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A Messy End to a Poorly Implemented Vision

By Chua Suntong

On 30 September 2012, Minister of Manpower former Brigadier-General (BG) Tan Chuan Jin updated the state of foreign non-resident employment situation in Singapore.

The big increase in the non-resident employment originated from the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech on 24 August 1997. The future Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong announced a change in population policy from immigration-supplemented to immigration-centric.

The ESM described foreign PMETs as foreign talents (FTs) during the 1997 National Day Rally Speech. His biggest dream in 1998 was to attract huge numbers of young PMETs He hoped these PMETs would contribute economically & demographically by settling down & produce babies.

In September 1998, the existing workpass system was implemented. Part of this system was an Employment Pass for foreign PMETs with higher P Pass & a lower Q Pass categories based on salary thresholds. In 2004, a S Pass which was lower than Q Pass was added.  

BG Tan stated a relatively huge increase of 14 200 S-Passes the 1st half of 2012 with an insignificant decrease in PQ Passes. He claimed to be looking into the issue of employers bringing in huge numbers of S –Pass foreign junior PMEs.

The minimum monthly salary threshold of $2000 for the 2012 S Pass Holder was similar to the 1998 Q Pass Holder. The main difference was official attitude. While BG Tan was concerned about large foreign junior PMET inflows, the ESM consistently from 1997 to 2011 liked these inflows very much.   

During the 1st decade of the 21st century, large numbers of PQS holders would be granted residency & citizenship status.

In 2001, the Q Pass minimum monthly salary threshold was increased from S2000 to $2500. Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Mr Simon SC Tay felt this was too low as it was about the starting pay for fresh graduates in Singapore.

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s  reply was:

 “I think what we are looking for is a cut off which is not too low, but really we are not looking for is a cut off which is not too low, but really we are not looking to price the foreign graduates out of the market. We want certain graduates of a certain quality, and the $2500 is really an indication of the kind of graduate which we are bringing in and also the kind of job which the foreigner is doing.”

(Parliamentary Reports Volume 73. 6 March 2001 to 15 October 2001. Emphasis added.)

This statement clearly showed the Government wanted employing organizations to hire the maximum possible number of young junior foreign PMETs.

As years passed, the FT policy was criticized as causing marginalization of homegrown citizen PMETs. The ESM was unhappy that more homegrown citizens were seriously considering long-term emigration. On another National Day Rally speech on 18 August 2002, he negatively described these potential emigrants as “quitters”

According to the National Population & Talent Division Population in Brief 2012, the number of overseas Singapore Citizens increased from 157 100 in 2002 to 200 000 in 2012.  The Government was apparently unable to present information showing the expected socio-economic value created by the FT policy that was supposed to benefit existing locals.  

BG Tan maintained that the Government was on the right track to reduce foreign labour dependency. The critics disagreed but to BG Tan, no mention of the FT term was already a radical step.

On 25 September 2012, former Minister Mentor (MM) Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke at the 7th Russia-Singapore Business Forum.. He unusually described Singapore as having 1.5 million “foreign workers”.

Former MM Lee was referring to the total number of working non-citizens, including non-citizen residents. Since 1997, the Government always avoided describing immigrant PMETs as foreigners, regardless of their immigration status. Therefore, this indicated an apparent acceptance that the ESM FT policy failed.

The failure was not inevitable but caused by poor implementation. One weakness was the belief that social integration between newer immigrants & existing locals could be accelerated.

One example was the 2005 Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India. This partly resulted in the multiplication of the already-large pool of Indian-born PMETs. They, similar to other immigrant groups, showed an obvious inclination to congregate among themselves.

On 25 September 2012, the Indian High Commissioner to Singapore T.C.A. Raghavan was speaking at the Singapore Press Club. He stated Indian expatriates needed time to fit into Singapore.  This was an unintended & indirect rebuttal to the Government idea of fast-tracked integration.  

BG Tan’s update might be seen as an unofficial announcement that the Government was prepared to set aside the immigration-centric ESM FT policy. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no future direction.

The Government still refused to take measures to significantly slow down foreign PMET immigration. This was a messy end to a poorly implemented vision.

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