The government has released the foreign workforce numbers for 2019. The figures indicate that the total foreign workforce in Singapore at the end of last year stands at 1,427,500.
At the end of last year, the number of foreign PMETs (Employment Pass and S Pass holders) hit almost 400K at 393,700. For Employment Pass, the minimum salary to meet for the applicant is $3,600 while for S Pass, the minimum salary to meet is $2,400.
Given that our population is approximately 5.7 million, it would mean that the percentage of foreigners in Singapore stand at roughly 25 %. Considering we are a small country, that is a fairly large percentage.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having foreigners in the country, we have to look more closely at how this affects employment figures in Singapore and whether or not our current education system is designed in a way to meet our employment needs. We will also have to examine how our government is proactively managing this situation in the interim.
According to Ministry of Manpower’s figures, the number of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) has slowly crept up while the unemployment rate among Singaporeans is also going up.
Other than unemployment, we also have the situation of underemployment where locals are compelled to take up jobs that pay lesser than what they have been earning in order to make ends meet. Examples of such jobs are security guard, delivery personnel and private-hire drivers.
In 2019, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan was asked to disclose the breakdown of the current number of taxi drivers and private hire car drivers by their respective age groups. Minister Khaw replied that as of February last year, there are about 41,000 Private Hire Car Driver’s Vocational Licence (PDVL) holders and 99,900 Taxi Driver’s Vocational Licence (TDVL) holders.
The age breakdown is as follows: In other words, some 44% of licensed private hire car drivers fell into the age group of 20-39 years old, the age where workers ought to be pursuing a professional career.
One such individual, Shaun Ow, 39, was working in the private sector for some 11 years in various industries before he was retrenched 4-5 years ago. He then tried to find a job for more than a year before giving up. He ended up driving Grab to make ends meet.
Prof Walter Theseira, an economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), noted that the take-home pay for private hire car drivers is “competitive” with the many entry-level jobs for educated younger workers.
But he said that having a large number of young people driving Grab for the long term raises some issues.
“The jobs offer no career path and do not provide workers with significant marketable skills. This means that workers in such jobs will inevitably end up disadvantaged compared to their peers who are able to stay in jobs that offer a career path and the opportunity to build marketable skills,” he added.
“If workers are attracted to private hire driving and other ‘gig’ economy jobs and spend too long in them early on, their lifetime wages and career opportunities could be harmed significantly.”
Looking at the figures and trend, we ought to be asking if foreign PMETs taking up jobs that could be legitimately filled by Singaporeans?
And whether Singaporeans are not as well qualified as their foreign counterparts for these job vacancies, if that is really so, we have to examine if our education and training systems fit in with the available jobs.
What we must avoid is a glut of Singaporeans highly trained for something our country does not need.
To use a simplistic example to illustrate the point – Are we training and educating Singaporeans to do X jobs when what is needed are Y jobs leading to X trained Singaporeans being unable to fulfil those roles which in turn lead to Y jobs going to foreigners?
By reading mainstream media, one could be lulled into a false sense of security (thinking that there are less foreign PMETs than there actually are).
For example, in an article in The New Paper (TNP) in February, the headline read “3 in 4 PMET jobs in growth sectors filled by Singaporeans, PRs“.
This could potentially be a misleading headline because it could lead the casual reader to be satisfied that Singaporeans hold the majority of the jobs when the reality is that 1 in 4 PMET jobs (i.e. 25%) in growth industries are filled by foreigners. In using the former as a headline, TNP may have unwittingly enabled the public to perceive the scenario as favourable to Singaporeans when it is not so.
In the last quarter of 2019, the Finance Ministry (MOF) released a report, reporting on the socio-economic outcomes of Singaporeans born between 1940 and 1979. According to reports, the MOF said that compared to older age groups, Singaporeans in their 40s today are more educated, better able to find jobs, earn more, save more, and live longer and healthier years. If that is the case, why is it that the local PMET unemployment is increasing?
Minister for Education, Ong Ye Kung had said that our education system needed to be aligned with the structure of the economy, so that people would continue to be armed with the required skills to find jobs in the current age of disruption.
Looking at these figures, it is perhaps not quite aligned and the government would really need to address this urgently. They are the ones that come up with the structure of our education system and it would be very unfair to Singaporeans if they are trained to do something that our economy does not need, giving an unfair advantage to foreign PMETs .
In the interim, the government will also have to do more at the national level – including intervening before people are let go and, on a case by case basis, throwing companies a lifeline.
As DBS senior economist Irvin Seah says: “There should be industry consultations and dialogues to identify at-risk companies and workers before retrenchments take place to ensure that they get the necessary support as well as reskilling.”
However, before the government can effectively manage this, it first has to acknowledge that the education system formulated by it is not aligned with the economy which is also steered by it
At the same time, we also have to look at whether are Singaporeans — regardless whether they are trained and experienced — displaced simply because foreign labour come at a lesser cost and that they are easier to exploit due to the difference in rights. It is one thing for a worker to be displaced due to the lack of skills but another if one is simply discarded for his cost.