Modern Cowboys: Singapore’s émigré crisis

Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

-Horace Greely


On my 21st birthday, a train was taking me further away from home than I have ever been. I was halfway across the globe and alone. But on that train, I felt something I had never experienced before. I felt, for the first time in my life, liberation. Perhaps even a sense of catharsis.

On that train, I knew I could contact anyone I wanted through the magic of the cell towers and submarine cables. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to.

And I didn’t. After living on my own for the first time in my life, and looking out of the window at the landscape on which cowboys once roamed, I realised the impulses which drove people from the squalor of Eastern cities to the great Western plains of the United States.

Singapore may have Asian values, but however you define them, you cannot escape from seeing this phenomenon manifesting in its own unique Singaporean form. I am pretty sure that I am not the only Singaporean who has laid awake in bed, night after night, plotting my escape this suffocating island.

Singapore is a country of émigrés. We are descended from men and women who decided to take a leap of faith and break the bonds which governed life back home in order to forge a new life in a foreign land.

Evidently, this bit of our forefathers’ cultural DNA still resonates deeply in many Singaporeans. Here are three surveys I could find on the first page of googling. 2009:  more than 50 per cent of youths aged between 15 and 29 wanted to migrate overseas if given the chance, while 37 per cent admitted that they are not patriotic. 2012: 56 per cent agreed with the statement “given a choice, I would migrate”. 2014: 62 per cent of Singaporeans “have considered leaving Singapore to achieve their dreams, or have done so previously.” That is not counting the 200,000 to 300,000 Singaporeans who successfully emigrated – a good 5 per cent of our native population.

Surveys are flawed, yes. People behave differently when asked for their opinions, and what they want to do may be distinct from whether they have the social and political capital to carry it out. The numbers, nevertheless, tell us a story. Poll after poll, year after year, the majority of Singaporean youths tell researchers: “I want to get out”.

Forget political plurality: this is the great existential crisis lodged within the psyche of young Singaporeans – the bittersweet longing to escape the suffocating bonds which nonetheless gave us our identity and upbringing. And for those who left, the longing for the friends, family, and identity they left behind.

Dualities of self are almost always contradictory. In this case, we as individuals and as a nation are grappling with the inconsistencies between maintaining the communitarian kampung spirit and our individual perceptions of the Aristotelian and Millean “Good Life”.


新加坡(Xīnjiāpō)?More like 新贵市(Xīnguìshì).

Singapore is an immigrant society. Our forefathers are cowboys in another name. Rich or poor, they left their homes in hope of forging a better life for themselves and their communities.

But we aren’t like them. Most of them, anyway. Native Singaporeans are, as a whole, richer than our ancestors (insert reference to Maslow’s overused hierarchy here). The globalised world we live in now is so very much different from the world they inhabited then.

But even as borders and nationalism came into force, the cowboy spirit can still be actualised in every country in the world to a certain extent… except for Singapore. Of the seven city-state-esque territories in the world, Singapore is the least integrated with our hinterland.

While young people from across the world would in all likelihood inevitably migrate to another city within their country’s borders to search for their conceptions of the Good Life, Singaporeans don’t have that privilege. We will in all likelihood never have the experience of living more than thirty minutes away from someone else we know.

Unless we emigrate, we will never really know what it is like to live independently. Regardless, or in spite of prevailing “Asian Values”, Singaporeans still desire a level of individual autonomy. One could make a strong case that this vision of the Good Life is linked to the nouveau riche nature of Singaporean society, or to the subversion of traditional values by the West.

Nevertheless, it is statistically proven to be an exceptionally strong emotional undercurrent among Singaporeans below a certain age. But unlike other nations, Singaporeans do not have a second city we can migrate to. We don’t have a New York, or London, or Mumbai, Mambosa, or Shanghai. If we do choose to migrate, it would necessarily mean we would have to leave behind our Singaporean identity and social bonds. In their place, we will need to assimilate into an alien society with different cultures and histories. It is a luxury the vast majority of us can’t afford emotionally, and economically.

This paradox deep in the Singaporean experience can’t simply be ignored. Cosmopolitanism and “global cities”, by definition, requires people and money to be constantly cycled. The most visible day-to-day manifestation of these massive migration flows remains the expatriate, the construction worker, and the immigrant. The glamorous life of a global citizen is a privilege only given to a few native Singaporeans.


He dreamed of London and of a life that mattered.

In Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling describes the intricate familial and communal ties which hold the small English village of Pagford together. Though practically every character recognised the oppressive social bondage that they consented to, it was interpreted in different ways.

Some saw these ties as a way to climb the social and political ladder. Some see the ties as an inherent good and their detriments as a necessary evil. Others, predominantly the young and the poor, saw it to be a labyrinth which they must claw their way out of.

Rowling paints a stark – almost Marxist – portrait between those who affirm and those who reject these bonds. The first have assimilated the communitarian values and know nothing but the status quo. The second are penned in by the collective will of the community.

Singapore is certainly not a small West Country village. Rather, we share more in common with London, the greener pasture so many of Padford’s youth dreamt of.

But, the fact remains that we don’t have a London. The vast majority of us will never know what it is like to live without the social contracts and compromises that we have all implicitly agreed to.


A historical tangent on social refugees.

Social refugees are not, as mentioned above, a new concept. Hobsbawm saw pre-modern outlaws as social bandits. Robin Hoods who rejected and tried to redress the wrongs of the ever tightening grip of the modern state.

Seeing the grass as greener beyond the geographical or socially constructed barriers is a quintessentially human impulse. It drove our ancestors from the plains of Africa to all corners of the globe, regardless of climate or survivability. This constant urge to move on in the hope of attaining a better life is very much the driving force of today’s globalisation and economics.

Closer to home, seeing the unique culture of highland South-east Asia as a form of social refugeeism has acquired academic currency in recent years. “Zomia”, which stretches from the Himalayas down to its South-east Asian foothills, rejected the benefits of settled agricultural civilizations in the form of India, China, and South-east Asian Mandalas. According to the main proponent of this theory, James Scott, the theory’s leading proponent, stated that “South-east Asian states were slaving states, without exception,  until well into the twentieth century. Wars in pre-colonial South-east Asia were less about territory than about the seizure of as many captives as possible who were then resettled at the core of the winner’s territory”.


Damn it, how will I ever get out of this  ?

It is difficult to make our way out of Singapore. Unlike taking a lift to Shan house, packing up and trekking to the real Burmese state of Shan is not as simple. The benefits of being civilisation-less, like those living in Shan, are decisively outweighed by the material abundance of more civilised peoples.

Ironically, the most prevalent method to escape Singapore is via entering bondage with the state via public service scholarships. Most, if not all Singaporeans, also seem to unconsciously prioritise ties with kin and kith who have successfully made that journey – not unlike how many new immigrants in Singapore have relatives already living here.

Our sister publication, The Kent Ridge Common, quite famously argued in 2009 that Singapore’s current diaspora should not be cast off as “quitters” who had gone “soft” and would “run away whenever the country runs into stormy weather” [National Day Rally, 2002]. In that article, it was argued that quitters still viewed Singapore as their home.

Re-reading that article, I can’t help but to think about my Aunt and Uncle. They are as Singaporean as Singaporeans come – in the best sense of the word. You wouldn’t know that they had spent years living in Britain; there is not a phonetic trace of England in their speech. They made a conscious choice to come home as their children reached schooling age.

I don’t think words can accurately capture the emotion and power of national identity amongst Singaporeans. By consensus, we have decided that this island, for better or for worse, is home. Even though we are a country of diasporas, our diaspora – themselves a diaspora of a diaspora- (mostly) return home.

Émigrés are not monolithic, however. 海龟 (Haiguis, ethnically Chinese “sea turtles” who return to mainland China after living abroad) are predominantly those who have failed in making a living for themselves overseas. Quoting from the Economist article, “92% of Chinese with American PhDs still lived in that country five years after graduation. For Indians, the figure was 81%, for South Koreans 41% and for Mexicans 32%.” I wonder if that trend holds true for Singapore.


From “quitters” to valuable members of society.

In 2007’s National Day Parade theme song, There’s No Place I’d Rather Be, the following places are mentioned: Cairo, Bombay, London (FIVE TIMES!), Paris, Beijing, Los Angeles, Thailand, Spain, Taipei, San Francisco. Singapore, and most of South-east Asia were not mentioned once. State-sponsored “Singapore Days” events have been organised in Western and Chinese (and notably not South-east Asian) cities with a substantial Singaporean émigrés and turnout remains high for most events. Minister Chan Chun Sing has even called on Singaporeans to get out of Singapore to stay competitive in the global market, a far cry from the labels of “quitters” in yesteryear.

“Is national identity and global citizenry really mutually exclusive, as Mr Sudhir Thomas Vadeketh argues in IPS Commons? Whatever the result, this is a conversation Singaporeans – at home and abroad – desperately need to have, if we do not want our nation to “just dissolve, melt into a globalised world and lose that special sense of being distinctive Singaporeans, different from non-Singaporeans” [Lee Hsien Loong, 2015]. Evidence of the ability for such discourses to impact the greater society, however, remains elusive.

Singapore may, in the end, be too small for everyone to actualise their best selves. Geopolitics, history, economics, and culture places us in this perilous position. Unlike matters of economic development and the implementation of a singularly defined political culture, this first-world problem cannot be solved by the government alone. The mechanisms and institutions we have to deal with such issues, however, remains worryingly.

About the Author

While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He is majoring in Geography, and has previously written for The Middle Ground.