Singapore and foreign talent

After a month in America travelling coast to coast and two weeks in India, it's good to be back in Singapore. America is great and India an emerging giant, but there's something engaging about Singapore.

On the flight to India, I saw Indian undergraduates studying in Singapore who were going home for their summer holidays. In the Indian city of Calcutta (Kolkata), I heard of others fresh out of high school who have been accepted in Singapore universities. Those taking student loans may have to serve a bond and work in Singapore for a few years time to pay off the loans. Some may decide to stay on.

One out of five of Singapore's 4.8 million population is a foreigner – and that's excluding permanent residents. Ethnic diversity has become the norm for the world's major cities. At least 30 percent of the population are immigrants in cities like Vancouver, Auckland, Geneva, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Perth and Sydney. Immigrants make up more than 40 percent of the population in Miami, Amsterdam and Toronto and a staggering 80 percent in Dubai.

The figures are from the book, The Flight Of The Creative Class – The New Global Competition For Talent, by Richard Florida. The book is four years old, published in 2005, but the current global downturn has not yet cut off the flow of people going overseas for work or study. I saw Bangladeshi casino workers in Atlantic City. At Delhi airport, I saw three planes set out for Dubai and Muscat in about half an hour.

Florida's book is relevant to Singapore. He says the same things that we have been hearing from our leaders in Singapore about the need for global talent.

He praises Singapore as one of the "first-tier cities" like New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Milan. He writes:

Singapore's government has developed a targeted strategy to spur a more broadly creative economy by investing in core creative clusters, pumping funds into higher education… Its strategy also includes investing heavily in artistic and cultural activity… In the meantime, it has made significant strides towards becoming a ,more open society by allowing gays to work openly in civil service jobs and relaxing its restrictive censorship laws.

Technology, talent and tolerance are essential for growth, he adds.

Not that he thinks the new high-tech economy is an unmixed blessing. It increases the income gap between skilled and unskilled workers, he writes; in America, income gaps are highest in cities like San Jose, New York, Washington DC, Raleigh-Durham, Austin and San Francisco. That is bad for the economy as a whole, he adds, since it restricts upward mobility.

Florida writes:

The creative economy is the Schumpeterian growth engine of our age, and the socioeconomic dynamic it sets in motion is the modern-day equivalent of the divide Roosevelt faced – the growth of two divergent classes: the creative and the service sectors.

He adds:

We need a strategy that is the modern-day equivalent of the New Deal – one that stimulates the creative engine while at the same time extending its benefits to a broad base of people.

Florida, who has taught at George Mason University and Carnegie Mellon University and is now associated with the University of Toronto, also posts his ideas on his blog – Creative Class.