K is a good old buddy of mine. We were hostel roommates in our freshman year at NUS. He studied engineering, and I studied law, and we both had the habit of studying with music turned on at full blast. Fortunately, we had compatible tastes in music.
K was not a Singaporean. Born in a quiet, sleepy Malaysian town, he first came to Singapore as a teenager, to do his A-levels on an ASEAN scholarship. For those who do not know, that's basically free money. It's a bond-free, no-obligations-attached scholarship that our government gives out to bright students from every ASEAN country (except Singapore itself).
He scored mostly A's in his A-levels. He went on to study chemical engineering (no more scholarship), and NUS is where we first met. We were close friends, but after graduation, we went our separate ways. Recently we met up again, the first time in years, and had a great time catching up. The story of K's life, since we last met:
After graduating, K found a job as an engineer with a small chemical company in Jurong. After three years, he considered a permanent move back to Malaysia, but the pay in Singapore was too attractive. He fell in love with a fellow Malaysian working here. They went home and got married, then came back to Singapore to work. They don't have any children. They don't intend to.
They wanted to buy a HDB resale flat. To be entitled to this, they took up PR status - then proceeded to buy an old 3-room HDB flat in Clementi. Time passed. The government offered them citizenship - repeatedly. They declined the first few times. They couldn't see any advantage in it. The offer remains open.
Recently they learned that their block of flats is due for upgrading. As they are not citizens, the government will not subsidise their upgrading cost and they would have to fork out quite a lot of money (something like $60,000?). Citizenship does have its privileges after all. So now, for the first time, they are seriously considering accepting the citizenship offer. Either that, or they will sell the flat and move out.
K has not doing that well in his career. He says it somewhat gloomily. More precisely, his company has not been doing well. They manufacture chemicals but he says that there are times when business is so bad that basically the factory comes to a standstill. "A great big factory, and nothing happening," he said. "All the workers just sitting around wondering what's going to happen next." I imagine that the orders for chemical supplies have gone out of Singapore, to China.
K is scared. All his working life, he's been a technical guy, a process engineer. That's all he knows. What if what he knows is not enough? Luckily, he doesn't have kids. K has decided not to sit around and wait to become obsolete. He took a big, bold drastic step. He applied to do his MBA in France. He got a partial scholarship from the university. The rest - he's funding with his own savings. He's been taking French lessons. He's resigned from his company and he'll soon be flying off. His wife will continue working in Singapore. He'll be back in a year. Or maybe he won't. Maybe after he finishes his MBA, he'll manage to find a job in France. Then his wife can join him.
What roots does K have left in Malaysia? Not much, he says. How time flies. A few more years, and it would become true to say that he has spent half his lifetime living outside Malaysia. He notes that when he goes back for Chinese New Year, he has hardly any relatives left to visit, apart from his own parents. His brother has emigrated to the US. There seem to be few smart, well-educated non-bumi Malaysians who are willing to work in Malaysia.
K is one example of what the Singapore government calls "foreign talent". I tell his story here, because his story says a few things not just about foreign talent, but also about life in Singapore today. I'll let you guys comment first, and I'll join you later. Bye for now.
Technorati: Singapore; foreign talent.