Canada is looking to ramp up its economic and diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia, a sub-region of over 600 million people featuring some of the world’s most dynamic societies and economies. An important part of this engagement should be strengthening people-to-people ties, including with Canada’s own Southeast Asian diaspora communities.
In this blog series, I explore four of those communities – Filipino, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singaporean – and discovers the reasons some left their countries to make Canada their home, and how those reasons may be shifting in responses to changes back home. This blog series is kindly supported through the Junior Research Fellowship by the Asia Pacific of Canada.
“Niche areas” for Canada to appeal to Singaporeans
2015 was meant to be a significant year for Canada and Singapore. Not only does it mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence in 1965, but it also marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Singapore.
But despite this “milestone,” interaction between Canadians and Singaporeans seems underwhelming, at least from a diaspora perspective. As of 2010, only 1,691 Singaporeans were staying in Canada as permanent residents.
Many Canadians lack knowledge about Singapore, other than its ‘gum control’ policies and caning of teenagers for vandalism and other lesser offenses.
For their part, Singaporeans tend to evaluate their country’s relations with Canada with a sense of pragmatism.
“Singapore doesn’t need Canada. Canada doesn’t need Singapore, either,” said Shang Jim Foo, former president of the Vancouver Singapore Club and former president of the Malaysia Singapore Social Association in Edmonton. Mr. Shang came to Canada in 1967 to study at the University of Manitoba and has been living in Canada ever since.
When Shang left for Canada, Singapore was an impoverished, swampy island with 1.6 million inhabitants and virtually no natural resources. Today, it has a population of 5.5 million, and has been transformed into one of the three most competitive economies in the world where the GDP per capita is roughly $4,000 higher and the unemployment rate four per cent lower than in Canada.
Overseas Singaporeans from different generations have surprisingly consistent views of their country of origin and their host country. Jason Salim, a Singaporean in his 20s who just finished his undergraduate studies at the University of B.C., is soon returning to Singapore to start his new career. When asked his impressions of relations between Canada and Southeast Asia, he said that Canada was playing catch-up to the many countries that have consistently and robustly engaged with Southeast Asia over the decades.
“It’s hard to imagine how Canada can help Southeast Asia when others can do it, and have done it, better,” said Salim. “First, the two countries (Canada and Singapore) are just too far away from each other. Second, we have too many differences. Third, the trade partnership has always been weak.”
Cheaper Canadian tuition fee means “not prestigious”
What Canada uses to brand itself and attract students from other Southeast Asian countries, such as better economic opportunities, does not have the same resonance with most Singaporeans. Neither is its education system, with more affordable tuition fees than many other Western universities, a selling point to Singaporeans.
“’The star class do not come to Canada. Prestige-wise, they want the Ivy League or Oxford. Many of the bonded class that come to Canada choose to go back because of the better economic opportunities and higher starting wage at home,” said Paul Evans, a UBC professor who has spent a substantial amount of time in Singapore. Dr. Evans identified what he called the “star class” and the “bonded class” in the meritocracy-based and prestige-conscious Singapore. “Money isn’t the main issue. To many Singaporeans, ‘cheap’ means ‘not prestigious.’”
On average there are 22,000 Singaporean students studying abroad each year over the past decade. Yet, Singapore has never appeared on the list of top 50 countries sending international students to Canada. In 2013, only 312 Singaporean students chose Canada as their destination country, as compared to over 9,300 who went to Australia.
Adeva Wong is one of the relatively small number of Canadian citizens of Singaporean descent. Born in Canada in 1992, Wong moved back to Singapore with her parents when she was one year old because the tax was too heavy for her father, who worked as an engineer in Calgary. Having done all her pre-university schooling in Singapore, Wong considers herself “pretty Singaporean.”
In 2011, Wong came back to Canada — this time to Vancouver — for undergraduate studies, partly because her father was relocated to Vancouver. “I really like Singapore’s education system more than Canada’s. In my opinion, I feel that the Singapore education system is more focused whereas in Canada, it is pretty flexible.”
So, what’s in it for Singapore?
Despite these seemingly pessimistic views of Canada-Singapore relations, there are also “niche areas”—as Dr. Evans suggests—where Canada can attract Singaporeans.
Many of the Singaporeans that come to Canada have fallen in love with the natural landscape. Singapore is the third most densely-populated country in the world, while Canada ranks 228th. It is this sense of natural, open space that prompted people such as Shang Jim Foo to stay in Canada. “During my study, I travelled quite a bit in Canada, especially in its northern part. There is lots of land, lots of water, and very few people. In Singapore, there are too many people, almost no land, no water.”
Canada’s natural beauty also appeals to Singapore’s young people. Adeva Wong, for instance, points out that, “In Canada there is a lot of nature that one can enjoy. Hiking up different mountains and even skiing is something that I would not be able to do in Singapore.”
When discussing the potential benefits of life in Canada, Singaporeans also mention a sense of ‘kiasu-ism’ that has been implanted in almost everyone in the city-state’s fast-paced society. Kiasu is a Hokkien word that means “afraid of losing out.” For example, parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children have all the opportunities for success, including moving houses to increase their chances of enrolling their children in top primary schools and spending around $6,000 per year to send their children to various enrichment classes to give them an edge over their peers. There are even online platforms such as kiasuparents.com that allow parents to track their children’s potential rivals and understand how to outperform them. In daily life, the kiasu mentality is manifested in Singaporeans’ obsession with queuing. To Singaporeans, the logic is simple: “If there’s a long line, it must be good.”
As a counterbalance, some Singaporeans see the relaxed Canadian way of life as a welcome relief from the hustle-bustle lifestyle embodied in kiasu.
“Singaporeans are always ready to ‘go, go, go,’” said Shang. “Here, people ask you to take it easy. Don’t go so fast.”.
Back in Singapore, Wong’s father normally works until 7 p.m., while in Canada he gets off work at 5 p.m. and gets to go home for dinner.
For Wong herself, when deciding where to stay permanently, “employability, job security and the environment” are her main concerns. Although she doesn’t know where she will end up living and working in the next five years, the past four years’ experience has led her to believe that “the lifestyle is better in Canada.”
If Canada wants to vitalize its engagement with Singapore at the turn of their 50 anniversary of diplomatic relations, simply stating how stable the bilateral relation is or how important Singapore is to Canada is not enough. Setting up high-profile scholarships and prestigious study programs can be one way to lure the status-oriented Singaporeans to Canada; the incomparable natural landscape or relaxed Canadian way of life can be another. In all, “what Canada can offer” or “what Singapore needs from Canada” should be the selling pitch to attract Singapore or Singaporeans instead of the other way round.