In 1997, former Primer Minister Goh Chok Tong made his national day rally speech entitled,

This was what he said on the government view on Singapore’s foreign talent policy. “Global City, Best Home”

Gathering Talent

46. Our second strategy to meet future competition is to gather talent and make Singapore a cosmopolitan city. Singapore has prospered because we have attracted talent from all over the world, especially the region. This is how cities like London, New York, Hong Kong, and Shanghai (before the War) became successful.

47. The most recent example is Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley could not have become the vibrant and dynamic centre for new startups and exciting ventures, just based on the population of Palo Alto, California, or even the whole of America. Silicon Valley thrives on top scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and entrepreneurs from all over the world, and especially from Asia.

48. 40% of R&D jobs in Silicon Valley are filled by immigrants. They say the Integrated Circuit industry is called the IC industry, because of the many Indians and Chinese working in it. But now immigration into the US has slowed down. So companies in Silicon Valley are scrambling to build R&D centres abroad. As one CEO said: “If you can’t bring the brain power to you, you’re going to have to go to them”.

49. We can build the best home for Singaporeans only by tapping the best talent from around the world. To have world-class universities for our children, we must attract the best students and professors here. To have good jobs for our workers, we must attract the best employers – which means the most talented professionals and entrepreneurs, and the strongest companies in the world, like Shell, Compaq, or Sony. Attracting global talent is essential for creating the best for Singaporeans.

50. Foreign born Singaporeans have made a tremendous contribution to our country:

a) In the first Cabinet, all Ministers except Mr Lee Kuan Yew and one other minister were born overseas: Goh Keng Swee (Malacca), Rajaratnam (Ceylon), Toh Chin Chye (Taiping). Hon Sui Sen who joined later was from Penang.

b) Even today, out of the 32 Chairmen of Statutory Boards, 12 were born outside Singapore.

c) And in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, 51 out of 87 musicians were foreign born.

Without this inflow, Singapore could never have made it, let alone become what it is today.

51. Gathering talent is not like collecting different species of trees from all over the world to green up Singapore. It is more difficult but absolutely crucial to sustaining Singapore over the long term. Singapore depends on a strong core of talent, in business, government and politics. We need this core, to be an exceptional country and to operate the way we do – rational, forward looking, adaptable. Without this, we cannot run a clean and efficient government, build a professional and credible SAF, run a disciplined police force, train engineers to do R&D, or produce bankers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, managers.

52. Because we are exceptional, we have become a key hub in the region, for goods and services, and for capital. This gives us influence beyond our physical size, and translates into a high standard of living.

53. To produce for world markets, and to be a successful knowledge-based economy, we need intellectual capital. In the information age, human talent, not physical resources or financial capital, is the key factor for economic competitiveness and success. We must therefore welcome the infusion of knowledge which foreign talent will bring. Singapore must become a cosmopolitan, global city, an open society where people from many lands can feel at home.

54. We need strong links with every major economy, not just with our close neighbours. Therefore we must incorporate into our society talent from all over the world, not just Chinese, Malays or Indians, but talented people whatever their race or country of origin – East Asians, South East Asians, South Asians, Arabs from the Gulf and Middle East, North Americans, Europeans, Australasians, even Latin Americans and Southern Africans. They can be businessmen, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, engineers, architects, musicians, academics, technicians, or skilled workers. They will bring with them the migrant’s spirit and vigour to strive and build a better life. Our economy and society will benefit from their vibrancy and drive. Some will integrate into our society and settle here. For them we hope this spirit will eventually evolve into one of loyalty and rootedness to Singapore. But even those who do not stay permanently will make a contribution while they are here.

55. Talent makes all the difference. Even for our National Day parties at the Padang and the National Stadium, we could not do without foreign talent, like Tommy Page and Sally Yeh. And in football, for the S-league, every club has 5 foreign players. Without them, the quality of the teams would be much lower, and few fans would watch the games. In 1994, the Singapore team had local born Fandi Ahmad as striker. But without Abbas Saad and the other foreign players, we might not have won the Malaysia Cup. In the World Cup, no foreign players are allowed. So apart from countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Germany or Italy which have naturally strong players, the others don’t really have a chance. Singapore will never have a chance, unless Romario (Brazil), Klinsman (Germany) and a few others like them become Singapore citizens.

56. But we can win the World Cup of competing economies, provided we are not parochial. We must change our mindset to recognise changing trends. For example, more Singapore girls are marrying foreigners and settling down overseas. Many of the wives I met during my overseas trips miss Singapore. They were most active in our Singapore Clubs. Most of them, very wisely, held on to their Singapore passports.

57. Under our immigration rules, it is harder for women to bring in foreign husbands. We will make it easier. If the foreign husband of a Singapore girl can contribute to Singapore, or if the wife is successful enough to support her foreign husband, we will welcome the husband and incorporate him into our society. It makes no sense for us to turn these foreign husbands away and lose our Singapore daughters.

58. In fact, we have the same problem for foreigners wanting to work here. There was this case of a woman who came to Singapore to work as a senior executive, but her husband’s application for a dependant’s pass was rejected. Reason – under our rules, only a wife can be a dependant, not a husband. But there is a practical problem. MAS tells me that there are many cases of bankers wanting to bring in “girl friends” or “boy friends”! We cannot change our own social norms, but we must solve this problem.

59. In recent years, the flow of talent into Singapore has grown – 25,000 PRs granted a year, and 30,000 last year. The new arrivals have contributed to our strong economic growth. They have settled in and integrated into our society. Some have become citizens. Singaporeans have accepted them.
We need to continue and expand this inflow.

60. Foreigners can contribute to our economy at three levels.

61. Firstly, at the top. Outstanding individuals can make exceptional contributions, e.g. CEOs, scientists, academics, artists. They include Singaporeans who have settled overseas, and are willing to come back. NSTB has been systematically talent scouting for such people, and persuading them to come to Singapore, with some success.

62. Secondly, among professionals. We are close to the limit of what we can generate ourselves in NUS and NTU already. Yet we are still desperately short of all sorts of professionals – engineers, accountants, IT professionals, teachers, administrators. We need to build up a critical mass, and become a regional business centre. This is how Hong Kong and London built up their financial sectors, by attracting talent from abroad.

63. Hong Kong has a more vibrant business scene than Singapore, what SM called a “buzz”. Businessmen say that there is more excitement, more deals. One reason is that Hong Kong has a larger foreign community among its professionals and business people. Hong Kong has 152,000 foreign administrative, professional and technical workers, 3 times as many as Singapore, which has only 53,500. We have many foreign workers, but mostly at the lower levels.

64. We must make it easier for qualified professionals to come to work in Singapore. It should not be harder for a foreigner to get an employment pass to be a production engineer, than to get a work permit to be a factory worker. We should also review some of the rules governing the practice of the professions, so that in areas where we are short, we can top up our own talent with talent from abroad.

65. We must integrate foreign talent into Singaporean organisations, the way successful MNCs have done. For example in the Bank of America, one third of the top 50 management positions are occupied by non-Americans. While our companies are Singaporean, the teams which drive them should comprise the best talent, Singaporean or foreign, that we can gather. Even for our statutory boards, we should tap foreign expertise in non-sensitive areas, e.g. PSA or TAS.

66. This is not just to find the cleverest individuals. It is to assemble a diverse team of people with different backgrounds and different approaches to problems. Such a cosmopolitan group will understand the region, and the world, far better than a purely Singaporean outfit.

67. We also want the third level of talent, the white and blue collar skilled workers. So many of our students (60%) now go on to university or polytechnic that we do not have enough ‘O’ level school leavers to do middle level jobs, e.g. bus drivers, counter staff, technicians, crane operators, dim sum chefs. These jobs may not be glamorous, but they are important. We should welcome people who may not have very high formal qualifications, but are of good character, will do a solid job, and have the potential to do well, given the opportunity.

68. We will also open up our educational institutions, to make NUS and NTU outstanding universities. The best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, are outstanding because they attract the best students, researchers, and professors from around the world, and not just from the countries where they happen to be located. We must do the same for NUS and NTU, to make them world-class.

69. The foreign students will bring a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. They will enrich the educational experience of our own students in our universities. No Singaporean student will be deprived of a university place by foreign students, because we have no shortage of places. In fact we are short of students who can meet the entry grade of NUS and NTU.

70. We will offer scholarships to top foreign students coming to study here. Not all will stay on to work in Singapore. Those who return to their home countries will be alumni of Singapore. If we look after them well while they are here, they will continue to be friends of Singapore, and form part of our network of regional connections. Others will work for Singapore companies venturing into the region, helping us to understand and operate in their home countries. They will help our regionalisation programme.

71. NUS and NTU aim for 20% of their intakes to be foreign students. But in recent years they have achieved only 10%. The universities will try harder to get more. This is why we recently changed university fees for foreigners.

72. Our schools should take a similar approach. Our best schools will take more qualified foreign students. Bright foreign students will also get places in the Gifted Education Programme. We will create more places to accommodate both the Singaporeans and the foreign students. We will not displace any Singaporeans from the schools or the GEP.

73. Singaporeans sometimes grumble that they have to compete with foreigners. Recently National Junior College and Lianhe Zaobao organised a xiang sheng (cross-talk) competition. Afterwards someone wrote to Zaobao (11 Aug) to complain that although the standard was very high, he felt most unhappy and refused to cheer, because most of the star performers were students from China. He sarcastically proposed that the “national secondary students’ xiang sheng competition” should be called the “national PRC students’ xiang sheng competition”. He felt that for our students to compete against the PRC students in xiang sheng was to demoralise them in a hopeless contest. He proposed that we should bar PRC students from future xiang sheng competitions.

74. To my surprise, the organisers replied a week later (19 Aug) that “We will make appropriate adjustments to our future competitions”! This is completely the wrong approach. Fortunately, another Zaobao reader wrote in (21 Aug) to disagree with this approach. He pointed out that actually more than half of the prize winners were local students, and that competing against PRC students was the way to raise our own xiang sheng standards. If we bar PRC students from our xiang sheng competitions, our standards will stagnate and fall.

75. This robust approach is right. We can have different sections in xiang sheng competitions for students who are not so fluent in Chinese, just like in football, where teams of different strengths are often divided into the first division, second division, and even the third division, with separate prizes for each division. But our best must seize every chance to pit themselves against the strongest competition available. Even if we don’t win, we will improve. If we deliberately keep out the best performers from our teams, and then play only among our own weak teams so as to win prizes, we will never make it in international competitions.

76. The foreigners here do not take away opportunities from Singaporeans. On the contrary, the infusion of fresh ideas, skills and drive will create more opportunities for Singaporeans. Without foreign bankers, we cannot be a financial centre, and there would be fewer jobs for Singaporeans in the banking sector. Without foreign skilled workers, many MNCs would not set up factories here, and there would be fewer jobs not only for Singaporean workers, but also for Singaporean engineers and managers.

77. Often Singaporeans will agree with this, but then express concern not for themselves, but for their children. They want their children to inherit what they have worked so hard to build up. They fear that the foreigners will compete against their own children.

78. But it is precisely for our children’s sake that we must take this open, cosmopolitan approach. This is the only way our children can inherit a vibrant, dynamic Singapore. However talented we may be, it is impossible for us to produce in our next generation the same constellation of talent, the same richness and diversity of backgrounds and abilities, just from the children of 3 million Singaporeans. The Singapore dream will disappear.

79. Another complaint is that Singaporean men have to do NS while non-citizens do not. Unfortunately, we cannot make everyone who works in Singapore do NS. What we can say is that if the son of a PR is educated here, then when he reaches 18 he must either do NS or give up his PR status. In our experience, most of the sons choose to do NS and take up citizenship. So in the next generation, they become Singaporeans.

80. Talent is mobile. If we make it onerous for foreigners to study or work in Singapore, they will simply go elsewhere. But will that make us better off? With globalisation, they will still be competing against us, only now from Hong Kong, London, or California. In Singapore they may compete with individual Singaporeans, but they also contribute to our economy, and help us to compete against other countries. So it is better for us to have them, even if it is only their sons who do NS.

81. One key issue for foreigners working in Singapore is housing. For those who cannot afford to rent or buy private properties, this is a significant problem. Many rent single rooms in HDB flats, because HDB does not allow subletting of whole flats except in special circumstances. While our wages are internationally competitive, private rentals are high and eat into their take-home pay. Renting HDB rooms is also expensive and often unsatisfactory, especially for those with families. SIA has told us that their Indian and Indonesian girls want to cook, but cannot do so unless they rent the whole flat. Foreign graduate students also have problems with housing, particularly those with families.

82. The Government has therefore worked out a scheme for JTC to buy and own a stock of HDB flats, to be let out entirely to foreigners, both skilled workers and professionals, on full commercial terms. This will solve the housing problem they now face.

83. In the private property market, foreigners cannot own landed property, or low rise condominiums. But we have not imposed additional restrictions on foreigners buying or owning high rise condominiums. In May last year, when the property market was overheating, my colleagues and I debated whether to impose levies on foreign buyers of private properties. We decided against protecting the condominium market for Singaporeans. We welcome foreigners to buy property here, to make Singapore their safe haven, to live here, and perhaps eventually to settle here. To have discriminated against foreigners in the May 1996 measures would have sent a strong signal that they were not really welcome in Singapore, or that we wanted to opt out from being part of the global economy. The decision was quietly taken, but it was crucial.

84. Of course, we will make sure that overall, citizens are always treated more favourably than non-citizens in Singapore. I have no doubt that we have achieved that, through our Asset Enhancement Schemes, and especially our HDB housing programme. No Singaporean will give up his citizenship in the belief that it is better to be a non-citizen living in Singapore.


40 Years has passed since our esteemed former Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said the above words.
On this National day, take a moment to think how much of his words might actually have come true.

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