“More young Singaporeans believe they can achieve their life goals here without having to move overseas, research has found” (Survey: Fewer Young Singaporeans Think of Emigrating, Fabian Koh).
A 2016 research study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that 18.3 per cent of the 2,000 young Singaporean respondents have thought about emigrating permanently, 2.9 percentage points lower than the 21.2 per cent of respondents who said the same in a similar study in 2010 (ST, Sep. 29). The emigration survey, however, does not capture the more complex motivations of moving away from Singapore: First, it only considered permanent emigration, even though young Singaporeans could be more likely to spend extended stints abroad without renouncing their citizenship, choosing to establish themselves first or to return to raise families or to retire; and second – tied to the fairly wide age-range of the sample, between 19 and 30 years old – the positive and negative indicators tied to the intention to emigrate were still tied to unhelpful or simplistic demographic or socio-economic indicators, instead of study or work experience as well as their time spent or their past experiences abroad.
First, the reasons for emigration are complex, yet it feels like the researchers are trying to account for the 2.9-percentage-point difference through broad strokes – on cultural immersion in schools and the internationalisation of Singapore – instead of allowing the respondents to speak for themselves. This feels strange, because the IPS concluded that “the level of intention to emigrate in the 2016 survey was similar to what was found in the first survey that was conducted in 2010”. Put otherwise: The proportion of young Singaporeans who wish to emigrate has not changed significantly. Tied to this broad approach, moreover, is the assumption that emigration or permanently residencies are the only options. Given Singapore’s stability, social policies, and incentives for families, young Singaporeans may choose to ply their trade in other countries, before returning home eventually.
The second and more important shortcoming related to the indicators associated with the intention to emigrate. A likely problem lies in the wide age-range of 19 to 30 years old: A single 19-year-old who is still completing National Service, who is just starting work, or is thinking about university options will have dramatically different considerations compared to a married 30-year-old who is making marriage or family plans, is establishing himself or herself at the workplace, and is (financially) independent with greater life experiences. Life experiences are especially critical, because it is reasonable to posit that someone who has studied or worked for a long time in a foreign country – in other words, who therefore has a better idea of what it actually means to be living abroad – will be able to make or to evaluate more informed decisions. But these were not measured.
Perhaps future studies could include a backgrounder, contextualising the young Singaporeans with the intention of moving abroad – either temporarily or permanently – with the actual number of overseas Singaporeans and emigrations, and further comparing these statistics with those from other countries which share a similar profile. Another good starting point would be studies with Singaporeans or former Singaporeans who are based abroad, to frame and to measure their reasons or motivations for making the move.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.