Sunday, August 21, 2016

To the 6 out of 10 SIngaporeans who want to leave this country...

A recent survey of polytechnic students showed that 6 out of 10 of them would like to leave the country. You can access the link to the article here.

This survey probably does not represent a decent cross-section of Singapore society. After all, how do students who study for a media and communications diploma represent the interests of everyone here ?

I think a serious bias exist in these set of results. Young people who choose a career in media and communications are a peculiar bunch. Salary surveys constant peg them at the bottom of the pecking order with degrees in Art and Design making about $500 below the average amongst local degrees. It is no accident that 60% wish to leave the country. But these students chose a career in media and communications and probably out of their passion and interest in this field. If you deliberately make a sub-optimal career choice,why blame it on the whole country ?

The purpose of this article is to address three specific points on the reasons why people want to leave the country and offer some solutions to them. If you shift the responsibility from the state to the individual, there are many ways to mitigate one's unhappiness in Singapore. I, too, felt that it was ridiculous for a good engineer to stay in Singapore in the noughties when I was building my career. You were constantly being undercut by foreigners who were employed by multinationals who are constantly trying to talk companies into outsourcing their IT departments. But having started investing early, it was possible for me to play the game from the other side of the equation.

a) Affordable place to live in

If you actually review inflation figures, Singapore is not unaffordable. We have hawker centres to provide cheap food, women have access to cheap domestic help and there is a large arsenal of financial support available for parents. Interest rates have also been kept low for a long time. Admirers of the Australian way of life should give paying Australian taxes a try.

But of course, if you choose to buy a car, enjoy smoking or drinking alcohol, Singapore will become one of the most expensive places to live.

I asked some fellow bloggers why the middle class with diplomas want their Rolexes and cars when it prevents them from becoming financially independent. We can only settle with the answer that perhaps material goods makes them feel that they have achieved something significant.  It is a source of self-esteem. The crowd with better degrees prefer to dwell in the realm of ideas and we tend to feel good when we have insight over a particular problem or made progress with careers.

The trick is to go with the flow and indulge in what is cheap in Singapore and avoid what is expensive.

b) Singapore's narrow definition of success

There is more credibility in this gripe. Singapore's definition of success cannot be avoided by going on your own way and using your willpower to ignore the views of other people. I always ask startup founders whether they can find a girlfriend, the answer I always get is that Singaporean women prefer men with stable careers. Singapore women in general do not like to bet on Moonshots.

This is a problem with no cure because politicians like to use the word "mindset change" to show their helplessness in dealing with some social issues.

But in many ways this is not even an issue. Because the only social cost is that you are deemed as being less successful as your friends who go to schools in Bishan and Barker Road. The damage is still mostly psychic.

Suppose you go to a society that has a broader definition of success, would you be truly better off ? At the very least, if you salary is sub-par, Singapore has a work fare program. In Australia, you need to be jobless to be on the dole.

Finally, Singapore's narrow definition of success subtly benefits a section of the male population who are mathematical and conscientious but lack a detectable personality. Somehow, these ultra-bland guys can settle down and establish families in their 40s. Its not wise to that away from them to benefit the fun hipster folks of media and communications. This is the kind of breed of men which produces the best civil service the world so we have to keep breeding them to maintain our success story as an economic miracle. ( SORRY ! )

c) Slower pace of life

The final point is a slower pace of life. This is also valid but I disagree on it's true meaning.

You can have a slower of life in Singapore. Just become financially independent like and and quit your job.

But that is not a satisfying solution as I have found out that a fulfilling life needs a constant stream of challenges. In my case, it has to intellectual in nature as I need problems to solve everyday.

Singapore's problem is that lack of a halfway house between full employment and non-employment.

I will either be worked like a dog or I will be wandering town with nothing to do. I really like a career track which is 3 day week but pays me only half of that of a full time job so that employers are incentivised to create this career track for middle aged workers but HR departments will only entertain such requests from working mothers.

If a guy requests for this perk, it signals deviance. I can imagine the personal projects I can do in my spare time, like pick up Python Django and IOT and add value to my workplace if someone gives me this career option.

But even then, Singapore is one of the places where authorities are ready to lend a hand to business men. You can design a lifestyle if you have great ideas and willing to tolerate a failure rate of 90% by starting a business. It's not an ideal solution but options for a slower pace of life is there.

At the end of that day, if you choose an area of study which amplifies your angst and unhappiness in society, you have to bear responsibility for your choice. The country cannot do anything for you.

My advice to the 6/10 is to actually leave.

Find your own personal heaven in Norway, Canada or Australia. There will be some people would gladly pay 37% taxes in exchange for some sayang sayang from their adoptive nations.

But this is Singapore.

No Sayang Sayang without achieving or mastering something significant.


  1. hey chris,

    actually the sentiment towards immigration is more widespread. these are a bit dated but you may refer here

    and here.

    the one from ips is particularly interesting as it tests for many different variables. the conclusion may or may not have been what you expected. depending on what you expected. haha... enjoy!

    there are many other studies that show singapore is a great, wonderful place to live such as the world happiness report and EIU world's most livable city rankings but they also show there are better places out there.

    however, we should always form our own rankings based on

    1. what we like after adjusting for what we can do about it
    2. what we dislike after adjusting for what we can do about it
    3. what are the drivers of these conditions and our actions
    3. how sustainable the drivers and our actions will be going forward .

    cheers and happy national day rally day!

  2. John Smith,

    That paper is awesome ! I will look through it and may follow up with a better article.