Potential PM Chan: “I’ve no problem employing the high-skilled foreigners to come here”

by Vincent Low

In an interview with ST, which was published today (11 Feb), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing said the Government wants to encourage a shift towards employing more higher value-added foreign workers (i.e, foreign PMETs). Chan has been identified by the media as one of the 3 contenders for the 4th generation Prime Minister.

But raising the skill level of foreigners in Singapore is a knotty issue – Singaporeans worry it would intensify competition for good jobs. Chan replied that the answer is to ensure locals are quality workers, too. “We cannot dumb everybody down, right? That’s why we work so hard to move our people up.”

Some of the “higher value-added” foreign PMETs identified are those in IT, wealth management and biotechnology areas. Chan hopes these FTs would help boost Singapore’s capabilities in those areas.

At the same time, companies here which employ such foreign professionals should help transfer expertise to locals, he said. “I’ve no problem employing the high-skilled foreigners to come here – we have done that ever since the 1960s – but there must be a process of localisation whereby my own domestic workers, my own local workforce, can progress,” he added.

When asked about the balance of foreign vs local workers in Singapore, he said, “There’s no magic number but where we are at the balancing point now is about one-third (foreigners), two-thirds (locals).”

Josephine Teo and MAS MD also want Singapore to have more foreign PMETs

Separately, second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo also wanted to have more foreigners working here.

It is possible to maintain flat employment levels, with no increase in the number of locals or foreigners, but that may not be ideal, she said. Realistically, the workforce needs a little bit of growth to support “enterprise activity”, she added.

“The more you are able to do productivity-driven growth, the less dependent you are on manpower growth, which works to our advantage,” she said.

Last month (22 Jan), Managing Director of Monetary Authority of Singapore, Ravi Menon gave a speech at an IPS conference highlighting the need for Singapore to hire more foreign PMETs.

“There is scope to improve the quality of the foreign workforce,” he said.

“The trend of improving quality in our foreign workforce has already begun,” he commented. “The proportion of work permit holders has declined by about 10 percentage points over last 10 years, while the proportion of S-Pass and employment pass holders has increased by around 10 percentage points.”

And he wants this trend, that is, the hiring of more foreign PMETS, to continue as “we restructure our economy towards higher value-added activities, seek deeper skills, and undertake more pervasive digitalisation”. He argued that there must be some flexibility in the local-to-foreigner ratio to “match economic cycles, changing circumstances and opportunities”.

Ms Teo agreed, “If the only way in which businesses can grow is by taking employees from other businesses, there will be more friction. So you have to allow for a little bit of growth.” That is, she meant changing the rules to allow for “a little bit” of growth in foreign PMET population.

Chan, how to transfer “expertise” to locals when foreigners only hire their own kinds?

The talk about getting foreign PMETs transferring their so-called “expertise” to locals seems to run contrary to what has happened in the IT industry recently.

Last year, Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was forced to take actions against Singapore-based Indian IT companies after receiving numerous public complaints that these companies were only willing to hire their own Indian nationals. MOM froze their Employment Pass applications for their citizens.

Naturally, the Indian IT companies weren’t happy and went back home to complain to their govt about the actions taken by the Singapore govt. They were hoping that the Indian govt would put pressure on Singapore in view of CECA signed by both countries.

“This (visa problem) has been lingering for a while but since early-2016, visas are down to a trickle. All Indian companies have received communication on fair consideration, which basically means hiring local people,” Nasscom told the Indian media. Nasscom is the trade association representing the Indian IT companies.

For all practical purposes, visas have stopped for our people, added another Indian IT executive. Indian media reported that due to actions by the Singapore govt, the Indian government has now decided against expanding the scope of goods where import duties would be cut for Singapore, unless the concerns of their domestic industry like those from their IT companies are addressed.

The Indian IT companies are most adamant against Singapore using the so-called “economic needs test” (ENT), i.e, the use of Jobs Bank, to restrict access to Indian professionals. “They are doing it despite the CECA clearly stating that there will be no ENT or quotas on agreed services. This is a violation of the agreement,” said an Indian official. (source)

Under the Fair Consideration Framework, MOM now requires firms to advertise on the national jobs bank before submitting an EP application. Also, it will scrutinize firms that have a low proportion of Singaporeans at the PME level compared to others in their industry, or that have repeated complaints made against them. Penalties include withholding EP applications from the errant firms.

So, the million dollar question is, if these Indian IT companies in Singapore are only willing to hire their own Indian nationals, how are they going to transfer their so-called “expertise” to our locals?

Would the potential PM of Singapore care to explain?