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Commentary: Behind the brain drain in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, stymied aspirations and growing rootlessness

Brain drain is more than an economic issue and there are lessons Hong Kong and Taiwan offer for Singapore, say two observers.

Commentary: Behind the brain drain in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, stymied aspirations and growing rootlessness

The Central Business District of Singapore. (Photo: Ooi Boon Keong / TODAY)

SINGAPORE: If you think brain drain is a problem that afflicts only developing or less developed countries, think again.

The phenomenon, which refers to the large-scale emigration of educated and high-skilled individuals from their birth country, also exists in OECD countries such as Spain, Ireland and Italy.

Neither are Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore – prosperous economies with a GDP per capita of US$46,228, US$24,337 and US$57,722 respectively in 2017 – immune from brain drain.

In particular, a high percentage of youths in these economies plan to seek greener pastures overseas, albeit for varying reasons.

A 2016 survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) found that 57 per cent of young Hong Kong people aged 18 to 30 had the intention to emigrate, while another survey in Taiwan revealed that 62 per cent of Taiwanese between the age of 20 to 35 planned to seek employment abroad.

Here at home, 42 per cent of young Singaporeans polled by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2010 said that emigration was often on their minds, and 26 per cent were also actively exploring avenues to emigrate.

What lies beneath the seeming disenchantment of youths in these Asian Tigers?

Is this a cause for alarm for the governments of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore?


The IPS Survey of young Singaporeans showed that alongside social norms such as the positive perception of overseas relocation and the social status of overseas Singaporeans, a perceived lack of upward mobility in Singapore also fuelled the desire to emigrate.

89 per cent of respondents in the Taiwan survey cited low salaries as the key push factor for them to seek employment abroad. Fresh graduates in Taiwan are reportedly paid less than NT$30,000 (S$1,344) a month.

A lacklustre job market at home, in contrast to the dynamic career opportunities in China, have also driven educated Taiwanese to relocate up north.

The Taipei Metro system.

Among the roughly 700,000 Taiwanese working outside of Taiwan in 2015, about 60 per cent or 420,000 were in China.

Hong Kong’s notorious housing woes have propelled its young people to leave the overcrowded and land scarce city. However, harsh economic realities are not the sole reason for the disillusionment of young Hong Kong people.

(READ: Hong Kong's brain drain: Why its young are losing hope and leaving)

According to the CUHK survey, Hong Kong’s political malaise has an equally big part to play. 11 per cent of those who intended to relocate said they were unhappy with the government; another 10.3 per cent cited Hong Kong’s political and social cleavages as a push factor.

While the youth in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore may face similar economic livelihood challenges, the emerging sense of angst in Hong Kong is different as it also stems partially from the city’s socio-cultural outlook under Chinese rule, especially the whittling away of a distinctive Hong Kong identity and culture.

This dreary prospect of identity loss was presented by businessman and Chinese General Chamber of Commerce chairman Jonathan Choi, who recently said: "In the future, we will no longer be Hong Kong people, but Greater Bay Area people,” as he urged Hong Kongers to focus on integration with China under the Greater Bay Area plan.

In face of communist China's strong pressure on the city to assimilate, therefore, Hong Kong's youth are naturally anxious about the foreseeable fade-out of their identity and the paradox of living in their birthplace with a sense of rootlessness, or being strangers in their homeland.

The 2014 mass protests in Hong Kong were called the "Umbrella Movement" after pro-democracy activists using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas sprayed by police. (File photo: AFP/Alex Ogle) During mass protests in Hong Kong in 2014, pro-democracy activists had used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas sprayed by police AFP/Alex Ogle

READ: A commentary on Hong Kong's recent by-election.

READ: Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement receives a Nobel Prize nomination, a commentary.

READ: Hong Kong, a cautionary tale, a commentary.


For all its negative connotations, brain drain may not necessarily be damaging to the sending country, at least in the economic sense.

For one, the transnational movement of talents is not a one-way flow. This means the economic costs of brain drain may be compensated through government policy that encourages the inflow of high-skilled workers from other economies.

Moreover, local talents who have relocated overseas may also return, where their overseas experience is a boon.

The question is if the pull factors are compelling enough to lure these skilled workers back.

Taiwan, with its vibrant democratic culture, is a magnet for young and aspiring Hong Kong emigrants – it is the most preferred destination for 16.3 per cent of Hong Kong youths.

Taiwan’s challenge is to revitalise its flagging economy to create more attractive career opportunities for its youths.

Economics aside, governments would be short-sighted to ignore the socio-cultural and political consequences of persistent talent flight over the longer term, particularly its impact on nation-building.

Beijing clearly understands the implications and artfully plays the game to its advantage.

Earlier in April, it unveiled 31 measures to make benefits and opportunities across the strait more accessible for Taiwanese firms and individuals.

If the incentives successfully entice more Taiwanese to settle in China, Taiwan may become further divided as more people favour closer ties with Beijing.

The Xi-Ma summit in 2015 was the first time leaders from Beijing and Taipei met since Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

In Hong Kong, while a growing number of people are seeking to leave, 100 to 150 mainland Chinese stream into the city every day on One-Way Permits issued by mainland China.

This population movement will probably transform Hong Kong society over the long term, giving rise to a people more open to influence from Beijing.

Bolstering the Hong Kong identity to retain its young talent, however, is not an option for the Hong Kong administration, as it is likely to be construed by Beijing as a politically-incorrect move promoting “separatism”.

In Singapore, where the outflow and inflow of migrants have become a norm, the Government has increasingly recognised the importance of building a national identity.

On May 18, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said in Parliament that the Singapore identity is “particularly pertinent” in the evolving global landscape, which is witnessing China’s rise, America’s “introspection,” economic shifts brought on by technology and so forth.

She urged young Singaporeans “to help write the next chapter in the country’s history.”

Nation-building is an ongoing process. For young nations like Singapore, the continuing consolidation of a national identity which fosters a strong sense of rootedness, may hold the key to drawing their overseas talent back home someday.

Dr Yew Chiew Ping is head of the Contemporary China Studies Minor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. Kwong Kin Ming is a researcher based in Hong Kong, and author of the book Comparing Singapore and Hong Kong: The Singapore Model and Hong Kong’s Future (in Chinese).

Source: CNA/sl


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