By Chua Suntong -
On 25 June 2012, Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong posted a message on his Facebook.
This message suggested a panel of economists be set up to look into the issue of whether inflow of skilled immigrants led to job creation or job displacements.
This generated considerable interest based on replies. One reply described how the inflow of foreigners into local Professionals, Managerial, Executive & Technical (PMET) positions had led to the banking sector hiring people of all nationalities & origins except for homegrown Singapore citizens.
Another reply was itself a question. It asked the ESM whether the issue of local PMET displacement had been considered before PMET immigration was expanded.
During the 14 years from 1997 to 2011, the ESM, as Prime Minister & Senior Minister actively encouraged foreigners to take up PMET positions at all functions, levels & sectors. He described them as foreign talents (FTs).
Throughout this period, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government rejected any attempts to slow down the inflow of immigrant PMETs. It also rejected requests for greater clarification of the FT policy.
The ESM declared Singapore had a shortage of talent & expected existing citizens to accept his words without further question. However the continuous immigration flow meant this issue could not be ignored.
To understand the ESM silence, I believed this was due to the diverse nature of FT immigration critics. They could be divided into inner & outer categories. The inner critics consisted of those who were linked to the PAP government. The outer critics were ordinary citizens.
While immigration PMETs increased significantly, the PAP government also permitted more general foreign workers (FWs). The government plan was that once the immigration PMETs had created more economic value, there would less demand for FWs & they would return home.
Unfortunately, the FW influx caused the economy to become addicted to cheap labour. Both categories of critics agreed on the reliance on FWs implied the FT policy was not achieving its economic value added objectives.
After the 1991 General Election(GE), the ESM thought younger voters were interested in a 2-party political system & ending PAP dominance. Therefore he hoped PMET immigration would create a global hub which would bring in not just economic value but also enhance PAP prestige. This would in turn decrease support for a 2 party political system.
When both categories of critics were unhappy with immigration, the PAP government avoided FT policy discussion. The ESM feared any highlighting of policy drawbacks would adversely affect the PAP’s political prestige.
The difference between the inner & outer critics was on the question of local PMET displacement. While the outer critics argued this was increasingly common, the inner critics in good positions generally did not see it as a problem.
The inner critics were able to get the PAP government to listen to them more often than their outer counterparts. As a result when the ESM responded to immigration queries, he kept talking about FWs.
Since the inner critics were mainly concerned with the FW influx, therefore, the ESM replies was actually a response mainly to the inner critics. The outer critics were seen by the PAP Government as irrelevant.
The ESM Facebook posting probably suggested that PAP government did not think PMET displacement was an issue until after the 2011 GE. One reason was the lack of definite & irrefutable evidence. The relevant information used by the outer critics included:
A1) Anecdotal examples such as more former local senior PMETs driving taxis, indicating underemployment due to age discrimination.
A2) Birth decreases occurring simultaneously with PMET immigration increase. Since the proportion of PMETs among younger generation of biological producing age was higher than the older generation, this suggested younger local PMETs were facing displacement & continuously postponing childbirth.
A3)Young local PMETs becoming entrepreneurs when their relatively well-paid job positions were being taken up by immigrants. These local young people were probably forced to set up their own business due to employer & government preference for foreigners.
A4)Increase in emigrating citizens. The outer critics argued the FT influx forced homegrown citizens to become FTs elsewhere.
Unfortunately, as the PAP Government was already strongly biased in favour of massive PMET immigration, it interpreted the facts & figures in a different manner. The pro-PAP mainstream media tried to explain the situation as:
B1)Senior local PMETs-turned-taxi drivers were already reaching the retirement age. Therefore, employing organizations could not be expected to hire such persons.
B2)Decrease in births was due to the changing lifestyle choices of younger PMET women. They voluntarily postponed having children earlier due to other interests.
B3)The younger generation found normal PMET jobs boring. Entrepreneurship was more exciting & satisfying
B4)More homegrown citizens emigrated because they desired to have foreign experiences.
While these explanations had some basis, they contained glaring faults.
C1)Many of the senior local PMETs-turned taxi drivers were under 55 years old & not yet reached the statutory retirement age of 62 years old.
C2)Lifestyle explanations were based on inaccurate assumptions that young women earned very good incomes & males were not important in planned parenthood.
C3)Entrepreneurship in Singapore without an influential sponsor could mean near-certain bankruptcy. Massive immigration meant little hope for a failed entrepreneur to regain suitable employment. Therefore the excitement provided little real satisfaction.
C4)Working overseas meant having to overcome many significant socio-economic & government obstacles elsewhere. No other nation or region had an ESM-style ultra-liberal & ultra-promotional immigration policy
The best way to explain the perception gap between the PAP Government & the outer critics was that displacement was a gradual process. It took 14 years for displaced local PMETs to reach a critical mass.
In July 2012, the Government National Population & Talent Division (NPTD) released a population issues paper & welcomed suggestions.
The FT policy outer critics generally proposed the following:
- Significant reduction in the granting of new PMET P, Q & S work passes.
- A more detailed clarification on the type of foreign PMETs needed in Singapore.
- Quotas & levies to be imposed on the hiring of middle & higher P & Q Pass Employment Pass holders.
- Further increases in salary classifications for PQS holders. This would reduce the probability of foreign PMETs working as a higher form of cheap labour.
Some critics were skeptical of government consultation, pointing out that previous sessions over the years had little effect on policy-making.
After the 2011GE, the PAP government acknowledged immigration was a source of unhappiness but refused to significantly change the FT policy.
As for the ESM who spent 14 years on attracting what he termed as skilled immigrants, explaining the displacement effect to him might be meaningless.