Foreign Talent – Lessons from Japan

Singaporeans still not entirely convinced about the wisdom of importing foreign talent might draw some useful lessons from the way the Japanese handled the issue. In many ways, both Japan and Singapore have benefited immensely from the far-sighted adoption and imaginative use of imported administrative models, technologies and human expertise to jump-start their industries and to leap-frog over other nations in their economic development. They also share other similarities such as not having natural resources and vast territories, and having to depend heavily on their human capital to move forward. Yet, despite such disadvantages, they have become affluent First World countries within a short time. Their respective national experiences, albeit spread over different periods, bear close comparison and make insightful reading.

Japan had started early. The Japanese were ardent admirers of the advanced Tang civilisation. Between the seventh and ninth centuries, waves of the cream of Japanese scholars, Buddhist monks and skilled personnel journeyed to China to learn more about that country. They also invited their counterparts in China and Korea to settle in Japan in order to impart knowledge and skills that they required. The Japanese capital, Nara, was modeled upon the Tang capital, Chang-An (now Xian). Chinese Buddhism held sway there. Several Chinese-style temples were built and their founding abbots were mainly Chinese.

Impact of Chinese Culture

One of them, Ganjin, made five perilous sea voyages before reaching Japan. He became the foremost monk there. Kukai, the country’s most venerated saint, studied Buddhism in China. Upon his return, he founded the Shingon sect, which is now the the largest Buddhist group there. Elite Japanese cultivated a taste for Tang poetry. Chinese poets, like Li Bai, Bai Ju Yi and Liu Zhongyuan, enjoyed cult status in Japan. Led by the emperor, their reverence became an obsession and greatly influenced the development of Japanese poetry.

Even today, it is de rigueur for discerning Japanese travellers to visit places in China made famous by successive Tang poems. Suzhou’s Han San Temple is an example. Over time, this admiration for things Chinese transformed Japan into a “sino-cised” society underpinned by Confucianism. Then the West came. When Japan was coerced into trading with the West in the mid 1850s, there was initial strong resentment. But it soon realised that the only way to achieve equality with the West was to learn from Westerners, as it did from China 1200 years earlier. Under the slogan, “Japanese soul, foreign talent”, handsomely-paid experts were recruited from Europe and the United States to teach in those fields that Westerners excelled, and to train their Japanese understudies to take over from them. They were deployed mainly in construction, transport, banking, shipping, agriculture and education,  and the medical, police, military and legal services.

By the 1870s, more than 4000 foreign experts were recruited and they cost the Japanese government a staggering 5% of its annual expenditure. However, most of them completed their contracts when the decade closed. The last batch left the country in 1899. By selecting foreign talent judiciously for each chosen subject, the Japanese quickly mastered the skills required to operate a well-trained army and navy, a police force, a railway network and shipping lines. They also revamped their educational model and legal system, switched to a parliamentary democracy and adopted a Western constitution.

Their awe for the West led them to abandon their own “backward culture” and replace it with a Western one. They also embraced other trappings of Western civilisation: Western architecture, calendar, attire, music, ballroom dancing, art and social habits. Many overzealous Japanese proposed that the nation should ditch its own religions for Christianity, and use English as the common language.

These extreme over-reactions produced a backlash from conservative elements. They took remedial measures to preserve their heritage and core values in order to put a brake on the wholesale assault by things Western. And they succeeded. No country in history has undergone such a drastic transformation and yet has been able to retain its own culture largely intact.

Japan then moved on to shock the world when it trounced China in the war of 1894. This was followed by a decisive victory over Russia in 1905. The West was convinced that this rising power had indeed caught up with it. Devastated after World War II, the Japanese phoenix rose from the ashes of defeat to astound the world with its swift economic recovery. With clever adaptation of Western technologies and expertise to meet its shortfalls, and by strengthening its own prewar industrial and scientific capabilities, it became an industrial power when the 1960s ended.

Tapping on US Expertise

When the modern productivity movement first began in the US, its guru, Dr W. Edwards Deming, was a voice in the wilderness there. The Japanese quickly saw its potential as an effective management tool and invited him to Japan to experiment with his concepts. He inspired them to perfect their productivity module, which is much emulated elsewhere, including Singapore. From the 1970s onwards, Japanese products became synonymous with quality and reliability, and took the world markets by storm. Japan became the world’s second largest economy after the US, with substantial investments and marketing networks in practically all continents.

We in Singapore are fortunate to have inherited three enduring legacies from the colonial era: an efficient civil service, the rule of law and the pervasive soft power of the English language. These are important assets to attract overseas investments. When it started to industrialise in the 1960s, the political leadership wisely courted world-renowned multi-national companies and encouraged them to establish pioneer industries here by offering them a stable government, fiscal incentives, a cheap but intelligent workforce and pro-business policies that would promote industrial peace and economic expansion. In addition, employment passes were granted liberally to foreign talent who could transfer skills and train Singaporeans to take over from them.

Foreign know-how and experts contributed significantly to higher value-added projects that sharpened Singaporean workers’ skills and raised the competitiveness of its products internationally. I am confident that Singapore will again see better times before long, because it has formulated sound strategies and forward-looking policies that would overcome the current recession.

Does Singapore really need more foreign talent in its next stage of development? Historical precedents cited above and the realities of keen global competition would lend cogent support for this approach, which has helped the Republic achieve what many regard as an economic miracle. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has hit the nail on its head when he said: “If we don’t welcome them, make them stay, we will be out of this race because conditions have changed … So if we just stay in our own little pond, we will perish.”

Hopefully, like the Japanese, we, too, will also retain our Singapore soul.

[This article was first published in Singapore The Straits Times on 5 January 2002]

Lam Pin Foo

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