Singapore must resist adopting “extreme positions” on the issue of foreign labour, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Mon (6 Jan).
Responding to questions from other Members of the House regarding the 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITM) — a government initiative costing S$4.5bil — and how said maps have benefitted Singaporeans, Mr Chan said that it is pertinent for the government to carefully strike a balance between its open-door policy on foreign labour and preserving opportunities for Singaporeans.
“We must firmly reject efforts to stoke anti-foreigner sentiments by spreading falsehoods or creating invidious comparisons out of context,” Mr Chan told the House, adding that the aim is to achieve a “Goldilocks balance” or “just the right amount” instead of also opening “the floodgates” to foreign workers into Singapore.
“Too few foreign workers… mean that our businesses cannot seize the opportunities out there … Too many, and there will be pushback, especially if Singaporeans feel unfairly treated. It is a never-ending balancing act with difficult trade-offs,” he added.
Replying to Holland-Bukit Timah MP Liang Eng Hwa’s question on whether Singaporeans have benefited from the ITMs more than foreigners have, Mr Chan said that the government has made great investments in honing local manpower through initiatives such as SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow.
The Fair Consideration Framework, he added, also ensures that employers will face measures in cases where Singaporeans are found to have been passed over for non-meritocratic reasons.
Mr Chan also highlighted in his answer that local employment has increased by nearly 60,000 in the overall national economy between 2015 and 2018, with the employment rate of Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) rising up to 57 per cent within the same period.
“Growth in real wage monthly earnings for locals was 3.2 per cent per annum during this period, higher than the 2.4 per cent per annum during the preceding three years, higher than most advanced economies such as the US (0.5 per cent), Japan (0.8 per cent) and Germany (1.2 per cent),” Mr Chan added.
Referring to Mr Chan’s citation of the employment figures between 2015 and 2018, Aljunied MP Pritam Singh pointed out that official statistics on “locals” often merge figures on Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs), and asked the Trade and Industry Minister to clarify if the Government would provide specific data on the respective categories in the future.
The Workers’ Party secretary general said: “If the government’s approach is going to be ‘No, we are not going to provide that data’, can the Minister please share that detail with us here? Because it’s pointless for us to keep asking the question if the government is not going to provide that data.”
Mr Chan replied: “We can get you the numbers, but let me say this: what is the point behind the questions? Has local unemployment increased? The answer is a resounding no… are our wages going up? Yes, and it’s faster than many other countries.
“Those are the proof points to show that we are doing right by Singaporeans. But I’m always very cautious about this constant divide: Singaporeans vs PR. The insinuation seems to be that somehow, Singaporeans are not benefiting,” he added.
Protectionism impractical for S’pore’s progress, foreign talent still integral in developing local technology: Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing
Previously, Mr Chan in Sep last year similarly told Parliament that insular measures against skilled foreign workers will not serve Singapore’s growth in the long run as an economy that has long thrived on an “open-door” policy, particularly in light of a global shortage of tech talent supply.
Responding to a supplementary question by West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay regarding whether whether there are, or whether there will be, controls in place in the Tech@SG initiative to “ensure that Singaporean PMEs are not compromised or prejudiced against”, Chan said that while the government “will never stop putting Singaporeans at the heart of everything we do”, Singapore “will almost certainly be left behind” if the Republic refuses to absorb skilled foreign workers at this point.
Citing countries such as France and Thailand that have rolled out special visa programmes for skilled tech professionals from abroad, Chan said that Singapore only has “a small window to build a critical mass of high-end professionals, start-ups and companies” in light of such competition.
“There will only be a few such nodes globally. How we do today will decide whether we make it as a tech hub, or not,” he stressed.
Tay, a People’s Action Party (PAP) member and an assistant secretary-general of NTUC, suggested that the government’s focus ought to be on helping and assisting Singaporeans, especially “amidst a sense of uncertainty and a quite dismal outlook in terms of employment and job market”.
Chan replied that “it is precisely because of the uncertainties with the economic outlook that we have stepped up our gears to make sure that we build the next generation of companies in this sector”.
“At this point in time, I would say that this forms part of our surgical measures to help companies transform and expand their market presence,” he added.
Chan noted that while Singapore’s economic growth rate is currently being dragged down by the global electronics downturn, the wholesale and retail trade, and some of the engineering sectors, the Republic’s financial services, the ICT sector, and many of the high tech industries are thriving.
“This is why we must make sure that when we lift the bottom, we must never cap the top,” adding that government programmes such as Tech@SG will give local firms “the best possible chance to succeed, and will not make them lose out to other companies from other countries who are competing for global talent”.
When asked by Tay as to whether MTI will consider expanding such initiatives for skilled foreign workers to other sectors such as finance, Chan said that while the government is open to such a prospect, he clarified that such programmes will not apply to S-Pass and E-Pass holders.
“We are not even talking about the average EP people … We are talking about people who can manage programmers by the hundreds and thousands,” he said, adding that such workers are expected to have expertise in managing “global teams”.
Last year, Chan said that the Government wants to encourage a shift towards employing more higher value-added foreign workers (i.e, foreign PMETs).
Noting that raising the skill level of foreigners in Singapore is a knotty issue, as Singaporeans worry it will intensify competition for good jobs, Chan said 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 foreign PMETs 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, Chan suggested.
“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 that while there is “no magic number”, where we are “at the balancing point now is about one-third (foreigners), two-thirds (locals).”
Proportion of PMET retrenchment hits all-time high as number of foreigners on S-Pass increases
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Manpower’s labour market report in Mar last year revealed that Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) accounted for a staggering 79.3 per cent of retrenched residents in the fourth quarter of 2018.
This brings the total figure for retrenched local PMETs to 75.8 per cent of all retrenchments for 2018, a record level since such data was first published by MOM in 2006. In 2017, it was 72 per cent.
Some 58 per cent of retrenched residents had degrees, while 19.9 per cent held diplomas. The bulk of the individuals who were retrenched were aged 40 to 49 (34 per cent) and 50 and over (33.6 per cent).
The industries with mass retrenchment exercises tend to be dominated by PMETs, according to MOM.
According to NTUC assistant chief Tay, many staff who were laid off in such sectors last year “are in the executive and technician roles”.
Observers said PMETs are now also vulnerable to uncertainties brought upon by local and global economic trends, and more needs to be done to mitigate the risk of them being displaced.
DBS senior economist Irvin Seah suggested raising the minimum qualifying salary for Employment Pass holders and increasing the length of time firms must advertise jobs on the national jobs portal before they can apply to hire a foreign professional. This would minimise the chances of companies substituting local PMETs with foreign ones, he said.
The number of foreign S-Pass holders grew by 11,100 across all sectors.
“The increase was led by the Services sector, with the highest growth seen in Administrative & Support Services, Food Services, Information & Communications, Professional Services, and Transportation & Storage,” MOM said.
While figures by MOM show that the rate of employment among locals has gone up, the estimated target of 20,000 new citizens and 30,000 Permanent Residents per year as per Singapore’s 6.9 million White Paper on population’s is still in force, which means that many of the former foreign workers who now hold citizenship or permanent resident status will be counted in the figures of employed residents.