At a public forum organized by the National University of Singapore (NUS) yesterday (13 Aug), Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat told everyone that it’s not possible to “bubble wrap” Singaporeans from foreign competition.
He said that in the coming years, the entry of millions of university graduates each year in Asia alone will add significantly to the global talent pool. The pace of technological change will further accelerate, quickening the pace of disruption, he added.
“The reality is that it is not possible to ‘bubble wrap’ our workers from foreign competition and still expect to succeed,” Heng said.
“The COVID experience of working from home, has made remote work more commonplace now. But ‘working from home’ is just one step away from ‘working from anywhere’. And if workers can work from anywhere, employers can easily seek out the best skilled workers from all parts of the world.”
“Even more physical jobs – such as port crane operators – can now be done remotely, in the comfort of a control room. And the control room can possibly be located thousands of miles away. This means foreigners do not have to be in Singapore to compete with us,” he added.
In other words, Heng is saying, for example, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) could easily hire crane operators in third world countries and have them operate those port cranes on Jurong Island to move containers off the ships. The good thing, of course, would be that PSA only needs to pay those operators in third world wages, if Heng’s vision was to be realized.
Heng also talked about being open to the world. “We would not have succeeded if we had insulated ourselves. As a land-constrained nation, with no natural resources, we had no other choice,” he said.
“Our openness to the world enabled us to ride the wave of globalisation. Salaries improved, job opportunities grew, and Singapore became a vibrant city full of energy and ideas.”
Retraining and upskilling Singaporeans
At the forum, he promised to help transform Singapore companies and equip Singaporeans to take on new opportunities.
“We are putting an even greater focus on jobs and skills – growing the SkillsFuture movement, and strengthening our tripartite effort on retraining and upskilling,” he said.
But he cautioned against closing Singapore’s doors to foreigners, “There is certainly room to adjust our foreign manpower policies. And there is scope to strengthen our laws on fair treatment at the workplace. But closing our doors is ineffective and provides a false promise of security.”
“We must not box ourselves into a false choice. Instead, we should embrace both openness and equip our people with the experience and skills to succeed – this is how we will thrive in a rapidly evolving world,” he added.
Heng shared that Singapore’s investment in education has enabled Singaporeans to take on the better jobs that came with investments, and better pay.
Addressing those freshly graduated NUS students in the audience, he said, “Your future is brimming with promise. Your education is preparing you well. Your multicultural upbringing gives you a great advantage in a diverse world.”
“I urge all of you to make the best of the opportunities out there, and unleash your creative capacity. Think beyond just ourselves, but also how we can make a difference to the world. This is the best way for Singapore and Singaporeans to continue thriving in a more inter-connected, inter-dependent and technologically advanced world.”
At the end of Heng’s speech, the forum moderator asked him how students about to enter the workforce could prepare themselves to be truly global.
The key lies in having a mindset orientated towards qualities of confidence, humility and openness, said Heng. “Confidence in ourselves, in what we can do and in how we can equip ourselves as best as we can to emphasise our creativity, imagination, ability to do some good,” he replied.
Ex-NUS graduate writes to Heng and clique asking for help to get job
Meanwhile, some NUS graduates have ended up as Grab drivers, trying to eke out a living.
Former NUS graduate Philip Wen had worked in the finance industry for many years. In fact, his last job was with the American Investment Bank, Jefferies Group, according to the information on his Facebook page.
He was out of work for awhile and in his desperation to secure a job back in the finance industry, he wrote an email to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Heng, Iswaran and Goh Chok Tong.
“Over several years, I have applied for senior and mid-management and even junior roles in Banking, E-commerce, Compliance, Treasury, AML, Fixed Income, Regional Sales. I spoke with numerous headhunters, applied via online portals like Indeed, Jobscentral, Monster, and even our own MyCareersFuture.sg. Not even a single HR officer would even bother responding to my applications for training in a new field while being subsidized by the government. Not even a short-term contract of 6 months would be entertained,” he said.
“I am a Singaporean. Law-abiding, paid my taxes, served my country, and raising 3 children still. I am a graduate of NUS and have worked in Banking, Finance, Treasury, and Sales since graduating.”
In fact, Mr Wen was more than happy to go work in India.
“After reading that the CECA (India–Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) agreement you helped create also allows Singaporeans to find employment in India, I am hopeful that with your robust relationship with India, I am able to find something to do in India. I will work in India with the same equitable conditions that Indians are given working in Singapore,” he wrote.
“By helping me find a job in India or help point me in the right direction, your department can provide some trickle of data showing that this CECA policy is not just a one-way movement of employees but a two-way flow albeit a lobe sided one.”
“At the grassroots level, many fellow Singaporeans believe that our senior ministers have lost their way in governing us. That many policies have driven us to Johor for our daily needs and even medical care. Please listen to us for once.”
According to data provided by the United Nations Population Division shows that the number of Singaporeans based in India had not increased since the signing of CECA in 2005 but in fact decreased.
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), had asked the Minister for Trade and Industry in July about how many of the 97,000 locals hired by Singaporean companies with investments in India are new jobs that can be attributed to the signing of CECA and how many are existing jobs that are re-designated.
In a written reply, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said that this specific data is not available as “companies consider multiple factors before they hire new employees, define job scopes, or re-designate existing positions”.