Chan Chun Sing & Pritam Singh debate foreign workers: ‘Immigration is the story of unrequited love’

He also highlighted that the local workforce will peak over the next 10 years.

Matthias Ang |Sulaiman Daud | February 5, 02:07 am


It is not a given that Singapore is a choice location for immigrants, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing stated in Parliament on Feb. 4.

He then quipped:

I always jokingly say immigration is the story of unrequited love. Those that we want, may not want us. Those that we don’t want, may all want to come. It’s a fine management.”

How can Singapore create good jobs, grow the economy without relying too much on foreign manpower?

This description of the challenge of immigration came in the middle of an exchange between Chan and Workers’ Party (WP) Secretary-General Pritam Singh.

Previously, Chan had given a speech of around 13 minutes, complete with infographics, in answer to Member of Parliament (MP) Liang Eng Hwa’s question on Singapore’s strategy to grow the economy and create good jobs without an over-reliance on foreign manpower.

In summary, a foreign workforce complements local workers that enables Singapore to attract investment and therefore create good jobs. You can see it here.

Why can’t Singapore have zero foreign worker growth?

Liang then asked in a follow-up question why Singapore could not work towards a zero foreign manpower growth in Singapore.

In response, Chan said that he believed the WP once raised this possibility.

He said it was a theoretical possibility that was hard to achieve, and would result in serious trade-offs.

He referenced his statement in the previous sitting of Parliament, and gave the example of a Singaporean holding a $5,000 job (per month), but along comes an investment that opens up two new job positions at S$7,000 and S$10,000 per month each.

To keep to a zero foreign manpower growth rate, Chan said Singapore had three options in this scenario.

1. Forego the investment

If the investment calls for two new workers, but there aren’t enough workers, the investment may have to be passed up.

2. Move the Singaporean

They could move Singaporean workers to fill the new jobs, but the jobs they leave behind will be empty due to Singapore’s high labour force participation rate, and their old companies may find this unsustainable.

3. Increase productivity

The third possibility is to increase the productivity of the old company, so they can lose two workers to take on the high-paying jobs without difficulty. Chan said this was the ideal scenario, but in practice it was difficult as not all sectors could raise productivity at the same rate.

Chan concluded that in light of the existing constraints, the best option at the moment is to have some foreign workers to complement the existing workforce, to allow the Singapore economy to grow.

S’pore shouldn’t reject investments just because it results in more foreigners. But hiring must be meritocratic.

WP once proposed a freeze on the growth of the foreign workforce

Chan’s mention of the WP might have been a reference to a proposal once made by the party’s call for a freeze to the growth of the foreign workforce, and a growth of one per cent in the resident workforce.

Both of these proposals had been put forth in a 2013 Population Policy Paper, that the WP had published in response to the government’s own Population White Paper.

At that time, the WP had put forth a figure of 5.8 million for Singapore’s population by 2030, while the government had projected a population of 6.9 million by the same year.

But Chan further added that the target of one per cent growth in resident workforce is also not a given, considering the country’s low Total Fertility Rate.

Chan said that Singapore would then face two tough choices, either the labour workforce as a whole will shrink, or more foreign workers must take up the slack.

In summing up the matter, Chan stated:

“It is not a straightforward issue…and that is how we must navigate this carefully in the next 10 years to make sure that we take care of the prospect for fellow Singaporeans, (and) at the same time, make sure that our enterprises have the opportunities to generate new capacity to compete with the world.”

Pritam Singh: Proposal was made in context of 2013 debate

Pritam rose to speak, and clarified that the WP proposals Chan had referred to was made in the context of the 2013 debate on population.

He said that the proposal on keeping foreign workforce numbers constant was suggested only if a one per cent growth in the resident workforce was achieved, as a caveat.

Pritam then pointed out that during the debate, it was said that the entire population policy would be up for debate “at the end of the decade”. Given that it took place in 2013, 2020 would be the time for a new debate.

Chan then replied that he understood the WP position, but it was a case of “unrequited love” because it was difficult to attract the kind of immigrants that would be ideal for the workforce.

On the matter of the new decade, Chan said that the government was “seriously looking at the numbers.”

Here, he noted that there were challenges in both growing very fast and growing “not sufficiently fast.”

With regard to growing “not sufficiently fast”, Chan added that opportunities will be absent for the next generation, while people will bypass Singapore, resulting in the country losing its strategic relevance.

He also highlighted that the current outbreak of the Wuhan novel coronavirus is expected to have a major impact on Singapore’s economy, and that it is also not a given that Singapore is able to maintain the its targeted trajectory of economic growth.

If the government makes a compelling case, no reason to be objectionable

Subsequently, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat then sought a clarification from Pritam on his questions, including whether the WP supported a local-foreign workforce complement.

To this, Pritam replied:

You know all the time we ask for data, it’s not data for the sake of data, I think it’s to understand the government’s perspective, because it’s not a case of throwing whatever the government is saying out the window or turning up our noses at it, but certainly we have to look at it very carefully.”

Pritam then added that should the government make a compelling case, there’s no reason to be objectionable.

He also stated that the WP would be in a better position to reply to Chee’s questions once the government had undertaken another review of the population strategy for the future, and they could formulate their own perspective on the matter.

Chan Chun Sing asks what’s the point behind employment query, Pritam Singh says info for countering falsehoods

S’pore can neither ‘open the floodgates’ nor ‘close our borders’ to foreigners: Chan Chun Sing

Top image collage screenshots from CNA

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