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In last week's inaugural feature for Next Wave Singapore, we heard from five scientists who had chosen to make Singapore their home. This week, Next Wave Singapore looks more broadly at the whys and wherefores surrounding Singapore's home-grown and imported scientific talents.

Singapore ranks 121st in the world in terms of population, but it maintains one of the highest levels of economic competitiveness. Nevertheless, at 69 per 10,000 people, the number of R&D professionals in Singapore is critically low. Moreover, among these 69, only 22% have doctoral degrees, and about two-thirds are foreigners.

The same scenario is reflected in the current research students' population. For instance, figures released recently by the National University of Singapore show that there are only 83 Singaporeans among the 316 science Ph.D. students. The rest are foreign nationals from across the globe. With such limited critical mass of its own, how does Singapore manage?

Facts and Figures*

  • Labor force: 2.1 million

  • Approved citizenship applications: 6,600

  • Granted passes and permits: 307,000

  • Average unemployment rate: 3.1%

*Singapore 2001--The Official Year Book.

In fact, Singapore has been selectively recruiting foreigners to fuel its economy for many years now. Its booming economy in the past decade has lured many foreigners--in particular, neighbouring Asians--to its shores. It's easy to see why they can be persuaded to come. The World Bank reckons Singaporeans have the world's highest average income: US$30,000 annually on a purchasing power parity basis. And expatriates often receive other perks, such as subsidised housing, children's education, and return airfares for the family. The attractive remunerations, and in some instances stock options, have enticed many foreigners, the numbers of which have been increasing dramatically in recent years. Foreigners are also coming from an increasingly diverse range of countries.

The Singapore government believes that international talents bring in fresh ideas, new expertise, global connections, and--prospectively--long-term benefits for the country. The government agencies principally involved in this effort are increasing their efforts to attract international expertise and personnel. Among the range of programs the government has initiated is the Temasek Professorship program, which aims to attract world-renowned research leaders identified as relevant to Singapore's economy.

To facilitate its objectives, the Singapore government has relaxed some immigration laws. A more open immigration policy now enables eligible skilled foreigners to become permanent residents and even apply for citizenship. As of last year, there were 290,118 permanent residents, accounting for 7.2 % of the population. Last year alone, 6600 foreigners became citizens. Most of them settle in not only for the good pay, but also for the favourable living environment and the good education the state provides their children. They also assimilate rather easily into the diverse environment.

Multinational talents have considerably changed the face of Singapore. Walk into the Singapore Science Park or prestigious research institutes such as the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, and you will see a fascinating cosmopolitan throng of these talents. You are also likely to bump into them at popular recreation and shopping centres during weekends. Most of them adapt well. Of course, for some this may well be just a temporary home or even a stepping-stone to still greener pastures elsewhere--but then, it is an increasingly borderless world after all. These talents, besides being highly educated, are a fast-moving, new-economy, global elite.

But for quite some time, Singapore's lure has left other, less affluent Asian countries bearing the brunt of a brain drain of trained professionals. However, with a number of Asian economies growing rapidly, regional competition for human resources is gaining in intensity. Right now, Singapore's principal rivals for international talents are the United States and Europe, the mainstays of today's scientific research and development endeavours. Many foreign scientists studying or working in these areas, including Singaporeans, would rather stay on in an established laboratory than return home to start afresh. The last census in year 2000 showed that 754,524 Singaporeans, or 18.8% of the population, reside overseas, many in advanced countries. Fortunately for Singapore, the loss of local skilled residents is offset by gains from the import of foreign talents. Prominent imports, such as Dr. Edison Liu, who left the National Institutes of Health in the United States to head the Genome Institute of Singapore, and Dr. Gunaretnam Rajagopal, a theoretical physicist pulled in from Cambridge University to head the Bioinformatics Institute, are testimony of its success in attracting some of the finest from America and Europe.

Singapore's vibrant economy, plugged-in status, economic attractiveness, and opportunities will continue to propel multinational talents to its shores. However, in an increasingly borderless world where people with the relevant skills gravitate to where the bid is highest, it seems likely that an increasing number of people will want to move out. Consequently, Singapore is making renewed efforts to ensure that most of its own talents stay put by providing highly competitive salaries and world-class working environments. There is a common resolve by the government and private industries to keep up with the times and create the right conditions to capture this mobile global elite. However, in the ever-changing world of today, arrivals and departures will be volatile. Brain gain, brain drain, or brain exchange, Singapore can juggle it to its advantage, at least in the foreseeable future.