Jul 14, 2014

    Bringing overseas S'poreans home

    ON A recent trip across Australia, I met several Singaporeans living and working there.

    One 39-year-old Singaporean, who moved to Perth close to a decade ago as a master's student, told me he had fallen in love with the city and Australia.

    Now a regional manager for international engagement at an Australian university, he appreciated the seasons, the more laid-back pace of life and the seemingly wider array of job opportunities.

    When I asked other Singaporeans there what kept them tied to Singapore, the L-word again resurfaced. For many, it was mainly family and the experiences of growing up here that made Singapore home. But they sought a slower pace of life, different job opportunities, a less stressful education system and more space for their families. Not all of these needs could be met back home.

    Today, about 50,000 live and work Down Under.

    There were 207,000 citizens overseas as of June last year, a 32 per cent increase from 157,100 in 2003.

    Many I met in Australia said that even as they live out their careers abroad, they feel inclined to return for good eventually because of their loved ones.

    It worries me that many of them spoke of only one strong link to our nation - their families. If those ties are lost, what will keep them coming back?

    Indeed, one businessman uprooted his entire family, took them to Australia two decades ago and renounced his Singapore citizenship. Like him, an average of 1,000 Singaporeans have given up citizenship yearly between 2000 and 2010. And while this group is still small, the numbers could be on the rise.

    A survey during Our Singapore Conversation found that 59 per cent of the 4,000 Singaporeans polled chose a more comfortable pace of life over career advancement.

    Perhaps Singapore will never be able to meet the demands of all Singaporeans, and so there will always be those who choose to go abroad.

    But the key is not preventing them from leaving, but being able to attract them back. After all, overseas Singaporeans are assets.

    Valerie Teo, a former Centre of Excellence for National Security associate research fellow, called them an untapped resource in a commentary in The Straits Times in 2012. Having lived abroad, they are likely to have developed a sense of resilience and cultural sensitivity.

    Their experiences as foreigners elsewhere could provide useful input on fostering stronger ties between locals and foreigners here.

    There are several areas Singapore must focus on to keep Singaporeans returning home.

    First, keep it a place for families to live, work and play, so these ties can be strongly maintained. It means continuing to create better job opportunities, to keep wages rising and to have sufficient breathing space for all of us to live together.

    But we must also provide more avenues to help returning Singaporeans reintegrate into the community. This means taking care of their emotional needs too.

    This is because the Singapore they return to may be different from the one they grew up in - a phenomenon known as reverse culture shock.

    One such programme by the Ministry of Education lets overseas Singaporean students attend classes here during their school holidays. This can be built on by setting up networks between newer and older Singaporean families that have already resettled here to share tips.

    As we celebrate 50 years of independence next year, addressing this major concern is key to redefining what it means to belong to Singapore.

    It will also be an opportune moment to reflect, not just on how to strengthen ties with overseas Singaporeans, but also on how to keep them coming back home.