by Seah Chiang Nee, 14 July 2007, Insight Down South, theStar Online

When Malaysia celebrates its 50th Merdeka next month, its southern neighbour will be celebrating its 42nd National Day. For Singapore the question of nationhood could become one of the most crucial issues over the coming generation.

THIS little rich state is celebrating its 42nd National Day next month with many blessings and a few darkening clouds, one of which is: It isn’t yet a nation.

In fact it will take a generation or two to become one. Wealth notwithstanding, it is more diverse and divided than before.

The republic has become a high-tech international city of transience, where hordes of foreigners come and Singaporeans leave as in past history.

But even before going global, the process of nation building was already tough enough. Now with a changing Internet-influenced population, it appears even more remote.

The question of nationhood could become one of the most crucial issues over the coming generation.

As speculation mounts of a possible decision to allow the people to adopt dual citizenship as a way to stem the brain drain, it could even take a longer time for nationhood to take root.

Singapore has always been and remains a migrant society.

During a recent seminar on the mass inflow of foreigners, Wendy Tan, a junior college student asked, “how can we get people in Singapore to have a common sense of purpose?”

The legacy left behind by the first generation is rich and plentiful, an educated, efficient people, good infrastructure and strong reserves.

For a larger country with a longer history, these ingredients would have been enough to forge a strong nation. Singapore has neither.

The government is under pressure to consider dual-citizenship as a means of reducing the brain drain. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who had long rejected this idea, has apparently softened on it.

He recently hinted of this possibility when he said this would be left “to the present or future government” to decide.

Officials privately explain this is the only way to stop young talented Singaporeans from leaving for good.

“It is a matter of time before dual citizenship is granted that will allow citizens to settle in another country while remaining a Singaporean,” said a think tank researcher.

This will give him the option of coming back or work overseas to contribute to Singapore’s interests. “It has first to resolve the matter of national service.”

Such a move could result in a looser nation if many citizens opt for divided loyalties.

When Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister, everyone knew he would face a different set of problems. However, few could have foreseen how much tougher it would be when compared to that of his father, Lee Kuan Yew, decades ago.

He inherited a more divided nation. His is a self-centred generation with high expectations – not the trusting one that made his father’s work so much easier.

Singapore is more class-conscious, increasingly divided between ‘elites’ and ‘commoners’, rich and poor, locals and foreigners in addition to the race and religion divides.

This makes it harder for the younger Lee to rally a cohesive people behind him.

But the potential hotspot is the rapid influx of hundreds of thousands of foreigners who do not share local values.

In pursuing a strategy of importing skill in large numbers, the government has bent backwards to welcome them, to the discontent of locals.

Permanent residents are exempted from the two-year mandatory National Service followed by 10 years of reservist duty (but not their children). This gives them a tremendous advantage in the job market.

Two factors are slowing its nation-bonding evolution.

The first is a changed vision of the new educated generation. Helped by the Internet and easy travels, these youths see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ who can work and live anywhere, thus diluting the sense of belonging.

Secondly, an increasing number of youths resent the strong government control and wish to migrate to more liberal cities for more personal liberties.

Kuan Yew voiced his concerns about the impact of ‘the borderless world’ when he met Singaporeans working in Qatar last year.

“If more Singaporeans worked abroad and their children forgot their roots, there will be no Singapore node to send them out … They dissolve and disappear and there is no Singapore,” the minister mentor said.

“They become citizens of the world. What does that mean? Lost!”

Malacca-born Prof Shirley Lim Geok-lin, who taught English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said Kuan Yew’s concern was over the loss of the fourth generation of young citizens.

This preoccupation, she added, had taken over from his perceived threats of regional military hostility or global isolation.

Kuan Yew was concerned that Singaporean parents, in becoming international workers, had “opened to them a different identity”.

Some 150,000 Singaporeans are residing or studying overseas, with a growing number opting not to return after setting roots abroad.

Singapore’s Dr Linda Lim, a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan who has taught in the US for 20 years, has debunked the idea of world foreign talents in large numbers making this their home.

She said in a recent lecture here that in the past decade, she had got to know many Chinese and Indian nationals in Singapore.

They had come to study in schools and universities, often with government scholarships and later worked for a few years before applying for an MBA programme in America.

“To my knowledge, none has ever returned to Singapore after graduating with MBAs, their goal all along having been to use the place as a stepping stone to the US job market,” she said.

What is the way forward? Dr Lim said, “Promote active civic and political participation and inculcate the ‘sense of ownership’.