Sunday, August 13, 2006

When Loyalties Clash

Emigration no certainty of 'greener pastures'
Letter from Liew Kai Khiun in London
Today, Voices, 28th Jul 2006

I once asked my Filipino friend — who was a tutor at a local university — how he addressed his Singaporean students' grouses about their country. His solution: Send them to the Philippines and they will see the cruel reality of human existence, and how trivial their concerns are.

I feel we should benchmark against the best, instead of comparing only to the less fortunate.

Living in London where temperatures in the London Underground (which has no air-conditioning) have reached a suffocating 40°C, and delays last year were estimated to have cost commuters 1,800 years — makes reading about the outrages over the rare hiccup on the North East Line seem surreal.

In spite of the fact that luxuries unimaginable to many — such as electricity and air-conditioning — are taken for granted in Singapore, many of my fellow countrymen are very unhappy and more than half of the younger ones are even considering emigrating, according to recent reports.

To many who visit and stay in other developed countries in Western Europe and North America as wealthy tourists, students and expatriates, instead of as migrant labourers and asylum seekers, the images of these societies are definitely rosy.

Compared to the nanny state of Singapore, there seems to be so much more sun, sand, sea and freedom in these places, where life is apparently more relaxed. But while I belong to this category of overseas Singaporeans, I have no illusions about the social realities in these countries.

I am not implying that we should not be moving out of the little red dot, nor should we complacently fold our arms in gratitude. As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once advised, Singaporeans with the opportunity should spend about six years working outside the country and bring their experiences back.

What is more important to note is that the grass will always seem to be greener on the other side. The contrast between Singapore and the "greener pastures" exists more in our minds.

At this moment, when the poorly-maintained grounds of Hyde Park in London resemble a desert in this unusually hot summer, I am sure that the grass in our parks in Singapore is still lush and green, and that we can slip into air-conditioned places and sheltered walkways quite quickly away from the equatorial sun.

Only when Singaporeans realise and appreciate that their surroundings are tirelessly man-made rather than God-given, will they stop ranting about emigrating.

Given the current situation of small countries in the Middle East, we should be thankful that Singaporeans can still afford the luxury of feeling angst and that our fighter jets and new Apache Longbow helicopters are used as government "propaganda" for celebrating Singapore's 41st birthday.
Reading the various posts by Xenoboy, Heavenly Sword and Singapore Serf on the topic of emigration started me thinking more about the topic.

This letter-writer highlighted why the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ exists only in the mind and not in reality. Those who are contemplating emigration had taken for granted the many luxuries that we have, eg electricity, air-conditioning, lush greenery, sheltered walkways and the security afforded by our Apache helicopters and fighter jets. In addition, they had not factored in the social realities of a migrant worker that would not normally be experienced by the casual tourist.

The writer’s main line of argument is called the ‘halo effect’ in psychology terms. This is used to describe a situation where one particular aspect or feature of something has disproportionately influenced its overall assessment. This often happens in recruitment interviews where the candidate’s dressing can sometimes heavily influence (positively or negatively) the overall assessment of the person.

What I had some trouble with was the writer’s implied message that emigration is an act of ingratitude (2nd-last paragraph, emphasis mine). That despite what had been ‘tirelessly’ done for its citizens, some still chose to complain and emigrate.

To me, emigration is an integral part of living.
Each of us plays several roles in life.
Besides being individuals in our own right, we are also children to our parents, spouses to our partners, parents to our children, members of our community and citizens to our country.

Each of these roles carries a distinct set of responsibilities.
For example, as an individual, we have to make a living and meet our basic needs.As a parent, we provide for and educate our children.As a citizen, we contribute to the well-being of Singapore.

Most of us want to do the best that we can within each of these roles. Joseph said that as Singaporeans, we want to be heard. If you are a parent, you want to provide your children with the ‘best’ environment; however you define ‘best’ to be. Some believe in sending their children to the top schools. Some believe in letting their children develop at a slower pace.

The world is not static.
As our environment changes, we respond to these, keeping in mind our responsibilities for each of these roles.As we grow older, our values system may also change along with our experiences. And this might affect the way we discharge these responsibilities.For example, we might have placed a lot of value achieving the 5Cs at the start of one’s working life. Years later, we might abandon that altogether.

At each point in life, we evaluate how well we are discharging each of our responsibilities.If a person believes that he cannot fully discharge his responsibilities in Singapore, he would start to look elsewhere.

Of course, in doing so, he should be aware that the adage ‘Nobody’s perfect’ applies to countries too. When he emigrates, he has to take the new country as a total package – wart, gloss and all.

But, in the migrant’s reckoning, there is probably a certain component in this new package that is better than his current package. And this component is something he values more than any other components in the entire package and for which he is prepared to trade-off the other components against.

This component can be different for different people.
It could also depend on the life-stages of the individual.

I used to think that only retirees and those facing mid-life crises emigrate. Reading the forum discussions on this topic, I found that even those in their late-teens have put in place plans for their emigration.
I came across a teenager who is currently studying hair-dressing in the ITE because a certain country is in dire need of hairdressers.
Some in their twenties left in search of a better livelihood.
Others left in search of a ‘better’ future for their children, where ‘better’ could be employment prospects, a less-stressful education system, etc.
In emigrating, each is trying to fully discharge his responsibilities in his respective roles.

So, is emigration an act of ingratitude?
If emigration is being ungrateful to the country, then, non-emigration could mean being irresponsible to the emigrant’s other constituents.
When the various ‘loyalties’ (to himself, his family, community and country) clash, how should he decide?

I think emigration is very much an integral part of a person’s life journey.
It is a path that he had chosen in fulfilling the expectations derived from his various roles.
It is a gamble, for no one is sure, at the point of emigrating, if it is the right path.
Much like nobody is sure if the person you are going to marry is the right one for you.
After the necessary ‘due diligence’, the final decision is always a leap of faith.

But, not emigrating is also a gamble.
If emigration is no certainty of ‘greener pastures’, then, non-emigration is no certainty of ‘security’ (which seemed to be what the letter-writer valued most).If anything, the 9-11 incident and the London Underground bombings had shown us that no country is free from security threats, in spite of the best technology and weapons that its military could buy.I am not suggesting that Singapore is vulnerable to security threats.
But this is a point that our Ministers had consistently been drumming into our heads.

To me, whether emigration is an act of ingratitude is irrelevant.
Instead, what matters more is whether the emigrant continues to contribute to the well-being of Singapore and Singaporeans even after leaving the country.

In the words of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, can we build a nation bigger than our country?

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Blogger le radical galoisien said...

But once the decision is made, the identity is never the same again ... the Rubicon is crossed.

2:27 am  

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