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Foreign Talent policy: of principle and practice

By Choo Zheng Xi

The government’s defense of its foreign talent policy follows a familiar pattern. The government rolls out a policy and frames it within unobjectionable truisms that few can disagree with. In the foreign talent debate, the truisms are ‘cosmopolitanism’ and the need for ‘healthy competition’.

When challenged on the specific implementation of its policies policy, the government often retreats back to broad principles to make critics look insular and anti-competitive.

We need to move the foreign talent debate beyond platitudes of principle and start asking hard questions about how it’s being implemented in practice.

For the record, let me state that I fully agree with the government’s foreign talent scheme in principle. It’s implementation, however, could benefit from a good dose of candour.

Sadly, the lack of clarity in the media coverage of foreign talent schemes makes a joke of the term ‘talent’. Whether this opaqueness is intentional ignorance or incompetence, it is doing the scheme a great disservice. This was most evident in the recent coverage of two Ministry of Manpower ‘foreign talent’ initiatives: increasing the quota for mid-skilled S Pass holders by 10-15%, and the introduction of the Work Holiday Programme (WHP).

How talented is foreign talent?

One of the rationales for importing foreign talent is to bring in people with skills that for some reason are not found in the local talent pool. The medical sector is such an example: it takes a long time to train medical staff, and tweaking medical school cohort entry sizes in response to the demands of an ageing population will simply leave us several steps behind the problem.

However, unlike the clear example of healthcare talent that might be lacking in Singapore, the recently announced Work Holiday Programme (WHP) will bring in 2000 foreign students from the ages of 17-30 into Singapore with an eye to retaining them in the long run. This was announced in a loosely headlined Channel News Asia article entitled ‘New Initiatives to lure talented foreign professionals’.

Sadly, neither the WHP nor the Channel News Asia article offered any clarity in what it defines as ‘talent’.

The WHP brings in not just graduates but also students who are not restricted to any job type, as well as not subject to any minimum salary requirement. The lack of a stipulated minimum salary requirement seems to give them a blank cheque to enter our workforce at any level they wish: from the menial to the managerial.

I also cannot help feel uncomfortable at the sheer size of the 2000 strong cohort of WHP students that are being courted. If, as is the stated aim of the programme, a substantial amount of this group decides to work in Singapore, they will be in direct competition with the Singaporean undergraduate population seeking jobs.

In the same article, Channel News Asia announced the Ministry’s increase in the quota for mid-skilled S Pass holders by 10-15%. These ‘talented foreign professionals’ include technicians and foreign diploma level workers, according to MOM’s website. Isn’t this stretching the definition of foreign talent too thin.

After reading this article one cannot help but arrive at the following conclusion: the definition of foreign talent now includes any foreigner from the ages 17-30 with a tertiary degree, and mid skilled technicians with foreign diploma education earning around $1800 a month (see MOM website, S Pass qualification criteria).

Where previously one understood the term foreign talent to mean bringing in CEOs and ping-pong superstars to fill roles Singaporeans didn’t have the ‘talent’ for, the goalposts are now significantly wider. Certainly no thanks to the mainstream media that has made an ass of the word ‘talent’.

A simple question

The solution is not to react with visceral xenophobia and close the doors to our country. Rather, we need to seek renewed clarity in our foreign talent recruitment methods. While overarching principles like cosmopolitanism and openness are irrefutable in their generality, these are no substitute for clear definitions of what talent our country needs and how much of them we need.

Quotas should also be rigorously justified by the Ministry of Manpower, and not arbitrarily increased without consultation. For mid-skilled workers, which our country is certainly not lacking in, our policy should be put to a simple test: will bringing a foreigner in lead to any Singaporeans losing their jobs? If so, don’t.

Zheng Xi is a law undergrad at the NUS and is also co-editor of theonlinecitizen.