The Main Cause of Singapore’s Brain Drain

A paper on the main cause of Singapore’s brain drain.

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Excerpts from “The Causes of Emigration from Singapore: How Much Is Still Political?”

by Joel S. Fetzera & Brandon Alexander Millan (2015)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor and Francis


1. Brain Drain: The emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular country.

Extracts from Article:

1) Efforts to maintain a robust Singaporean economy have had to confront the serious challenge of brain drain from the city-state.

2) To address the negative effects of this problem, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has adopted a policy of increasing reliance on a foreign labor force. The PAP appears to ignore the continued loss of human and intellectual capital.

3) Data from [surveys] indicate that anti-PAP and pro-democratic ideas strongly influence the decision of native Singaporeans to leave the island state. These findings suggest that democratization and an expansion of business and technical education would be more effective in preserving economic growth than a policy of importing labor.

4) Observers question whether PAP authoritarianism itself is driving young, highly educated Singaporeans to leave their country of birth.

5) Yap Mui Teng argues that a sense of “helplessness and fear in the face of an overpowering political structure that the average person cannot hope to participate in [or] even understand” drives emigration. Such “voting with one’s feet” clearly harms Singapore’s economy.

6) In 2002, Singapore reportedly experienced the most elevated out-migration rate in the world.

7) Every year, upwards of one thousand educated Singaporeans renounce their native citizenship in favor of that of their new homelands. . .even emeritus senior minister Goh Chok Tong admitted that “at his high school reunion, it seemed all his best friends had emigrated to the United States or Australia.”

8) While the PAP went on to receive 60.1 percent of the popular vote in 2011, this majority was anything but a victory for the ruling party given its history of manipulating electoral rules to its own advantage.

9) More importantly, the opposition won its first Group Representation Constituency (GRC; a multi-seat bloc district). According to the Asia blogger for The Economist, PAP ministers suffered this electoral blow due to voters’ perceptions that the incumbent government had “lost touch” with the concerns of Singaporeans and allowed a “rapid influx of immigrants.”

10) 64.6% of Singaporean emigrant interviewees in Australia in 1989 reported that the political system was the worst aspect of living in Singapore:

“With regard to the government, the respondents were critical of the ‘limited freedom,’ ‘high-handed control of daily life,’ ‘government intolerance of opposition,’ and ‘short-sighted and forever-changing government policies’.”

11) In [the data we analyzed], a respondent who strongly opposed the ruling party and fervently endorsed democracy would be 91.7% more likely to emigrate than would an interviewee who loyally backed Lee Kuan Yew’s party and completely rejected democracy.

12) Of the forty-five Singaporean respondents in [the two immigration data sets], thirty-five said they had had little or no “ability to influence government decisions” in their country of birth. [Another] questionnaire from the forty-five respondents contained seventeen politically related “things they disliked most” about their former homeland (e.g., “the laws of the country”).

13) The political environment in Singapore seems to be the most important factor in determining emigration from Singapore.

14) In order to maximize the number of young, highly skilled Singaporean natives who remain in the country after university, Singapore’s political and educational leaders need to make significant changes.

15) The most important change the PAP should make is to open up the political system. As Sullivan and Gunasekaran suggested as early as 1994, increased public debate before decisions are made would help people feel less dissatisfied with the political conditions in Singapore and therefore less likely to leave.

16) One of the policies Yap suggested was “a more open government” to “erase the credibility gap between the government and the people.”

17) The establishment of true democracy would likely foster support for the government and the political system, as free and competitive elections often create strong national identity.

Source: “The Causes of Emigration from Singapore: How Much Is Still Political?” by Joel S. Fetzera & Brandon Alexander Millan (2015)

PDF Link: Taylor and Francis

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Joel S. Fetzer is a Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. Immigration Politics is one of his academic interest areas.

Brandon Alexander Millan is an independent scholar from the Political Science Department of Santa Monica College.

2 thoughts on “The Main Cause of Singapore’s Brain Drain

  1. Enjoy reading this regular blog. Just to add a another dimension to most of what I have read. Quite part from too much interference into the lives of Singaporeans and LKY insulting Singaporeans in the many ways that LKY did…and I won’t need to recall some of his comments/ statements about US Singapore born citizens which will only raise our pressure & ire, Educated Singaporeans have emigrated in LARGE numbers for reasons such as….leaving an overcrowded Island……;policy of importing FTs who who are using Singapore as a spring board / stepping stone to get to Western countries. Those of us lucky Expats got away much earlier as we could see what was happening to Singtanic as it got overcrowded. Overcrowding in China is what makes those people seek greener pastures.. Singapore, like China is getting too polluted…not to mention overheating…temperature wise. It’s OK for the overly paid MPs & CEOs who can have their entire homes (possibly garages as well) Air conditioned 25 hours daily. I’d like to know who the CEO and Board members of the Electricity Board are …as electricity charges (& gas charges) continue to excalate. No wonder Singapore has the reputation of being one the most expensive cities to live in and who wants to live in Singapore in a shoe box…even a stylish one with neighbours all around when you have the choice of a proper RESIDENCE with a garden, trees, shrubs, pool etc etc. Well, I myself live a mere 21kms (23 minutes drive to city) in my childhood dream of a place……1 acre, 3 BR, 2 Bathrooms house, pleasant 70 meter Driveway, garage, a board walk winding through established trees and across a calm stream with baby crayfish, eels to the gently elevated slope to a large pavilion where I can entertain groups. The views are delightful……rolling hills. hardly another house in sight. Neighbour’s alpacas, sheep and cows ocassionally across the fence. I see every star in the night sky where there is no light pollution caused by over population. I look out the Bathroom window with clear glass, No curtains, see the hills and fields, wild water fowl, may sheep or cows as well, and the fresh air around……it all feels so wonderful. I praise God for the beautiful land I’m in and also Thankful that were it not for the corrupt Police Detective (Gulam Orchard Police Station 1973) who tried to extort money from me, I would not have left. Mind you, Gulam has since been sacked but things in Sg have not improved….politically. The Straits Times in the past 25 years lost its independence, lost its credibility and to more than a degree, become irritable to read for reasons know to any intelligent reader. To its Credit, the standard of English is as high as can be expected and comparable to any major daily overseas. By belittling Singaporeans, the departed PM caused them to take their talents, knowledge, good standard and command of English away to their host country who are grateful for their contribution. To top it all…….Singaporeans overseas are well spoken, conduct themselves admirably well and welcomed by the people of the country of adoption. Attempts by the PAP Govt Ministers via Ambassadors and High Commissioners overseas to lure Singaporeans back home have fallen on Deaf ears……..Deaf by choice of course. Usual throwback question is, what is there in it for me ? True. ! Fact :…..Will be serving the people we grew up with and love OR enriching the already obscenely wealthy . Thanks BUT NO Thanks. WE prefer honesty, freedom of choice, integrity AND JUSTICE and we have it here where we are…even as new immigrants. THEN, there’s PEACE, equality and lot’s of unpolluted space and greenery & parks, mountains, lakes, Nature & Real history. Singaporeans have had so much false promises, lies and hopes shoved down their throats in the past 25 years they’ve decided to make decisions about their own lives & future….so the only option was Selamat Tingal, Chye Chien until our next visit for Or-luah, nasi-lamah or Indian Rojak……or possibly the worst case of visit to Mt Vernon or Kranji !. “Call on me Singapore”…..(never sang that.)……. but don’t believe that any more. Loyalty begins at home.

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