Speaking as the new Trade and Industry Minister at a lunch organised by the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham) at the St Regis Hotel yesterday (4 May), Chan Chun Sing told the audience that talent will play an important part in directing Singapore’s next phase of growth to become an innovation-driven economy.
He was speaking to about 150 government officials and business leaders at the lunch forum. It’s not known if he ate at the lunch event cause his old NTUC comrades said that he rarely does so. Unionist Ken Tan told reporters on May Day, “When he attends events, he rarely eats. He’s always just talking to everyone in the room.”
Chan highlighted the importance of improving the quality of the workforce, “Beyond connectivity and a pro-business environment, another key criterion for our continued success is being open to talent.”
Maintaining a strong Singaporean core through programmes like SkillsFuture, which helps Singaporeans upgrade and reskill, go in tandem with remaining open to foreign talent, he said.
“Foreign labour complements Singaporean workers and brings along relevant skills to create new industries and job opportunities,” he said. “This is crucial to our longer term competitiveness, and ensures that we stay relevant to a dynamic region that is fast evolving and growing.”
“Foreign Talent” policy started by Goh Chok Tong in 1997
The so-called “Foreign Talent” is not new. It started way back some 20 years ago in 1997 when then PM Goh Chok Tong announced his vision to “gather talent for Singapore from all over the world”. Addressing grassroots leaders at a conference in Oct 97, Goh tried to pursuade them to support his “foreign talent” policy.
He told them that bringing in foreigners will help create new jobs for Singaporeans. He said, “Our experience tells us that foreign talents bring along with them expertise and contacts. They add value to our economy, making it much more competitive overall. As a result, many new jobs especially well paying ones, are created for Singaporeans.”
He gave the example of a foreigner, Mr Van Oenen, Head of the Singapore Branch of Bank of America, who gave the Singapore government the idea of the Asian Dollar Market, and helped Singapore start it in 1968. This helped Singapore to become “a major funding centre in the region”.
At the time in 97, Goh proudly proclaimed, “Overall, our financial sector provides 85,000 jobs. And because the value added is high, employees in the sector are generally among the highest paid in Singapore. Of the 85,000 jobs, only 6,000 or 7% are held by foreigners.”
“Should we replace these 6,000 foreigners with Singaporeans? Definitely not. Our financial sector will simply collapse. Many aspiring financial centres would be more than happy to have some of the foreign financial expertise that we have,” he added.
“In fact, we have to attract a wider range of foreign financial expertise and skills to Singapore so as to add greater breadth and depth to the sector. Only then can we entrench our pre-eminent position and remain a major financial centre in future.”
“Foreign Talents” hire “Foreign Talents”
And in fact, the recruitment of foreigners to work in Singapore’s financial industry was so successful that foreigners themselves begin to hire their own foreigners, discriminating Singaporean job applicants altogether.
The situation got so bad that the issue was brought up in Parliament in 2013. It was revealed that DPM Tharman and then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin had to meet with senior management of financial institutions on a number of occasions to tell them to hire more Singaporeans.
In Parliament at the time, Tan acknowledged that there had been unhealthy “Foreign Talent” enclaves emerging in the financial industry and job discrimination against Singaporeans.
He said, “We have heard anecdotes of how in certain cases, heads of business units or HR managers have a preference for candidates they are familiar with or of the same nationality, for reasons that are irrelevant to job performance and irrespective of whether they are more competent than other candidates.”
“We have also heard of situations where Singaporeans were retrenched or made to resign in the name of down-sizing, only to realise later that their positions were given to foreigners, who were coincidentally from the same countries as the business heads.”
“Let me be quite blunt. Would these practices not sound discriminatory? Would any respectable progressive company endorse these practices? If this hiring is indeed because they care only about choosing familiar candidates and not about hiring the ‘best man for the job’, then such practices have no place in Singapore’s workplaces. Discrimination will not and cannot be tolerated.”
Subsequently, Tan was moved out from the Cabinet and appointed as Speaker of Parliament.
Turn Singapore into an oasis of foreign talents
In any case, Goh concluded his ‘lecture’ to the grassroots by saying, “Our strategy to keep Singapore ahead of others is to turn it into an oasis of talents – Singaporean talents supplemented by foreign talents. If you have a better alternative strategy to sustain Singapore’s prosperity, let the Singapore 21 Committee know.”
It’s not known how much of the “foreign talent” policy will Chan be copying from Goh, so as to direct Singapore’s “next phase of growth”.
Meanwhile, more Singaporean PMETs especially the older ones are driving Grab or Uber, ferrying “foreign talents” to work everyday.