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Is he addressing the issue – 12 years on?

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attempted to address Singaporeans’ concerns over the large influx of foreigners, both as workers and as new citizens and permanent residents (PRs).

The Prime Minister said he understood these sentiments which are, he said “legitimate concerns”. He said the government took these concerns “seriously”. Nonetheless, he admitted that the government had allowed “a larger inflow of foreign workers” in the last five years. Singapore had also “taken in more new citizens and PRs”.

A Department of Statistics (DOS) report, released two days after the PM’s Rally Speech, reported that Singapore’s population has risen to beyond 5 million.

“The city-state’s total population stood at 5.08 million people at the end of June,” the DOS report said.

Of these, more than a third are foreigners. (AFP)

PM Lee’s attempt at explaining the huge influx, however, doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone, including his own grassroots leaders. In a report by the mainstream Lianhe Zaobao paper, “60 out of the 100 grassroot leaders who attended the [National Day Rally] expressed their dissatisfaction on the Prime Minister's reasons for foreign talent.” (Source)

This should come as no surprise, really, as such concerns among Singaporeans are not new. It goes as far back as 1998 when the Member of Parliament and now-Law Minister, Mr K Shanmugam, raised these concerns in a parliamentary speech.

“That initial “little bit cheesed off” feeling seems to have rubbed off on more and more Singaporeans,” Mr Shanmugam said then. “I believe that the disgruntlement lies more with the manner in which the question of foreign talent has been handled,” he added.

At the crux of the matter, Mr Shanmugam feels, are two factors:

  1. The definition of the term “foreign talent”.
  2. That these “foreign talent” only use S’pore as springboard to other countries.

The Prime Minister, in his NDR speech, did not seem to address these two issues squarely.

It’s been 12 years since Mr Shanmugam’s speech in Parliament, highlighting the concerns of S’poreans.

Has the Government listened?

Or is it hell-bent on pushing ahead with its open-door policy in the name of economic growth even as those like Mr Shanmugam and many others continue to raise a myriad of issues of concerns - conerns which the government does not seem to be addressing – or indeed, as the PM has shown, sidestepped altogether?

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Here is Mr Shanmugam’s 1998 speech as a backbench Member of Parliament.

Sir [The Speaker of Parliament], since the Prime Minister first spoke on the subject of attracting foreign talent at last year’s [1997] National Day Rally, the issue of foreign talent has become topical, prompting comments from many Singaporeans. Foreigners brought in under the talent scheme have now become a conspicuous presence in Singapore. We meet them everywhere. With their greater presence, the subject has increasingly and perhaps inevitably become a gut issue.

Voices of concern were already heard from the beginning when the Prime Minister called for a national effort to draw and embrace talent from abroad. There were questions about the implications of such a policy. Some were worried that more foreigners meant more intense competition for limited resources, be it jobs, schools, recreational facilities, or simply space. Others saw social problems that might rise as a result of in-rush of foreign influence or a clash of cultural values.

As NTUC Chief and Minister without Portfolio, Mr Lim Boon Heng, said last October [1997], our workers were a little cheesed off  by the Government’s move to bring in more foreign talent. He had formed this impression after a dialogue session with some 200 union leaders. That initial “little bit cheesed off” feeling seems to have rubbed off on more and more Singaporeans, particularly in the light of the current regional crisis.

I talked to some people about foreign talent and the gut reaction is quite revealing. They question the perceived favourable treatment of foreigners over locals. They ask: Why is JTC subsidizing foreign talent by renting out flats to them at below market rates? Why is the Government still giving companies tax incentives to defray the costs of bringing in more foreigners at a time when the job security of Singaporeans is uncertain, and indeed a number of our citizens have actually been retrenched?

Some even ask: Why is the Government cheapening our relationship by making it so easily available to foreigners working here? Why do foreigners who have acquired our citizens and thus enjoy privileges not have to perform National Service, or at least a modified form of national service or any reservist service? These questions perhaps betray an acute and deep sense of frustration.

I do not think that such frustrations suggest that Singaporeans are becoming xenophobic. We have always been an open and cosmopolitan society which welcomes foreigners and immigrants. We are after all, a very young country built by immigrants. I believe that the disgruntlement lies more with the manner in which the question of foreign talent has been handled.

I will outline two factors which I believe contribute to that disgruntlement. First, a number of Singaporeans are puzzled over the definition of “foreign talent” itself. Few would object to bringing in what the Prime Minister described as the best and brightest to Singapore in the same way that the top brains are attracted to Silicon Valley. But the foreign talent that our citizens mingle within the HDB heartlands or in their workplaces are very much like the people who live next door.

They could be nurses, train operators, teachers, counter staff and so on. For the Singaporean who holds a similar job, it is incomprehensible why a foreigner doing the same job is labeled a talent and accorded privileges which one is born and bred here does not enjoy.

Secondly, there is a sense that the foreigner who is term “talented” takes maximum advantage of Singapore without the intention of making Singapore his or her home. The male foreign talent does not do national service nor reservist training. Our younger people feel this gives an unfair advantage to the foreign talent in the workplace. A foreigner starts work younger and employers prefer employees who have no disruptions.

There is also a feeling that a number of young foreign talents simply use Singapore as a springboard to take advantage of the system, get an education, live in cheap JTC rental flats, acquire skills and then leave for what they perceive to be greener pastures. That is why a number of our citizens appear to resent what they perceive to be the Government’s disregard for the feelings of Singaporeans in the all-out effort to lay the red carpet for foreigners.

It is now not uncommon to hear Singaporeans speak of emigration, and then returning as foreign talent to feel more welcome here.

I think it will be in the longer term interest of Singapore for the Government to ensure that it addresses these concerns. We have to do something to ensure that Singaporeans, in particular young Singaporeans, do not feel disadvantaged vis-à-vis foreign talent. The policy of attracting foreign talent is a sound one. Without it, our future must be that much less bright. I therefore speak as a strong supporter of the policy. But even sound policies have to be sold on the ground.

If the policy creates unease among younger Singaporeans, then this is a cause for legitimate concern. We cannot take younger Singaporeans for granted. They are, like the foreign talent, also mobile. We have to consider their views, perhaps relook at our definition of foreign talent and bear in mind that Singaporeans will be evaluating the quality of the foreigners and compare them with the privileges that are accorded. This is not a problem which will simply go away when the economy recovers and strong growth returns.

Nation building is not merely about keeping the country ahead of global competition or achieving higher per capita income. It is also a question about making sure that Singaporeans feel for Singapore with their hearts. The foreign talent question is a gut issue that concerns hearts and minds and the Government has to address the hearts and minds so that our younger Singaporeans will treat Singapore as a home, and not as a hotel.