More than half of S'poreans would migrate if given a choice: Survey

SINGAPORE - In the anonymous freedom of surveys, away from the glare of the National Conversation, more than half of us apparently do not want to be here.

A Mindshare survey carried out early this year found that 56 per cent of the 2,000-odd polled agreed or strongly agreed that, "given a choice, I would like to migrate".

Migration specialist Brenda Yeoh, dean of the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is not surprised and is hardly alarmed.

"The percentage would be much higher than the reality of emigration (because) then, there is the reality check (of) resources and emotional ties to family. So it shouldn't send the nation into a massive panic about 50 per cent of our population disappearing," she says.

Even so, there is a world of difference between actively wanting to be in Singapore, and simply being here because you can't be anywhere else.

If more than half of Singaporeans harbour some suspicion (no matter how idle or misinformed) that life elsewhere might be more relaxed, more enjoyable, more vibrant - just more - it does not bode well.

It does not help that for some, the vice of paucity continues to tighten in Singapore, heightening the contrast with the perceived abundance in other countries.

The Mindshare survey, for instance, showcases a large wedge of Singaporeans who increasingly feel themselves painted into a corner.

In Singapore's Consumer Price Index last year, the cost of housing rose 8.3 per cent year on year, a rate of increase bested only by that of the cost of transport - another national bugbear - at 11.9 per cent.

For the first time in the history of Singapore, a whole generation of wage earners face the chilling possibility that their lives are going to be worse than their parents'.

But 49 per cent of the respondents in the Mindshare survey agree or strongly agree that the Government is doing a good job running the country.

And the "vocal minority" theory is borne out, with only 8 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing.

What bears further scrutiny, however, is the figure of 43 per cent who are ambivalent on the matter.

So, where does one go from here, literally? Will there be an exodus to the 5pm quitting times of Australia?

In June, there were 200,000 Singaporeans living abroad for at least six cumulative months in the previous 12 months, a 27 per cent increase from nine years ago, says the National Population and Talent Division.

The World Bank has higher figures, with almost 300,000 Singaporeans considered migrants in 2010. "The way I teach migration now has changed. I don't teach it as uprooting and settling (but) as a fluid to-ing and fro-ing," says Prof Yeoh.

It is a comforting thought that more people are not necessarily leaving for good, but what happens when the people you govern are no longer exclusively yours?

Most countries' policies, including Singapore's, have not kept up with this national fluidity. "My view is that we should give more credit to more flexible kinds of identities today. I have evidence to show people are able to cope with multiple identities," she says.

It is ironic, then, that in a time of malleable nationalities, the attitude towards foreigners has hardened.

And the perception of job scarcity is bemusing, given that Singapore has a lower unemployment rate than the countries Singaporeans are moving to.

Why then do people think they would like to be someplace else? Perhaps the National Conversation will clarify matters. It will not be easy - for as we ponder the nation's navel, we have to look past the fluff.

This is a condensed version of the article "Singapore's emigration conundrum' by Joyce Hooi, published in The Business Times first.

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