by Dr Joseph Teo
On 22 Sep 2020, Channel News Asia published an article “Companies in Singapore see lasting benefits of hiring locals, but say a fully-local workforce is not possible” by @RachelPhuaCNA.
It is encouraging that there are examples of firms which have successfully employed and groomed Singaporeans to assume positions of responsibility and that the article highlights these contributions.
It is, however, deeply troubling that it also promulgates potentially false perceptions of Singaporeans. I cite the following two examples in the article.
In the first instance, Ms Phua cites Wanin’s Mr. Tan as saying “More laborious jobs that require workers to deliver many tonnes of water supplies and dispensers are disregarded by locals”. This is most likely an inaccurate statement. Labour, as with all goods and services, is subject to the law of supply and demand. If the pay and conditions were better, more people (including Singaporeans) would be attracted to the job. A more accurate statement might be “…disregarded by the locals at the pay and conditions that employers (like Mr Tan) are prepared to provide”.
Ironically, earlier in the article, Ms Phua cites a successful case where Singaporeans were hired, by citing Iron Chef’s Mr Ho who “acknowledged that attempts to draw locals to join the company mean making sure salaries paid to them are at or slightly above the F&B industry’s average, and making compromises over their rest days.” She somehow fails to connect these two comments, and instead uses the former to justify her case that foreigners need to be hired over locals.
In the second instance, Professor Ong Pinchuan of NUS was cited, claiming “foreigners tend to have a more international outlook than locals, and firms might be looking for that, especially in their managerial candidates.” I would be grateful if Prof Ong could substantiate his claim by sharing the objective measures he used to measure “international outlook”, and the studies (that are not based on the potentially biased perceptions of some employers) that support his claim.
If Prof Ong’s claims are indeed correct, and that somehow Singaporeans lack an international outlook, and that this is a hurdle to their employment as managerial candidates, then I must ask why there are no specific government initiatives to help Singaporeans obtain this “international outlook”. Perhaps Prof Ong can also share his insights with the government on how such a programme can be put together.
The continued perpetuation of such (potentially) false perceptions of Singaporeans is dangerous and divisive, especially in this time of difficult economic conditions and increased anxiety. It encourages a passivity and fatalism that somehow Singaporeans must be second-class employees in their own country. Even worse, it may be misinterpreted by some Singaporeans that the government believes that Singaporeans are somehow to blame for their own lack of employment.
In his speech to the Committee of Supply in 2016, the then Minister of Manpower Mr. Lim Swee Say expressed a need to avoid an “Ugly” scenario, where the local to foreign workforce ratio falls “from the 2:1 today, maybe to 1:1, and beyond that, locals will become the minority in our workforce”. Since his speech, the local share of the workforce has fallen to 62.2% (2019) or a local to foreign workforce ratio ratio of about 1.65:1.
We cannot allow the perceptions highlighted in the CNA article to justify continued inaction. Instead of promoting the inevitability of foreign labour, all of us, the media, business owners, employees and the government, need to take positive action to increase the local share of the workforce.