By Lee Siew Hua
CULTURAL barriers do not come down easily in Asia, and for this reason, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew believes talent will not flow smoothly across borders any time soon.
To illustrate, MM Lee shared his long-time observations of China and India, saying: 'You can take a Chinese or an Indian, bring them to America and, as a minority in the American milieu, he will begin to absorb the American ethos.
'But you bring a few Americans to China or India and you think you can spread this ethos into India and China, you're dead wrong.'
He was speaking at an hour-long dialogue yesterday that capped the three-day Singapore Human Capital Summit. It was attended by about 700 international business leaders and human resource specialists.
Moderator Narayan Pant, Insead's dean of executive education, had brought up a lingering concern that Asia's cultural differences are a challenge to incoming top talent, who need to behave differently in diverse parts of Asia to succeed.
'Do you see that changing?' Professor Pant asked. 'Is talent going to become even more fungible than before because cultural barriers to success go down?'
Mr Lee's reply: 'I don't think that's possible because our group of people do not change so readily.'
The theme at the dialogue was Building Competitiveness: Harnessing Strategic People Trends In Asia. Nine questions were posed by Prof Pant and the audience, ranging from leadership to the depth of the recession.
MM Lee also noted that missionaries sent to China and India in the past converted an 'infinitesimal' number in China and India - both ancient civilisations with their own beliefs.
Cultural barriers are a 'constant concern' for Singapore, which has opened its doors to foreigners.
'We have a population that's already attuned to the Singapore way of doing things. They don't rush. They accept certain norms of behaviour.
'If we've more foreigners than Singaporeans, then the Singaporeans will become like the foreigners, and we lose our basic attributes. We'll be down the spiral.'
That is why a core of Singaporeans is needed - a case he had made in July when he disclosed his own comfort level is for 65 per cent of the population to be born-and-bred Singaporeans.
Yesterday, he pointed out that the Republic will have to bring in foreigners at a rate where 'they imbibe our values'.
At the very top tier of migrants and Singaporeans, it does not matter. 'People lead different lives...They've got their own pleasure centres.'
But at the mid-level, where Singaporeans and foreigners live and work cheek by jowl, 'it is important the Singaporeans outnumber the migrants'.
MM Lee said that the Chinese will never become non-Chinese, and neither will the Indians be non-Indians. The same goes for the Malays, Thais or other groups.
But put small groups of them in America, scatter them, and they become like the Americans, he observed.