The World Is Their Office: Staying Rooted, Thinking Global

With more work opportunities growing overseas, what would contributing to Singapore and keeping rooted to home look like in the future?

This September, some 3,000 overseas Singaporeans will gather in San Francisco for Singapore Day 2016. Singaporean artistes will work the crowd with Singlish accents, and hawkers will dish up familiar flavours such as laksa and nasi lemak.

It will be an event with a clear objective: to “engage overseas Singaporeans and keep them emotionally connected to Singapore”, according to the organisers, the Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU).

This emotional connection — the pride and sense of belonging to Singapore — is one reason why Singaporeans would want to return home to work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in February, after a visit to San Francisco and its Silicon Valley. But he also recognised that Singapore needs to offer meaningful opportunities for these returning citizens.

Roughly 212,000 Singaporeans live overseas, or about 6% of the citizen population, according to 2015 figures from the National Population and Talent Division.

Of this group, many seek work opportunities in “talent superhubs”, places where digital corporations and talent gravitate, nurturing and feeding off each other. A famous example is Silicon Valley, home to technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple, and where some 100 Singaporean engineers work. These superhubs offer dynamic working environments and the chance to work alongside the best in their fields.

Circulating talent

There has been a global trend of more and more citizens leaving their home countries for better opportunities and stimulation elsewhere. In Singapore too, there is the spectre of citizens going overseas being perceived as “brain drain”. And in the fluxes of outgoing citizens coupled with inflows of new workers, there arises a question of dilution of national identity.

But experts point out that globalisation is a trend that cannot be reversed: as corporations capitalise on intangible assets such as ideas, talent and business models, it is easy — and a growing part of their strategy — to expand their operations around the world, even beyond the major cities.

Getting some international experience is now really important. Many companies cite the lack of regional or global exposure as a large constraint.

With this in mind, Ms Mariam Jaafar, Managing Director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and a member of the CFE, points out that in order to ensure a vibrant and growing economy, Singapore must remain open, since diversity of talent draws more talent.

“With talent and ideas being increasingly mobile, it is critical that Singapore remains a magnet for talent, and just as importantly, retains highly skilled people,” she says.

Within the region, Singapore is well placed to capitalise on being a talent hub. Singapore’s entrepreneurship scene is thriving at JTC Corporation’s LaunchPad @ one-north, where start-ups, incubators and venture capitalists converge at a hub formed by Blocks 71, 73 and 79. That success led to Block 71 San Francisco, a co-working space bridging the US and Singapore start-up networks to help both Singapore start-ups enter the US market and US start-ups expand into Asia.

Companies such as Facebook, Airbnb, Google and Netflix have set up offices in Singapore and hired both foreigners and locals. Singaporeans at these companies will likely be posted overseas for short to medium-term stints, with these assignments regarded as plum postings for global citizens to broaden their scope, perspectives and experience.

“Getting some international experience is now really important. Many companies cite the lack of regional or global exposure as a large constraint as they attempt to fill managerial and leadership positions,” says Ms Mariam.

To gain the necessary exposure and be well-positioned in this evolving flow of talent, individuals should be open to spending part of their careers outside Singapore, or risk being displaced, Ms Mariam adds.

According to Ms Karen Leo, Deputy Director of Engagement Strategies and Programmes at the OSU, Singaporeans are venturing beyond the traditional destinations — Australia, the UK and the US.

In China, for instance, more Singaporeans are in the second- and third-tier cities, such as Tianjin and Chengdu.

But Ms Mariam points out that opportunities in the region are still overlooked by many Singaporeans, for whom regional markets are seen as “hardship postings”. This is despite massive opportunities in neighbouring countries like Indonesia, which has big ambitions but a shortage of technical skills — and a gap of up to 60% between the demand for middle managers and supply by 2020, a BCG study found.

A sense of rootedness

A greater diversity in Singapore’s population due to the global circulation of talent, coupled with considerable physical transformation over the last decade, can pose a challenge to the construct of a robust Singapore identity and the sense of rootedness, especially for returning citizens.

“With the pace of change in Singapore, some returning Singaporeans do feel a sense of displacement, especially if they have been away for several years,” says Ms Leo.

Familial ties and social networks are important to help Singaporeans settle back quickly, she says. While certain markers of our identity — hawker food, Singlish, unique behaviours such as chope (to “reserve”) — remain, “there is also a need to build a sense of belonging on something more constant, and perhaps visceral, such as shared values and a shared vision of Singapore’s future.”

These are valid concerns for every country (the BBC ran a month-long discussion on the issue of identity and global citizenry in April), and in our hyper-connected world, could we rethink how Singaporeans can contribute to the country, and continue to have a strong Singaporean identity, wherever they are?

Ultimately, with the circulation of talent being inevitable, both employers and employees will need to have a global mindset and be open to going abroad as well as working with a diverse range of talent wherever they are based.

    May 11, 2016
    Clara Lock
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