Is China still an attractive destination for young Singaporeans? |

by Lindsay Wong

In the last decade, China has become a popular destination for young Singaporeans to gain work and study experience. This opportunity to broaden their horizons has been taken by many, who have gone to China for internships and short-term exchange programs as part of their local university degree. 

Singaporeans believe that gaining experience in China will be beneficial to themselves, not only due to China’s global economy but also because of better opportunities available as China forges closer economic ties with Southeast Asia. Since the 1980s, China’s GDP has grown by 10% annually, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. China’s tech and electronics industries (particularly automobiles, internet services and solar power) are aiding in this rapid growth. 

Furthermore, Singaporean Chinese in particular identify with the culture in China so they don’t see it as a huge culture shock. But does China still serve as a popular and attractive destination for young Singaporeans these days? 

The tables have turned

In the 1980s, Singaporeans took interest in China because of its new and booming economy and young Singaporeans found opportunities to innovate – which was why China sent government officials to Singapore to learn. However, now the tables have turned. China is now ahead of Singapore in terms of ways of doing business; hence, there are not many opportunities for young Singaporeans to innovate anymore. 

Lee Kuan Yew meeting Deng Xiao Peng in China in 1978

K.K. Chua, a Singaporean who was sent to work in China in the 1980s, has argued that China is not the place for young Singaporeans yearning to stand out anymore. As he is a huge advocate of young people working overseas, Chua advises Singaporeans to consider taking their skills to other markets like the fast-growing ASEAN region and Africa if they want to innovate.

Singaporean students flock to China

However, young Singaporeans who are still interested in China are now seeing it as an economic hub to learn new things. In the last academic year, there has been an 80% increase in the amount of local students choosing China as their study-abroad destination, compared to four years ago. Many students at local universities have chosen to undertake internships or short-term exchange programs in China for global exposure. 

Underground hip-hop scene in China

One NTU student was attracted by China’s underground hip-hop scene, which gave him a glimpse into modern Chinese pop culture. While on a short-term exchange program at the prestigious Peking University, he also learned more about traditional Chinese performance (music and theatre) and their global economy. Meanwhile, an NUS student who travelled to China to gain work experience for a 6-month internship came back with new entrepreneurship skills, such as finding ways to increase the convenience and efficiency of e-payments back home (China is leading the world in e-payments). 

Government programs have also facilitated the process for young Singaporeans to find success in China or kick-start their overseas career. Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools were introduced in 1979 to develop bilingual students who would be indoctrinated with traditional Chinese values. Students from SAP schools like Hwa Chong Institution and Catholic High School have benefited from this bilingualism, which has aided them in establishing businesses or working in China. 

Other programs include schemes to make it easier for Singaporean students to find internships in China. Winners of the annual Singapore Valley Awards receive three-month internships with prominent Chinese Internet companies and an internship program was implemented last year to support Singapore students who wanted to find employment opportunities in China. The Business China Internship Program, aimed at encouraging young people to work in both China and Singapore, have an online portal to publish a list of firms that had internships available for students in both countries.

Is the grass still greener in China?

Although some may argue otherwise, China still appears to be a popular destination for young Singaporeans to gain work experience and study in this fast-growing economy. As Chua suggested, Singaporeans should go to China to learn the Chinese way of doing business, and many students have taken this opportunity in the form of internships and short-term exchange programs. 

They have gained from their overseas experience and subsequently honed their skills at home. One such skill is mastering the art of guanxi, or cultivating meaningful relationships, which is a life skill that is valuable even when taken out of the work context, especially when it comes to interacting with others.