow with and are committed to improving – slowly yet surely cultivating a sense of belonging for home.
If Singapore was built in part by economic sojourners settling here 200 years ago, seeking a better life, then Singapore’s future will be built by patriots who will stay and fight for a better life for the country, no matter what. It is up to all of us, today, to inspire in the young people we meet a sense of economic and communal patriotism, to underpin Singapore’s narratives for the next 200 years and beyond.
Timothy Low likes to think of himself as an autodidact coach, believing that everything is learnable and everyone has a yet higher peak to achieve. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer at Halogen Foundation, a youth development charity in Singapore. Prior to being in the non-profit space, he built and exited an EdTech startup, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence/Learning Designer in a regional L&D firm, and managed a VC programme helping scientists and technologists build deep tech startups from scratch. Outside of work, he engages with networks like Sandbox and the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers, and is an Obama Foundation Leader.
Image from the Singapore Bicentennial website