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Can Singapore actually learn something from Estonia?

"We don’t put getting high economic numbers above preserving our heritage and the happiness of our people."

That’s the response from one Estonian official from the country’s foreign affairs ministry when I casually asked why his country is not getting more new citizens and foreign talent. Coming from Singapore, that seems like a surprising notion for a country to heed, but it seems to be working.

A little background with some numbers

The Baltic state is about 65 times bigger than Singapore but only has a population of 1.3 million. Even though half the country is covered by forests, Estonia has managed to produce world-renowned companies like SKYPE and many Estonians have come up with other cool applications and software. The Estonians are at the forefront when it comes to utilising information technology. To cite just one example, my tour bus in Tallinn - the capital of Estonia – had wi-fi.

During my visit to the country, Aigar Kallas, CEO of Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskus (RMK), the country’s forestry agency mentioned he was flying to another European country to showcase a new app developed by the Estonians. This app allows one to find a number of edible fruits and berries in the forest and has other capabilities to allow a hike up the forest to become more enjoyable.

The country also has been enjoying the high economic growth rates in the European Union. It's economy had grown by 4.0 per cent in the 365 days ending March 2012 and it's the only EU nation to have budget surpluses for the last two years. 

Of course, some like economist Paul Krugman believe Estonia's latest growth spurt is actually misguided and play down the country's growth in the last few years . And in classic Estonian style of embracing technology, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves logged on to twitter to blast the Nobel prize winner's comments in the New York Times.

But no one will deny Estonia's overall quick rise up the ladder in the EU.

Many believe its government, which is a firm proponent of austerity measures, managed to rebound from the 2008 financial crisis almost unscathed (when compared to other economies) by ensuring smart policies such as easy labour laws and low corporate taxes.

In addition, the government initiated a massive savings plan and cut costs by reducing spending, while the private sector played its part by reducing salaries.

Today, it’s almost debt free, though you never know what might happen thanks to the Eurozone crisis.

Still, you have to admit, that’s not bad for a country that achieved independence only in 1991.

No influx of cheap labour from India or China for Estonia

There has been some criticism that there are not enough highly skilled and trained workers to meet the demand of the rising economy.

But some government officials, including those from the Economic Affairs and Communications Ministry (EACM), say you just can’t do whatever it takes in the name of progress – such as loosening up your immigration policies quickly.

Director of the Economic Analysis Division at the EACM, Meelis Kitsing says there are no barriers for residents of other EU countries from moving to Estonia but the Estonian immigration policy is quite restrictive towards residents of countries outside the EU.

“The Estonian government does not aim only at economic growth and efficiency but considers the preservation of the Estonian language and culture also very important. The key is to find a right balance between these two aims,” Kitsing says.

That doesn’t mean the country is not totally against hiring highly skilled labour from Asia though.

But it's clear that its philosophy of preserving their language and heritage trumps the push for economic progress.

“Singapore aims primarily at economic growth and efficiency. We consider economic growth and efficiency to be crucial as well, but we try to find a proper balance among our economic, political and social aims,” Kitsing adds.

“We Estonians like our space and need room,” quipped another one of the many government officials I met in Tallinn.

He told me that Estonians will get “angry” if they find too many foreigners taking up their space and putting a burden on their infrastructure.

Can Singapore adopt such a philosophy?

Singapore is a smaller country than Estonia and we can’t be that choosy when it comes to developing our urban landscape, but if there had been a stronger will to preserve our heritage, would we have been able to come up with better alternative ideas? Would we still have our old National Library and perhaps remnants of the old Bugis area if we had followed such a rule?

There might be less frustration among Singaporeans who constantly seem to put down foreigners who, according to some, do not seem to bother learning English and the local customs. Segments of our online community might also not be bordering on xenophobia.

A recent study pointed out that Singapore may need thousands of new citizens in the future if it were to remain viable as an economy.

Dr Ong Qiyan, a visiting scholar with the Economic Growth Centre at the Nanyang Technological University says she believes economic growth can only go so far to make you happy.

“Singapore should invest more in social infrastructure, that is, create more family friendly workplaces and enhance fairness at workplaces,” she says.

She believes the fact that there is so much unhappiness towards immigration policies, suggests that Singaporeans value their national identity.

“This unhappiness, if channelled to the right places, will strengthen the people's sense of belonging in the country and happiness in the long run,” she adds.

After attending the Economic Society of Singapore Annual Dinner on 8 June, Singapore's Prime Miniser Lee Hsien Loong personally wrote on his Facebook page that Singapore's "economy has grown faster than expected, but that has brought stresses and strains which we feel in our daily lives."

He added that Singaporeans are also anxious when it comes to competition and job security.

To address these concerns, he said, the government will be working hard and also mentioned his team will strengthen the country's social safety net.

It's great that the government is addressing these issues. One area to study if I may suggest, is infusing the Estonians' mantra - of giving priority to heritage, language and citizens - into the policy-making process in Singapore.

If Singapore follows Estonia’s lead, will we have more babies?

It’s never a black and white case when it comes to immigration issues in the new economy and that is why the debate over immigration policies is still being debated in Estonia.

Officials say they would rather fix the low population problem by improving their birth rate, even though they admit this would take a much longer time to address the issue.

“We have had some progress, but still not enough good results with that. And inviting new citizens is a historically delicate topic. During the Soviet period, many were invited. Some hundreds of people came in from the other parts of Soviet Union. This part of the population, mostly Russian-speaking, has now, more social problems than Estonian-speaking inhabitants,” says Eero Raun, a marketing head at Enterprise Estonia (EAS), the government agency tasked with building up business and regional development.

When it comes to birth rates, Estonia is ranked 194th in the world while Singapore is ranked 222th, according to figures from the C.I.A factbook.

In order to encourage Estonians to have babies, couples who are eligible and meet certain requirements are allowed to share a three-year fully paid (capped at a certain amount) parental leave period between them when they have a child. The mother can therefore, take one and a half years of leave and later on, the father can take one and a half years leave. The couple is allowed to do its own math and share the three year leave.

Of course, Estonia is not always the perfect blend of high technology and Old World charm you see in travel ads. It has its own unique problems as well including people in the rural areas feeling they are being left behind as well as the growing income divide.

But perhaps their leaders' notion of what constitutes economic progress is something that may benefit us in Singapore.

If anything, we may just be able to come up with a new found balance between quality and quantity.

From the pubs to government offices to the country side, the Estonians, who suffer harsh winters, have a popular saying: "There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

If the country's economic rise and and socio-political balance is anything to go by, folks there will soon be changing their adage to:

“There’s no such thing as bad economic times, only bad policies.”

(The writer is the lead news editor at inSing News. He was part of the Singapore Press Club's recent goodwill mission to Estonia and also travelled to the nearby cities of Saint Petersburg in Russia and Helsinki in Finland.)

Satish Cheney, inSing.com

08.06.2012

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