Deputy Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for East Coast Group Representative Constituency, Heng Swee Keat, explained at the “East Coast Conversation” virtual event, that Singapore was still growing expertise in certain sectors. As such, Singapore is facing a shortage of manpower in the technology and risk management areas. He said this in the face of growing criticism that there are too many foreigners in Singapore, taking up jobs that Singaporeans can also do in the Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMET) sectors.
It is indeed plausible that Singapore still lacks specific skill sets in certain niche areas and that foreigners are definitely needed to contribute in that vacuum. However, Heng’s explanations do not fully answer the questions.
Most Singaporeans are a fair minded and pragmatic lot. They are not against foreigners working in Singapore at all. Far from it. Most people do understand that where unique skill sets are required, foreigners need to be brought in to plug the gap. The issue Singaporeans have with foreigners is not against those that have specialist skill sets that are lacking in the country. The issue is with those with competing skill sets taking up jobs that locals can also fulfil. This is the area where Heng’s explanations do not add up.
Heng cited the technology sector and the risk management sector. But what about the other sectors that seem to employ foreign PMETs over local ones with comparable skill sets?
Recently, a retired ex banker, Raymond Koh Bock Swi, wrote to the ST Forum urging the government to examine the workforce composition in banks operating in Singapore. His letter was published in ST today (‘Forum: Workforce composition in banks needs to be examined. In his letter, he categorically said that “in the past two decades, many foreigners hired in Singapore’s finance sector have been for upper-middle to senior management positions.” What are Heng’s views on this then? This is in the financial sector. Not the risk or technology sectors. Even if there is an overlap, it would not be enough to justify so many in one sector?
It is noteworthy that Koh also said:“It has been common market knowledge that certain big, long established foreign banks have been sidelining Singaporean talent in favour of foreign hires, and I strongly urge the authorities to more closely scrutinise the situation in our finance industry.”
What about reports that a bank executive at an international bank had said that her trading floor was crowded with employees from a “particular Asian country”, including their family members? This is the trading floor – not in the technology or risk sectors cited by Heng.
Added to this, it has also been reported that Singaporeans only occupied 43 per cent of the senior management positions in the entire banking sector. In other words, foreigners hold the other 57 per cent which means that out of 10 senior bankers in Singapore, one would expect 6 to be foreigners. This cannot be explained away by the “unique skill sets in the technology or risk sectors” explanation provided by Heng.
To be clear, this concern about Singaporean PMETs losing out to foreigners with the same or similar skill sets is not about xenophobia. To label it as such trivialises a genuine concern and is too simplistic. While xenophobia might be an unwelcomed side effect, the bigger issue is a loss of livelihood – something that the government needs to tackle.